Damon Albarn and Africa Express organized this concert with 50 musicians from the Syrian National Orchestra. Featuring Julia Holter, Albarn, and others, it reaffirms that art at its best is a gesture of empathy.
The Syrian Civil War started five years ago, following the violent response of Bashar al-Assad’s security forces to protests in the southern city of Deraa. Nationwide opposition demanded Assad’s resignation, which was met by swift and violent governmental retribution. In the years since, the violence has widened to an unimaginable scope: a multi-front conflict with numerous international and domestic players vying for control or stability of the region. In April, a UN envoy estimated that as many as 400,000 have been killed as a result of the conflict, and millions of Syrians (some estimates say 11 million) have been displaced from their homes, becoming the subject of a global refugee crisis.
In the election cycles of the past year, Syrian refugees have been used as a scapegoat by any number of demagogues to stoke fear in people that their communities and jobs will be threatened by a slow encroaching wave of “otherness.” Just two days after the British people chose to leave the European Union in a controversial referendum colloquially known as Brexit, in London at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, Damon Albarn and the music collective Africa Express organized a concert with 50 musicians from the Syrian National Orchestra. (Damon Albarn recorded with the Syrian National Orchestra for the Gorillaz’ 2010 album Plastic Beach, beginning a longstanding love affair with the region’s music.) Many of the musicians in this venerable troupe have been scattered across the globe, stranded behind miles of red tape.
The event almost didn’t happen. A week before the rehearsals for the concerts were supposed to begin, it wasn’t yet clear if the organizers were going to be able to get Schengen visas for the 50 Syrian musicians to secure flights. The Guardian mentions “dark rumors about desperate calls to British officials”; apparently Africa Express co-founder Ian Birrell chartered a Boeing 737 for the musicians.
But it did happen, and the concert is finally being offered as an album. During a year when multiculturalism and globalism enduring a severe, sustained battering, the Syrian National Orchestra help prove that beauty, and true sublimity in art can exist even in the most pernicious and divisive of atmospheres. For those who celebrate the heterogenous, open-armed, and loving embrace of a global music community, this two-hour-plus concert one June night in the Royal Festival Hall represents a kind of small victory, as well as an incredible night of music.
The musical canvas for the project is vast. There is a traditional string orchestra onstage, accompanied by players of Arabian instruments like the ney (a kind of flute), string instruments like the qanun, zither, oud, and kora. In front of this assemblage are performers like Damon Albarn, Julia Holter, Paul Wells, and more. One of the first things you notice, listening, is the gobsmacking virtuosity of the players involved. In the thirteen minute track “Al Dahleh,” stand outs like ney player Moslem Rahal and Feras Charestan on the Arabian lap harp display stunning technical prowess. The performance is met with multiple ovations, and as an exercise in technical genius it is astounding. This group of players hadn't seen each other in years, and they cohere seamlessly.
Elsewhere, Julia Holter’s “Feel You” (a track from her resonant 2015 LP Have You in My Wilderness) is transformed by the presence of the Syrian orchestra. Here, it is more than just a piece of lush orchestral pop; it is a cross-cultural paean, proving collaborators who don’t share the same worldly experience can radically transform a piece of art, often for the better. Damon Albarn told The Guardian when organizing this event he said he was disappointed by the rhetoric surrounding the crisis as a “homogenous shadow” to be feared. What he wanted to do with this event is to show an audience the “experience to humanity” that these refugees can express in their art. Some of these musicians still live in Syria, dodging danger so they can continue to practice. Defying all bureaucracy, borders, and strife, this concert and this orchestra proves that art at its very best is a grand gesture of empathy above all.
- Intro – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
- 3azely – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
- Wild Wood – Paul Weller & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
- Yah Mahla El Fus’ha – Faia Younan & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
- Out of Time – Damon Albarn & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
- Rakeb 3al Hamra – Mounir Troudi & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
- Feel You – Julia Holter & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
- Al Ajaleh – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians feat. Bassekou Kouyaté & Seckou Keita
- Blackbird – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians feat. Damon Albarn & Paul Weller
- Old Damascus – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
- Richa – Noura Mint Seymali & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
- White Flag – Damon Albarn & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians feat. Eslam Jawaad, Malikah, Ceza & Bu Kolthoum
- Ya Rayeh – Rachid Taha & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians
- Oghneyat Men Baladi – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians