Cries of the widowed, of suffering children, the injured, and millions of displaced civilians have gone unheeded in Syria. But Miriam Awadallah has met one Syrian-American who intends to change all of that, one semitone at a time.
That man is composer and pianist Malek Jandali. When Jandali plays his inspiring music at Carnegie Hall later next month, he will become the first Arab musician to have premiered his own compositions at the legendary, revered stage in New York City.
Jandali, himself naturally soft-spoken yet industrious, will have to rely on his uncanny musical knack to raise the passion of his worthy listeners to save what remains of the country that sits on the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road, Mesopotamia, and Ugarit—representing more than 6,000 years of civilization.
Jandali's debut at Carnegie Hall in January 2015 will feature his symphony that was defiantly written in response to the chaos that enveloped his homeland and has forced millions of families, including his own, into exile. As this visionary sets foot on the hallowed stage, he represents a new class of creative Syrian composers who have not disappeared into the rubble and refuse to be deterred.
This is what makes his music crucial—it highlights the human face of a nation that has been destroyed by a brutal dictatorship and war. "Syrians just want to live in peace, all they want is peace and to stop the war that has been launched on them," he tells me in an interview after one of his weekly rehearsals in New York City. Ultimately, Jandali hopes that his Carnegie Hall performance will show the world the beauty of Syria despite all of the horrifying atrocities taking place.
The significance of Jandali's efforts is not to be understated. The symbolism of a symphony that calls for unity for the sake of peace at this juncture in time is critical. Jandali strongly believes in the soft power of music. It's not the first time that he has grasped this concept and used it to call for peace in his homeland. "I will always believe that the power of the people is much stronger than the people in power," Jandali expounded. It is this very same belief that led him to compose "Syrian Symphony" in order to tell the story of the Syrian people in Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, and all the beautiful cities on the ancient Silk Road. In what appears to be one of the darkest times in modern Arab history, Jandali strives to bring a sense of dignity and pride back to his people.
Born on Christmas day in Germany, Jandali moved to Homs, Syria at a young age. He moved to the United States shortly after finishing high school in order to pursue his advanced studies in music. "I arrived to the US in July, 1994 on a full scholarship to study piano and I remember the first time I visited New York City and stepped into Carnegie Hall.The first vinyl record I ever owned was one of Schubert's symphonies with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I never imagined that only 23 years later I would hear my own works with the same orchestra." Among his many achievements and accolades, this month Jandali was selected as a Gold Medal winner by the Global Music Awards for his album "Emessa – Homs".
Jandali's talent has granted him the gift of rising global fame. And yet, one constant has always remained in his music and life –the connection he feels to his homeland -a countrythat boasts six UNESCO World Heritage sites. Today, these striking contributions to human civilization face imminent destruction —the culture of Syria is at risk.
Jandali's Syrian identity is the common denominator to his art. From the titles to his albums and compositions, to the themes and modesechoing throughout his pieces, the history and vibrant culture of his homeland captivates the ears of the listener. Considering Jandali's strong connection, it is clear why he feels so compelled topreserve this culture through his music. It is the legacy of his ancestors in Ugarit, who invented both the alphabet and music notation, marking a pivotal change in humankind and history. Excavated in the 1950s and transcribed in 1972 by Professor Anne Kilmer, the clay tablets of Ugarit have the oldest pieces of musical notation inscribed across them. Jandali builds on the traditions of his ancestors in Ugarit with his unique blend of musical genres.
As a composer endowed with flair, versatility and ingenuity, Jandali seeks to evoke empathy where there is none. And in the process he endeavors to infuse more life in the classical music genre itself. In his book "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century," music critic Alex Ross writes, "Classical music is stereotyped as an art of the dead, a repertory that begins with Bach and terminates with Mahler and Puccini." Listening to "Echoes from Ugarit," you can feel the immense presence of Bach and Mozart slowly walking amidst a thin fog bukhoor emanating from the old alleys of Syria's ancient cities. A mixture of sorrow and hope.
What distinguishes Jandali from other artists is his constant commitment to children. In 2013 he launched the "Voice of the Free Syrian Children" world tour. From Vienna, London, to Stockholm and Madrid with the presence of Queen Sofia of Spain, the project aimed to raise awareness and much needed humanitarian aid for the suffering Syrian children. With the latest UNICEF report indicating that 7.2 million Syrian children are affected by the country's waging war, their plight is as pressing as ever. Now, he has launched an international competition that will give a young, aspiring musician the chance to win a monetary prize plus personal recognition at one of Jandali's concerts. 23 immensely talented applicants from around the world applied and the winner will be announced on December 20th. His humanity echoes not only throughout his music, but also his big heart.
Looking to the title of one of Jandali's soon to be released compositions, "Phoenix in Exile," recorded in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, one grasps a sense of his ultimate aspirations for Syria. Just as the mythological bird is cyclically reborn from the ashes of its predecessor, he believes that beauty will be born again in Syria.The phoenix will fly once more, despite the destruction overpowering its magnificence and so will the Syrian people. With a jolt by Jandali's music, the revival is more likely.
Miriam Awadallah is a Palestinian-American Middle East analyst who works at OneVoice in New York. She holds an MA in Public and International Affairs and a BA in International Affairs and Middle East Studies from George Washington University. She also blogs for the Huffington Post on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Miriam tweets at @Miradallah
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