Saturday 25 June 2016

On Stage: Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

Blur's Damon Albarn has always been interested in music from different cultures. It resulted in several collaborations with African musicians and he also got to know the Syrian Orchestra that in the end played on the Gorillaz song 'White Flag'. The war in Syria tore the country apart including the orchestra and many of them had to leave the country and are now scattered across the globe. Together with his African Express group Albarn managed to get many of them together for a series of concerts that kicked off in Amsterdam.

Africa Express Presents the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians at Royal Theater Carré Amsterdam, June 22 2016

The concert is part of the Holland Festival in Amsterdam and takes place in the beautiful Royal Theater Carré. The musicians of the orchestra only had a few days to rehearse the music they will play tonight. To make it even more special a few hundred refugees have been invited for the concert. The crowd is a colourful mix of Holland Festival visitors, Blur and Damon Albarn fans, world music fans and people from countries like Syria and Iran. All that combined makes this night beforehand a success.

The orchestra consists of a string section and some traditional instruments most notably an Arabic flute, combined with a choir. Behind the choir a giant screen is showing visuals by Tammam Azzam and Jaber Al Azmeh, that are sometimes abstract but at other times represent the harsh reality of the war. First the orchestra plays a few pieces by itself before the first guests appear on stage.

One of them is Paul Weller who is playing a version of his big hit 'Wild Wood'. The sound isn't great tonight where you can hear the volume going up and down several times and clunky running around with microphones and chairs. It doesn't bother anyone for a bit. There are more guest appearances by people we probably never heard of but are known in the Arabic world. Faia Younan is singing beautifully, we can hear the amazing voice of Mounir Troudi and the sensational Noura Mint Seymali who is firing up the crowd.

There's even more! There's a hiphop performance by Bu Kolthoum, Eslam Jawaad and Malikah. Two African musicians, Bassekou Kouyate and Seckou Keita combine beautifully with the Arabic music. Kouyate can make his ngoni do anything he likes and the Keita is playing beautifully on his kora with a big smile.

Smiles is what we can see lot tonight. The musicians are smiling and are clearly enjoying this night. People in the crowd around me are smiling because of the wonderful music and I'm sure the refugees in the crowd are smiling, listening to the songs and music they know, forgetting about their misery for a while. And Damon Albarn is smiling and cheering at the side of the stage. It's clear he doesn't want to be in the spot lights tonight. It's not about him and he makes sure the spotlights are on the orchestra. Only once he's in the spotlights when he plays the guitar at the front of the stage for one of my favourite Blur songs 'Out Of Time'.

Rachid Taha is the one to close the night and you can leave that to him. He looks like he had a jolly day and is in for a little party. He's firing up the crowd and people are getting out of their chairs to dance and clap with him. So maybe it wasn't all that tight or well-organized tonight, but what can you expect when it's already an achievement getting all these people together? It's not the point anyway. It's great to see this wonderful musicians together and bringing all these different people together tonight, playing and enjoying music together, proving that music unites us all no matter what. As long as there's music there's hope; don't let them ever take that away from us.

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