With war ravaging their homeland, the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians has been scattered across the globe. But five years since the violence erupted, the group are reuniting for a cathartic tour and opening Glastonbury
Five years ago, the 90 -strong Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music described superstars from Plcido Domingo to Gorillaz to perform with them at their home in Damascus Opera House. Today, with the bitter civil war still raging, its musicians are scattered across the globe. Some former musicians of the prestigious orchestra and the choirs that accompany it are refugees in the Countries of the middle east, Europe and the US, while others are still struggling to live and perform in the conflict-torn country.
Music, these days, is like a analgesic, tells Raneem Barakat, a vocalist in the orchestras choir. The 24 -year-old regularly braves bombs and snipers on the roads on her two-hour journey to Damascus to study and perform. You have to take health risks. When I sing it hypnotises me; I leave reality.
For the first time since the war began, former and present members of the SNOAM have been reunited by Damon Albarns music collective, Africa Express. Alongside guest stars such as Paul Weller and Bassekou Kouyat, they will play a series of concerts across Europe, opening the Glastonbury festival and performing on 25 June at the Southbank Centre at a concert which will be also be live-streamed around the world, including in Syria and the Zataari refugee camp in Jordan.
Its an ambitious project, and when I arrive in Amsterdam to watch the first day of rehearsals its already reached a number of problems; the violin bows are moving in perfect unison, but the conductor is missing. Issam Rafea, who led the orchestra in Syria, and with Damon Albarn came up with the reunion notion, cannot leave the US, where he is applying for refugee status.
His predicament typifies the logistical problems the organisers have faced. Trying to get visas for 50 Syrian musicians nearly sunk the project before it began; merely a week before rehearsals were due to start, it still wasnt clear they could get the Schengen visas needed to book the performers flights. Africa Express co-founder Ian Birrell tells me the government had hired a Boeing 737 to transport all the musicians and I hear dark rumours about desperate calls to British officials.
But Rafeas absence also highlights the emotional temperature of the performances. The conductors brother is one of the orchestral musicians and his sisters sing in the choir; this was their first chance to see their sibling since he left Syria in 2013.
Albarns own relationship with Syria began eight years ago when he was introduced to Eslam Jawaad, a Syrian Lebanese rapper who had worked with Wu-Tang Clan. The pair hit it off: Jawaad performed for the track Mr Whippy on Albarns concept album the Good, the Bad and the Queen, then toured with Gorillaz and finally took Albarn to visit Syria.
He fell in love with the country overnight. It blew me away, Albarn tells me, enthusing about everything from a drunken meeting with a Bedouin Sheik( Id had a lot of arak) to motorbiking around the Acropolis in Palmyra in the moonlight. Young people would start their evening in Damascus, go to Beirut for the night and then come back to Damascus to chill out, he tells. The call to prayer when you are on the top of the mountain in the early morning in Damascus just leaves you speechless.
While there, Albarn fulfilled Rafea the conductor and recorded with the Syrian National Orchestra for the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach. A years later in 2010, Gorillaz, along with guest stars including Bobby Womack and Mick Jones, joined the orchestra for a concert in the 1,000 -year-old Damascus citadel. When Albarns group toured Europe, representatives from the orchestra including Rafea ran with them.
The burgeoning relationship objective abruptly with the uprisings of 2011. As existing conflicts has taken hold, Albarn says he has watched with horror the style Syrian refugees have been casting as a homogenous darknes from the Countries of the middle east moving slowly towards us. I merely felt: What can I do? And so he decided to get the Syrian National Orchestra back together, Blues Brothers style.
I want people who see these concerts to experience the humanity of this homogenous darknes which they feel so threatened by. he says.
He connections the stance towards refugees with the rise for the human rights, pointing to the way that Brexit campaigners have sought to exploit the crises.( Honestly, hand on heart, I will consider leaving the country if we leave, he tells ). But he has tears in his eyes as he talks about how much Syrians have lost and his hope that the concerts will show people how important it is to support them.