This marks the first post in an ongoing series that I’m calling “Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers.” The title comes from the poem Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (which happens to have been set to music by Edward Elgar):
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;–
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
Throughout this series, I’ll be profiling several recent, interesting, and impactful intersections of music and society. These posts will continue weekly leading up to an incredible event taking place July 17 in New York City — The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights. I’ll be interviewing the event’s producer next week; until then, visit their website here to learn more about this amazing project that is using music and art as a platform for social change.
Speaking of music and social change… Back in the beginning of May, images of a cellist performing at the site of a Baghdad bombing went viral.
The cellist is Karim Wasfi, the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra — and before I even get to Wasfi’s moving outdoor performance, let’s learn a bit about the miracle that is the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.
Its first incarnation was as a string quartet founded in 1939, which grew into the Baghdad Philharmonic by the 1950s. Its members are Sunni and Shiite, Christian and Kurdish, all making music side by side. The orchestra has played all over the world, from Iraqi Kurdistan to D.C.’s Kennedy Center (a 2003 performance with President Bush in the audience). Wartime power outages have meant rehearsals in the dark and stifling heat; extremists who oppose Western and secular art are a constant and very real threat; and several of the musicians have fled to safer borders — and yet, the orchestra continues to give free concerts in Baghdad, its 900-capacity auditorium brimming with supporters.
Karim Wasfi has been the orchestra’s conductor since 2008, a post he accepted with marked determination and a dash of humor. At a 2014 concert, he turned to the packed audience and said, “If anyone from any sect bets against gatherings like this one, they’ll lose the bet. But if you don’t agree with me, don’t cut my head off!”
Fast-forward to this past May, when a car bomb blast in Baghdad’s Monsour district killed ten and injured twenty-seven. The site, near Wasfi’s home, turned into a concert hall the very next day as Wasfi brought out a chair and his cello, and began to play. Though the performance was impromptu, Wasfi explained the reasoning behind it in an interview with Al Jazeera:
“It was an action to try to equalise things, to reach the equilibrium between ugliness, insanity and grotesque, indecent acts of terror — to equalise it, or to overcome it, by acts of beauty, creativity and refinement.”
Since his initial performance went viral, Wasfi has played at a bombsite in the Karrada district as well, where community members organized a memorial service. At both the Monsour and Karrada sites, crowds were drawn to the music — civilians alongside policemen alongside friends and family of those killed in the blasts. “They loved it,” Wasfi told Al Jazeera. “Soldiers cried. They kissed, they clapped, they felt alive, they felt human and they felt appreciated and respected, which does not surprise me.”
The act of performing music — especially Western music — in such a public forum, and at such a symbolic location, is a courageous one, as Islamist militants are an ever-present danger. But the act is also an important one — bringing “equilibrium,” as Wasfi says, a moment of peace and beauty in a community that has stood strong through over a decade of needless violence.
Peace and beauty? By all means, they deserve it.
- Interview: Why I played the cello at a Baghdad bombsite (Al Jazeera, 2015)
- After car bombs explode, an Iraqi musician shows up with his cello (Washington Post, 2015)
- Iraq’s Artists Defy Extremists With Bows, Brushes And A Low Profile (NPR, 2014)
- Let’s hear it for the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (The Guardian, 2011)
- The Music Chief of Baghdad (Wall Street Journal, 2011)
- And the Orchestra Plays on, Echoing Iraq’s Struggles (New York Times, 2006)
The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights
July 17 | 7:30 pm | Centennial Memorial Temple, New York City, USA
- Website: thedreamunfinished.org
- CrowdRise campaign: The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Facebook: The Dream Unfinished
- Twitter: @dreamunfinished