Highlands & Islands

Scots conductor and the orchestra that crossed Iraq's divides

Paul MacAlindin and orchestra Image copyright Paul MacAlindin
Image caption MacAlindin and the orchestra rehearsing

A Scottish conductor spent five years working with the Iraqi National Youth Orchestra, a venture that began while he was having a quiet pint in an Edinburgh pub.

Paul MacAlindin went out to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2008 after spotting a young pianist's plea for help to set up the orchestra.

Over the next five years he worked with dozens of youngsters, most of whom had never played as part of a group before.

They had several successful concert tours including an appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, but the project collapsed when Iraq was plunged into a new phase of conflict.

"It all started when I was having fish and chips and a pint in a pub in Edinburgh," says MacAlindin.

'Incredibly intuitive'

"There was this copy of the Herald on the table and the headline read 'Iraqi teen seeks maestro for orchestra'. It was the story of Zuhal Sultan who was a 17-year-old pianist.

"She wanted to create a national youth orchestra bringing together young players from across the whole country to act as a symbol of unification and reconciliation and also, most importantly, to deliver some sort of music education summer camp to these young people at a time they had nothing.

"I answered this call for help without really knowing what I was getting myself into."

The conductor adds: "All the reporting on Iraq that I'd seen painted a picture of violence but told me nothing about the people who were being attacked. I wanted to answer the question, who are these young people?"

Image copyright Mike Luongo
Image caption Paul MacAlindin has written a book about his experiences with the orchestra

MacAlindin's first step was to set up music tuition summer camps which were run in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.

Between 33 and 46 youngsters were recruited on to the course each year, after auditioning on YouTube, with their ages ranging from 14 to 29. All places were fully subsidised with priority given to the best musicians who would be able to pass their skills on to others.

"Their talent was incredibly intuitive and natural and unformed because there were no teachers," says MacAlindin, whose new book on the project, Upbeat, has been published by Dingwall-based Sandstone Press.

"These people were teaching themselves by downloading fingering, exercises and music from the internet and just trying to make the best of it with their deep love of classical music.

"It was very tough at the very beginning when many of the musicians had never played with others before. They were playing to themselves in living rooms in some cases because it was too dangerous to go out. So the first orchestra was incredibly raw but year after year they got better and better."

'Language barrier'

Iraq is a divided society and that was reflected in the orchestra.

MacAlindin says: "The Kurds couldn't speak Arabic to the Arabs and the Arabs couldn't speak Kurdish to the Kurds.

"This language barrier in the orchestra - which was about 50-50 - meant we had to bring in a highly-skilled translation team so that communication was fluent and fluid and people felt confident that people weren't saying bad things about them.

"It took two years for them to get a handle on what the orchestra course was and what we expected of them. It was about unlearning what they were used to which is corruption, incompetence and political strife.

Image copyright Paul MacAlindin

"And once they realised we had created this little utopian bubble for them and all we cared about was making music, they started dropping their guard and making friends with each other and trusting that we had their musical best interests at heart.

"And the way in which these young people just drove their passion forward is something I have never seen in a European player before."

MacAlindin says the feeling of finally getting up on to the stage after all their hard work to play works by Beethoven and others is something he will never forget.

"It was murderously difficult getting there but at the end of the day the relief of standing up in front of an audience in Iraq, in Edinburgh or Cologne was enormous," he says.

"We could make music after years of preparation and enjoy ourselves and receive well-deserved applause."

'Utterly devastated'

In 2014, the orchestra had hoped to tour America but war intervened.

"It all wound up about as badly as it possibly could for me," says MacAlindin.

"There was a perfect storm which was driven by the invasion of Isil [so-called Islamic State] into Iraq - which cut the country in half.

"We'd been making our big attempt to get to America, but that was our final breakthrough that we didn't make.

"I was left completely and utterly devastated and floored when the project folded, which left me with the job of rebuilding my own life. And part of that was to write the book and look back on all we had achieved."

He adds: "The good news is that every player is physically still safe. Some have managed to get out and claim asylum in Europe or America. But many are still back in Iraq.

"They are still making music but they are all far from safe for as long as Isil exists.

"All I can hope for is that they will remember what we learnt together and they will remember that shared feeling of success we had on the concert platform and they'll be able to take that learning and that positivity into Iraq's future and help rebuild this culture."

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