[Dixielandjazz] The battle of the Bands is Peaceable, well sort of.

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Wed Dec 10 09:43:07 PST 2003

Not OKOM, but musically very interesting. Talk about DEDICATED
musicians. A good read even if only to remind ourselves how lucky we are
to to play and/or enjoy music without all of the life threatening
hassles that these musicians face on a daily basis. (and have faced for
the past several decades).

Steve Barbone

December 7, 2003 New York Times
This Battle of the Bands Is Peaceable

Soon after the Arab press reported that the Iraqi National Symphony
Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington would play
alongside each other at the Kennedy Center, Hisham Sharaf, the director
of the Iraqi orchestra, was shot at as he drove down a highway near his
home in Baghdad. A bullet penetrated his windshield, but missed him.

"I don't know who or why," Mr. Sharaf said recently from Baghdad. "I
think maybe it's because of the concert. On Al Jazeera, they say they
are surprised that the orchestra goes to Washington at this time. We
don't have political reasons. Maybe the American side thinks about that,
but we go to play music, to see the American people and to show we have
culture. Some people think we have only desert and camels."

The concert, a free, hour-long event on Tuesday evening, mixes European
classics with recent and traditional music by Iraqi composers. Leonard
Slatkin, the music director of the National Symphony, shares the podium
with Mohammed Amin Ezzat, the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony.

"We're trying to find a way to use music to combat what was a tragic
circumstance," Mr. Slatkin said from Washington, "no matter what side of
the Iraqi argument you come down on."

But political overtones have shadowed the venture. It is the first of
several initiatives by the State Department to restore cultural exchange
between Iraq and the United States after nearly 13 years of United
Nations sanctions. Perhaps inevitably, some argue that the Iraqi
orchestra is being used.

"I'm furious that our government is trying to put a happy face on the
extinguishment of the cradle of civilization," said Patrick Dillon, an
independent filmmaker who shot in Baghdad before and after the
American-led assault and is a vocal critic of the war effort.

Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center and a cultural
ambassador for the State Department's CultureConnect program, said from
Washington that the idea for the invitation was entirely his.

"It's critical to give visibility not just to the Iraqi National
Symphony but to all the arts in Iraq," Mr. Kaiser said. "I also believe
the arts can play a role in healing and a role in educating us about
Iraq, and the sooner the better in both cases."

The Kennedy Center is covering the cost of the National Symphony's
appearance and the use of the hall, and the State Department is paying
transportation and lodging expenses for the 60-member Iraqi orchestra,
Mr. Kaiser said. But in his view, the event has no more political
significance than the restoration of the State Department's Fulbright
scholarship program in Iraq.

To muddy the waters further, two assistants to L. Paul Bremer III, the
top American civilian administrator in Iraq, play with the understaffed
Iraqi orchestra as substitutes. Asked how he felt about their
participation, Mr. Sharaf, the orchestra's director, said: "The problem
every time is between the governments, not musicians. We speak the same
language — do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do."

The political connection has proved advantageous for the orchestra. One
assistant, who started a corporate donor program for the Coalition
Provisional Authority, has helped solicit donations to the orchestra.
Yamaha responded by providing 30 new brass and woodwind instruments, and
Steinway & Sons will lend a grand piano. Better string instruments are
still needed.

As a result of Mr. Bremer's inquiries, the Major Orchestra Library
Association, an American-based international service organization, has
also become involved. It has begun to send more than 350 scores to lay
the groundwork for a national repository available to all Iraqi musical
organizations. Other institutions are assisting the School of Music and
Ballet in Baghdad, where many orchestra members teach.

The school was looted and trashed after Mr. Hussein's ouster. Desks were
broken, pianos ruined and other instruments damaged or stolen. Orchestra
members say the vandals were angry, impoverished individuals who viewed
the state-supported school as a government entity. The school was
reopened on a limited basis, but when the Kennedy Center concert was
announced, more instruments were attacked.

"There is an element in Iraq that is not happy that Iraqis are playing
Western music or teaching Western music to their children," said Allegra
Klein, a violinist. She founded a group called Musicians for Harmony, in
New York, which raised $1,000 for the Iraqi orchestra at a benefit

Hers is only one of several such efforts. Operation Harmony, a project
conceived by the National Endowment for the Arts, appealed to the
classical music community for instruments, musical accessories and cash
to help Iraqi music students. It also appealed to the Pentagon about the
logistics of airlifting the donated items, however, and that raised a
few hackles.

"You have a government agency related to the military involved in the
music scene, which makes it very political," said Wafaa Al-Natheema, an
educator and founder of the nonprofit Institute for Near Eastern and
African Studies in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Al-Natheema hopes to arrange
future tours for the orchestra and helps edit an unofficial newsletter
on its activities.

"If the U.S. government really wanted to help," she said, "they could
use a nongovernmental agency, a charitable institution like the
institute or the U.N."

Such extramusical baggage has not dimmed the orchestra's enthusiasm for
the Kennedy Center concert. "It's the first dream we get," Majid
Alghazali, the principal second violinist, wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. Ezzat, the conductor, who fled Iraq for Sweden in 2002 after being
asked to compose a score for a novel written by Saddam Hussein (as he
had done once before), returned last fall. "They told me the orchestra
has more future hope, and I came back to continue on, to make this hope
for us," he said from Baghdad. "In the past, our orchestra was not free.
Now we are free. We make our future."

Part of the hope involves increasing the orchestra's size, wages and
artistic caliber. In contrast, say, to Iraqi playwrights, who typically
required approval of their scripts and casts to win funds from the
Hussein government, the orchestra mostly suffered from benign neglect.

Founded in 1959, it once had a German conductor and an international
membership. During the 1970's and 80's, it had more than 70 musicians
and occasionally toured Russia, Algeria, Lebanon and Jordan. Guest
artists and teachers regularly visited Baghdad.

But its budget diminished over the years. Then as now, most members
required a supplementary job, like teaching, driving a taxi or selling

In 1994, when Mr. Alghazali joined the orchestra, his salary was about
$1.50 per month. By 2002, musicians were earning $10 to $20 per month.
Now Iraq's Ministry of Culture pays them $120 per month.

Mr. Alghazali reports that orchestras in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon pay
about $500 per month. He believes that the Iraqi orchestra will
ultimately need to match that figure to attract and retain the best
players. There is talk of starting a musicians' union.

The history of the Iraqi National Symphony is in some ways a microcosm
of life in this war-torn country during the last five decades. It was
disbanded in 1966 by a government official who is said to have disliked
Western classical music. From 1968 to 1971, when the orchestra was
allowed to resume public performance, members rehearsed surreptitiously
at the home of a cellist, Munther Jamil Hafidh, who taught many of the
players at the School of Music and Ballet. And in 1985, during the
eight-year war with Iran, two children of the assistant conductor, Abdul
Razzak Ibraheem Mahdi, were killed when his house was hit by an Iranian

Recent skirmishes have also taken a toll. Rasheed Concert Hall, one of
the orchestra's performing spaces, was bombed during the air campaign in
the spring. (The orchestra now plays in a spacious air-conditioned hall
at the Palace of Conferences.) The second floor of Mr. Sharaf's house
was accidentally shelled by American troops during a firefight. His
mother was injured, and he was hit by shrapnel in a finger.

Omar Hassan Alshikh, who joined the orchestra's cello section in 1991
and began working for the United Nations last April, was seriously
injured in the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in
August. He now lives in Amman, Jordan, where he was taken for medical

The United Nations sanctions — imposed in 1990, after Iraq invaded
Kuwait, and maintained after the gulf war — had predictably adverse
effects on musical life. Although the Iraqi orchestra played 140
concerts after Mr. Ezzat became conductor, in 1989, it did so under
increasing deprivation. The sanctions made it hard to obtain replacement
scores, strings, valves and other essential equipment.

In addition, talented performers left Iraq for Jordan or Europe. The
orchestra's present ranks include Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and
Assyrian Christians. They also include three women.

In June, the orchestra gave its first concert after the war. About 45
musicians played "My Nation," an anthem predating Mr. Hussein's rule.
According to press reports, audience members wept as they sang. Since
that event, rebroadcast three times on Iraqi television, the orchestra
has emerged as a symbol of courage and perseverance through suffering.

Meanwhile, another symbol of hope for greater cultural understanding
stands at the School of Music and Ballet. Early media reports after the
war lamented the destruction of a keethara: an unusual piano with a dual
keyboard, one tuned to Western scales, the other to Eastern
quarter-tones. Actually, the keethara is intact, damaged but reparable.

It will be far more difficult to heal the wounds of the past and sort
out the political challenges of the present.

"Before, if you were not near the government and you did not talk badly
about the government, you were safe," Mr. Sharaf said. "Now we can talk
freely, but we don't know who is the enemy and who likes or doesn't like
this music. But we hope — and I think all the Iraqi people think — that
the future is better."  

(Barbara Jepson writes regularly about music for The Wall Street

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