On St George’s Day, a day which has been misappropriated and twisted beyond recognition by the far-right to further their cause, it seems apt that Damon Alban is performing in Liverpool with the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians along with Mounir Trudi.
The concert will take place in the splendid Art Deco Philharmonic Hall, nestled between the two cathedrals at either side of the city. After speaking to two of the musicians – a singer and violinist – as they make the final preparations for their performance, I have high hopes for the event.
Sadly, Syria is never far from the front pages of our national and international news organisations following the recent utterly appalling chemical attack. But the world of music seems far, far removed from the atrocities of war and offers some blessed relief for the musicians.
The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians was formed two years ago when 50 musicians and singers were reunited by Africa Express. They embarked on a short European tour with guests including Damon Albarn, Paul Weller and Rachid Taha. For many of the performers, it was the first time they’d seen each other since the conflict began. They were the opening act on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage and a subsequent album was received with widespread acclaim.
Oriental singer Hamsa Mounif says she is “very excited” to be performing in Liverpool as it’s her first time in the city. During her professional training as a singer, graduating three years ago, she played with lots of concerts in Syria, also travelling to the Opera House in Leipzig and other large venues. Throughout her studies, she was a contestant on the Middle East version of The Voice and also taught music to children.
“It’s very difficult talking about the country where I grew up which is suffering so much with the war,” she tells me. “All my memories are there, it is my home. I have family there. I do not know what will happen to my family there.”
She has now lived in the UK with her husband for the past two years. Mounif met Damon Albarn at the gig in 2016 and cannot praise him enough. “He was interested in our culture. He was like a friend to us.” She recalls seeing the faces of thousands of people who are “just happy because he is singing”.
Tarek Zaidieh is a violinist who is also making his debut in the city. He only left Syria a year ago and is studying for a PhD in Portsmouth. Zaidieh began playing the violin at the age of 10.
“After six or seven years of war, I still completely believe that music is the best way to express my society and culture.” He has previously played at the Damascus Opera House and was involved in the tour of Europe with Africa Express.
He describes the violin as “like part of my body. I can’t be away from it as I am so connected to it. On behalf of my friends, I am really excited that we are all playing again together.”
The Liverpool Philharmonic, he adds, offers “a very great opportunity to mix between us and the people of Liverpool in harmony. You have got two or three different kind of cultures.” He believes playing with the professional musicians from the city’s orchestra will have a significant impact. And, lthough he’s only been in the UK for a year, he describes the people as “friendly and helpful”.
As part of the commission, the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians will also undertake a rehearsal residency in Liverpool with the Philharmonic musicians ahead of the performance.
The Rapid Response Unit (RRU) will be working with local councils and charities to endeavour to bring together an audience that reflects the diverse communities of modern Britain by ensuring a significant number of free tickets are made available.
Mark Donne, bureau editor of the RRU, says: “St George is, of course, the symbol of English nationalism, but he was also an immigrant, and remains the patron saint of England, Bulgaria, Palestine, Ethiopia, Greece and Lithuania.” He adds that this “truly multicultural city” will “come together in an unforgettable celebration of art, music and of unity”.
The chief executive of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Michael Eakin, says: “It is a perfect fit with our mission, which is all about the power of music to transform lives, and to connect across cultural boundaries.”
(Main image: Tarek Zaidieh)
For more information, or to buy tickets for the performance in Liverpool on April 23, 2018, visit the website.