'World's bravest orchestra' defies the bombers

Next week, young Iraqi musicians make their international concert debut in Britain. Paul Bignell reports on the obstacles they faced

It has been dubbed the "bravest orchestra in the world". Members of Iraq's National Youth Orchestra have had to run the gauntlet of car bombs and other forms of violence to get to rehearsals – that is, if they weren't banned from playing outright. They have had to disguise their instruments to avoid being stopped by fundamentalists opposed to "Western" music. Even in the relative safety of their own homes they play quietly to avoid attracting attention.

But next week, after defying the odds, they will give their first performances outside Iraq. The 45-strong orchestra will accompany the world-renowned British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber at concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Iraq once had a rich classical music tradition: in 1948, it formed the first national orchestra in the Middle East and founded the region's first music school in Baghdad. However, it suffered during years of war and rule by Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. Many of the finest musicians fled abroad. When violence again consumed the country after the US-led invasion of 2003, the fate of those who had remained was uncertain. They risked retribution from fundamentalists opposed to classical music and watched as concert venues were closed down.

Despite this, in 2008, a then 17-year-old Zuhal Sultan, a pianist from Baghdad, set about recruiting members for the country's first youth orchestra. "I thought it would be great for Iraq to have a youth orchestra that inspires Iraqis but also sets out a positive image about the country, which has been lacking over the past seven years. What else better than music and young people on one stage?" asks Ms Sultan.

The British Council in Iraq and a Scottish conductor, Paul MacAlindin, lent support and gradually the hope for a youth orchestra gained ground. Since the country remains a dangerous place to travel, potential members were auditioned over the internet and a phone-video service. There were more than 100 applications in the first year alone.

One of the biggest challenges facing the conductor was to get the musicians to play louder. "Our trumpeters have taught themselves to hold back"Mr MacAlindin says. "We're trying to decondition them so that they can play with openness, expression and joy, not fear."

Despite significant improvements in Iraq's security, rehearsals posed enormous difficulties. "The orchestra is safer in the Kurdish towns in the north of the country, so the first year we rehearsed in Sulaymaniyah, the second time it was Arbela," Mr MacAlindin explains. "We've never tried to get to Baghdad as it's still less safe than the north. It's always an aim to go there, we just don't know when."

The musicians, who are currently rehearsing in Edinburgh with several members of the Scottish Youth Orchestra, will also play in London. They will perform pieces by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Tchaikovsky.

'I had to practise very quietly because I was living in a dangerous neighbourhood'

Dua'a Azzawi, 19, from Baghdad, oboe player

"I started playing the oboe when I was nine but I had a teacher who left after almost two years, so then I had to teach myself. In 2006-07, the situation [in Iraq] was very bad. But fortunately an oboe is small. I can store it in a laptop bag, so it was easy to hide. But it's not easy to hide its sound. So sometimes I had to practise very quietly, because I was living in a very dangerous neighbourhood and I was scared that the neighbours might hear. When people asked me what the noise was, I would say it's just the TV."

Music for peace

Music and conflict have been intrinsically linked since the walls of Jericho fell as Joshua's army marched around the city blowing their trumpets in 1400BC. During the Second World War, the Allies adopted Beethoven's 5th Symphony before the Axis could get their hands on it. The rhythm of the famous first four notes corresponded to three dots and a dash in Morse code – to signify V for victory. But music has also been used to heal. In 2000, the Israeli-Argentinian conductor Daniel Barenboim performed Wagner in Israel even though the composer was banned there as a one-time Nazi favourite. Barenboim also founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – with players from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Israel and Palestine – to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?