Letter from Asia: A choral work honouring Malala unites Karachi and Crouch End

“I just thought the story of Malala and her struggle was very powerful. I thought it would be great to have it as a piece of music”

Share

My name is Malala Yousafzai!

Watch me as I reach for the sky!

I want to live, I will not die!

I am Malala Yousafzai!

It was an idea that quickly gathered pace. A plan was hatched, emails were dispatched and a cross-cultural collaboration rapidly got under way. And in the past few weeks, a final polish and buff has been applied to the project – a choral work in honour of Malala Yousafzai.

In the days after the teenage Pakistani campaigner was shot and wounded by the Taliban in October 2012 and she and her father were flown to Britain for treatment, David Temple, the director of London’s Crouch End Festival Chorus, decided to commission a commemorative piece of music. Like many, he was struck by the teenager’s courage, her resilience.

“I just thought the story of Malala and her struggle was very powerful. I thought it would be great to have it as a piece of music,” said Mr Temple, the choir’s conductor and co-founder.

He approached James McCarthy, a London-based composer with whom he had worked before – on a piece about the plight of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground at Copiapo for 69 days, and on a composition inspired by the life of the British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing.

Mr McCarthy was up for the challenge. But as he researched his subject, he recognised the problems he would face were he to try to create a voice for Malala himself. He realised he needed someone from Pakistan – a woman.

After looking at the work of various writers, poets and journalists, he decided on Bina Shah, a Karachi-based novelist. She had been outspoken in her support of Malala in the face of a backlash against the teenager in Pakistan that had caught many by surprise. “She was ready to take people on,” he said.

Unlike in popular music, where a song can be composed with either the words or music coming first, in choral music the words are the driving force, according to Mr McCarthy. “Everything comes from the words, everything stems from the rhythm of the words.”

Ms Shah said she had never previously written a libretto, or words for music, and yet she worked quickly, completing a draft in a day. “For me it’s primarily artistic,” she said, speaking from Karachi. “It’s an attempt to produce art from a very significant event. It was not political or journalistic, it was artistic.”

Ms Shah divided Malala’s life into five parts: her early years in the Swat valley; the arrival of the Taliban and their iron-clad rules that prevented girls from going to school; the diary she secretly kept and which was published by the BBC; the Taliban’s assassination attempt on her; and, finally, the message she has since been delivering to the world in speeches at the UN and during meetings with national leaders. Ms Shah sent the words to London last September.

“I could be a lot more emotional with this,” said Ms Shah, comparing how she set about writing the libretto with her previous projects.

Equipped with the text, Mr McCarthy got busy with the score. He changed some of the words to avoid the repetition of too many polysyllables, which can have a habit of sounding too strident. Elsewhere he repeated lines. Where he made changes, he sent them back to Ms Shah for her approval.

Improvising at his piano, he steadily built the music. “I spent many months making the music fit the words,” he said. “That was my job – to make the music do justice to them.”

The conclusion for the piece, a segment built around the line “We envelop you in love”, came after two hours at the piano, working around a chord shape until he was happy with it. He said Ms Shah’s line had jumped out at him from the page.

Mr McCarthy, 34, finished the score a couple of weeks ago. He emailed Ms Shah a copy of it along with an MP3 of the tune. She said she sobbed when she heard the music he had written.

Those behind the project hope the work can be heard by as many people as possible. They would particularly love it to be performed in Pakistan, perhaps even in the Swat valley.

But the work, called simply Malala and around 30 minutes in length, is set to receive its premiere on 28 October, when it will be performed by the Festival Chorus’s 70-strong orchestra, 130 adult singers and a choir of 70 children roughly the same age as Malala. Ms Shah has already been invited to London, as  have 16-year-old Malala and her father.

“We are hoping Malala and her family will be able to come to the first performance,” said Mr Temple, who  will conduct. “Her presence would be an inspiration to the performers.”

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In my grandfather's First World War footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during the war. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end