National Youth Orchestra of Iraq: Building Bridges at Home and Abroad

How can a youth orchestra break down ethnic, religious, and language barriers to create opportunities for meaningful cultural exchange?

National Youth Orchestra of Iraq members rehearsing in Aix-en-Provence, France, in 2013. Image:
National Youth Orchestra of Iraq members rehearsing in the Grande Theatre de Provence in France in 2013. Image: NYOI.

Editor’s note: Last month, during our focus on the topic of cross-cultural collaboration through the arts, Rachel Elizabeth Maley reached out to us with a story about the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq — with whom the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra has been developing a partnership. Here, she shares the story of NYOI and its efforts in creating spaces for meaningful cultural exchange between young people through music.

In 2008, when Scottish conductor Paul MacAlindin first read the headline, “Iraqi teen seeks maestro for youth orchestra,” his thoughts were:

“After years of violent reporting, I knew nothing about Iraq. Who were their people? What was their culture? What would their music sound like? And where did they get instruments?”

After stumbling upon the article in a pub in Glasgow, it didn’t take long for Paul to meet Zuhal Sultan, a 17-year-old pianist living and studying in Baghdad, for the two of them to join forces and create the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI).

Long before its first note, the NYOI was a cross-cultural collaboration. From her home in Baghdad, Zuhal had connected with young musicians all across the country on Facebook and Twitter, sharing her idea for an orchestra that would unite young Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, men and women, to perform music together.

National Youth Orchestra of Iraq's founder, Zuhal Sultan, imagined an orchestra that would break barriers and create opportunities to communicate through music. Image:
National Youth Orchestra of Iraq’s founder, Zuhal Sultan, imagined an orchestra that would break barriers and create opportunities for its members to communicate through music. Image: Georg Witteler.

“I joined the Iraqi National Symphony when I was 15; that group of 70 musicians of varying ages and religions felt like a big family to me,” Zuhal explains. “In the midst of all the violence in our country, it was great to have such a feeling of unity in the symphony. I wanted more young musicians to experience this and I wanted the world to see it.”

When the orchestra first met in the summer of 2009, they were led by Paul and an international group of music educators. While many of the musicians were self-taught and some weren’t even allowed to practice Western classical music at home, they presented a concert of Beethoven, Haydn, and traditional music from Iraq and the UK. Paul and his team returned in 2010, but the danger of bringing the musicians together was too great. In 2011, with an invitation to Beethovenfest in Bonn, they designed a new collaborative format: partnering with local youth orchestras abroad for musical collaboration and cultural exchange.

“In the beginning, it was clear that a bunch of naive foreigners, led by me, were flying in to ‘do good’ for disempowered young musicians in Iraq,” Paul says. “The orchestra is no longer in that place, and NYOI has increasingly focused its public value on what we can deliver in terms of hard results, namely public concerts of a high youth orchestra standard, cultural diplomacy through music, and intercultural outreach in our guest communities.”

Having performed to sold-out audiences in Germany, France, and the UK, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq plans to make its American debut next year alongside musicians from the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra in Illinois. While the two orchestras had spent many months planning their collaboration in August of 2014, the recent unrest throughout Iraq made it impossible for the orchestra members to travel. NYOI has always been an important symbol of collaboration over conflict, and the insurgency that has prevented their tour only highlights their necessity.

The collaborative environment

“There is incredible cultural diversity in the orchestra, as in Iraq, which most Westerners are unaware of,” Paul explains. The musicians can tell from one another’s surnames which sect and region they come from, but the multiplicity of cultural experiences is most evident in the rehearsal process, where three different languages are spoken. Paul conducts and gives instructions in English, which is then translated into Sorani Kurdish by one translator and Arabic by another. He has learned that brevity is essential.

Paul MacAlindin is the Scottish conductor who partners with Iraqi youth and a team of international music educators to lead the NYOI. Image:
Paul MacAlindin is the Scottish conductor who partners with Iraqi youth and an international team of music educators to lead the NYOI. Image: Michael Zelbel.

“And the truth is, the rehearsals are so intense there’s simply not a lot of time for people to conflict with each other. It all contributes to the reconciliation process.” With three weeks of eight-hour rehearsal days and a week-long tour this summer, NYOI’s US partners are anticipating much more exhaustion than conflict.

As in any intensive arts collaboration (“orchestral boot camp” is Paul’s preferred term for NYOI), commonalities outweigh differences. Randal Swiggum, Artistic Director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra, knows how the experience of making music together tends to dissolve barriers: “It will be exciting for our students just to meet their peers from the other side of the world – to get to know an Iraqi musician who loves Beethoven as much as they do.”

Building communities, making an impact

That experience is important for both the Iraqi orchestra and their international collaborators: to learn more about one another’s personal experiences being a musician elsewhere in the world.

“I’m a girl and I play music, and some people think it’s not really appropriate for our culture,” said principal oboist Dua’a Azzawi in a 2012 interview. “There was a time when I couldn’t tell people I’m a musician. I still have to talk to the person and find how open-minded he or she is, so I can say ‘I play music, I play in an orchestra.’”

The musicians of NYOI are working to change that. With the skills they learn abroad (including the normality of being a musician outside a war zone), many of the artists now direct their own ensembles throughout Iraq. Several have studied in the United States and have returned to teach back home. For many students, their time in NYOI each summer is the only musical instruction they receive all year. It is because of their commitment to education that the orchestra grows so much stronger with each tour.

It is through individual leadership – within the orchestra, within each section, throughout Iraq – that both the music and the message of peaceful collaboration have become so successful. And for founder Zuhal Sultan, who was just a teenager when she helped bring this idea to life, it’s exactly what she wanted: “This is how I imagined the orchestra to be – for them to break all the barriers before them and communicate through music.”

To learn more about the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, watch conductor Paul MacAlindin’s TEDx Talk below. 

Rachel Elizabeth Maley is a multi-disciplinary artist based outside of Chicago. She serves on the staff of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra, a youth music program centered on the concepts of CMP, and is the author of being human today, which addresses arts, culture, and "the fact of living."