Remembering when Gorillaz rocked Damascus: 'It was a stepping stone for Syria'
Artists involved in the virtual British band's seminal performance recall the night's atmosphere, a decade on
For decades, the closest Syrians got to live concerts of note were rare performances by Arab stalwarts Sabah Fakhri and Fairouz. But as the 2000s drew to a close, Syria was undergoing change across the board. Previously deemed a “rogue state” by the US administration of George W Bush and for decades suppressed under former president Hafez Al Assad, in 2010, the possibilities for a new generation of Syrians seemed – at the time – boundless.
The currents of change trickled through to the music scene, too. International pop star Enrique Iglesias played in Damascus in 2007, while Europe’s top trance DJs had begun making the trip across the mountains from Beirut to play in the elite clubs of Syria’s capital.
But when music industry superstars including Damon Albarn of Gorillaz, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash, top British grime artists and more took to the stage in the 11th-century Damascus citadel alongside the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music on July 25, 2010, there was a sense that change was on the horizon.
During the performance, the genre-defying cast of musical characters, overseen by Albarn, deftly and beautifully fused spine-tingling classical Arabic chords with western rock and rap for tracks such as White Flag, all while decked out in sailors’ uniforms and hats. Juxtapose that with Gorillaz’s animated computer graphics that were projected from a giant screen on stage, and the atmosphere in Damascus city centre was unlike any the capital had experienced before.
This was the first time that international artists had taken an interest in Syria as a country. For many in the crowd on that steamy summer night, it meant that anything was possible.
It was sort of a stepping-stone for Syria, bringing music that people love to the region
Eslam Jawaad, rapper
“It was such a night,” recalls Issam Rafea, who conducted the orchestra for the performance. “The sound, the people, the orchestra, everything was really special. Young people were very enthusiastic at the time to get a band like Gorillaz.”
Albarn’s mission was to create a bridge between eastern and western music, Rafea says, and the Damascene conductor was given five pieces to orchestrate. He led the orchestra’s performance of White Flag and other numbers, alongside British grime artists Kano and Bashy.
For Syrian-Lebanese rapper Eslam Jawaad, the keystone to making the concert happen since he had previously toured with Albarn, the event was a magical moment. “It was sort of a stepping stone for Syria, bringing music that people love to the region,” he says.
“Contemporary Arab hip-hop was in a challenging place at the time, there was very little support. So when I came back [with Gorillaz] it was kind of a returning-in-triumph moment.”
The gig was a calamity, financially. The concert’s tickets, at around $20 (Dh73) each – a fraction of the price of a Gorillaz concert in other countries – did not even cover the cost of putting the 93 touring musicians and crew up in a hotel. But, of course, money did not matter to those involved.
Back then, the concert was seen as groundbreaking. The local monthly magazine Syria Today wrote at the time: “Local music promoters say Syria is poised to become a regular destination for international acts.”
Five months later, Canadian rocker Bryan Adams came to the city to perform a charity concert.
But within months, everything changed. The Syrian regime cracked down vigorously on protestors calling for freedom, and by 2012, a nascent civil war had spread across the country. More than 400,000 people have since perished in the war that fuelled the migration of millions of refugees to Europe and neighbouring countries, leading to one of the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen this century.
The sound, the people, the orchestra, everything was really special. Young people were very enthusiastic at the time to get a band like Gorillaz
Issam Rafea, conductor
The Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music has since broken up, with many members forced to flee the war, risking their lives on dangerous sea crossings for a better life elsewhere. Violinist Sousan Askander fled to Germany, where she teaches music to refugee children.
In 2013, as the war entrenched across the entire country, Rafea was invited to the US to direct a music ensemble at the Northern Illinois University School of Music. He has lived in Chicago ever since, performing at venues such as the Smithsonian Institute.
But the connection to former collaborators and students endured. In June 2016, despite visa and other travel issues, Rafea and 50 musicians from the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music – renamed the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians – met at a rehearsal venue in Amsterdam for the first time since the 2011 revolution broke out.
Along with – and in large part thanks to – Albarn, the group that year went on to perform at Glastonbury, in Denmark, Turkey and elsewhere with a large ensemble of musicians.
Today, Rafea is still developing his musical career in the American Midwest. His music style is still collaborative, recording and performing with artists such as China's Gao Hong, with whom he released a new album in April.
“There is a lot of change happening. It’s a new experience, a new life,” he says. “The good thing is that you can just continue with your music.”
Still, Rafea says he hopes to return home “soon”. He keeps in touch with former students and orchestra members and says the group is still together in Damascus, with new musicians and a new conductor.
Jawaad now works with the music streaming platform Spotify to promote talent in the Mena region and still performs occasionally, including with Gorillaz at Dubai’s Fiesta De Los Muertos in 2017.
He is a regular visitor to Damascus, where his mother still lives. Despite the economic troubles he sees afflicting the country every time he returns, Jawaad says there remains an emergent music scene.
“There are some Syrian musicians getting into the world of streaming and getting their income from that,” he says, “[But] we have still got a bit to go on the business side of things.”
No one present that wistful night Gorillaz rocked the Damascus citadel could have imagined the destruction that would befall their country in the later years. But with the music and memories still alive, there is hope for the future.
“I believe,” says Jawaad, “in the resilience of the people.”
Updated: July 25, 2020 08:43 AM