Syrian composer Malek Jandali talks about his music and its link to the turmoil in his homeland

After his sell-out show at Carnegie Hall in January, award-winning Syrian-American pianist Malek Jandali will have his debut performance- Malek Jandali Trio- in Abu Dhabi and Dubai this weekend.
Malek Jandali will lead the Malek Jandali Trio in a concert that includes music from his album Echoes from Ugarit. Courtesy Malek Jandali
Malek Jandali will lead the Malek Jandali Trio in a concert that includes music from his album Echoes from Ugarit. Courtesy Malek Jandali

Even as the award-winning virtuoso Malek Jandali took the stage to become the first ­Arab-American to perform for an international audience at New York’s Carnegie Hall this year, the suffering of children affected by the continuing civil war in his native Syria weighed heavy on his mind.

The music Jandali composes these days comes from a longing for a peaceful and inclusive ­homeland.

Jandali’s The Voice of the Free Syrian Children tour brought to the fore the humanitarian crisis in the country and helped raise money to aid refugees. Now the artist is touring his Malek Jandali Trio show, which will have its debut performance in the UAE this weekend.

He will be leading the Malek Jandali Trio, which includes cellist Laura Metcalf and oud player Abdulrahim Alsiadi. The UAE debut of chamber works for piano, cello and oud will also include his arrangement for Echoes from Ugarit, one of the oldest music notations, dating back to 1400BC, and original compositions inspired by Syrian folk music.

“Music unites people,” says Jandali, who believes art and music can be agents of positive change during this tumultuous time in the region. “With music we can build understanding and inspire people to learn more about each other. This facilitates a dialogue that leads to the understanding that we, as human beings, have more in common than we do differences.”

The 42-year-old pianist will also host a workshop at Zayed University in the capital to share those thoughts with students and “inspire them to continue following their dreams to make a difference”.

Attending a performance of Mozart’s piano concerto was all it took to ignite Jandali’s ­desire to play the instrument as a young boy.

“I knew right then that I ­wanted to be on that stage ­performing my own music,” says the musician, who was born in Germany. He gave his first solo piano concert at the age of 8.

Jandali’s memories of growing up in Syria are those of constant suppression of that passion, which forced him to move to the United States to continue his career, where he studied music at Queens University of Charlotte and University of North ­Carolina.

“I left Syria because there were not many opportunities ­available to me as an artist,” he says.

“Syria is the cradle of civilisation and my ancestors invented both the alphabet and the music notation, marking a pivotal point in history. But the standards of the arts had declined dramatically in the past few ­decades.”

With the support of his parents he managed to record an expansive repertoire of piano pieces by Tchaikovsky and Bach that gained him a scholarship in the US. He eventually became an American citizen.

But his music has always been aligned to his sentiments about the turmoil back home.

In 2011, he composed Watani Ana (I Am My Homeland) to express his sorrow about the killing of children in the Syrian city of Dara’a. He was banned from performing it at the ­American-Arab Anti-­Discrimination Committee, which prompted him to perform it during a peace rally at the White House. Soon after, his parents were attacked at their home in Homs.

“This was in retaliation for a performance of a song that promotes peace, freedom, unity and harmony,” he says. “Just like the suffering Syrian children, neither my parents nor I belong to any political party or organisation.”

That incident spurred him to write more pieces inspired by his homeland.

“Even in the most atrocious conditions, the children in Syria continue to sing, draw, learn and are unwavering in their desire to rebuild Syria and move forward in the future,” he says.

“This inspires me every day to keep composing, ­performing, producing and touring the world to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis they are ­facing.”

His world tour with The Voice of the Free Syrian Children has included stops at Vienna Konzerthaus, the Konserthuset in Stockholm and the Auditorio Nacional in ­Madrid.

“If just one more person became aware of the tragedy and took action to alleviate their suffering, then we have succeeded in our goal,” he says.

With his album Echoes from Ugarit – which was released in 2008, the music from which will be performed at the UAE concerts – Jandali taps into lesser-­known melodies that originate in ­ancient Syria, produced on the Ugarit tablet.

“My music is simply the story of my journey in searching for beauty and truth,” he says. “Traditional music from the Middle East has a wonderfully rich heritage and is quite complex in its structure, so composing music for a western symphony orchestra utilising traditional melodies, or interpretations of those melodies, is a unique challenge which I am proud to tackle.

“My goal is to present and preserve the rich musical heritage of my culture in a western ­classical-music form.”

Jandali also recently released his album, Syrian Symphony, which he recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London and performed at Carnegie Hall.

But after every international concert, the artist dreams of the next one being in Syria.

“I have tremendous faith that Syria will be rebuilt with the culture we have had for thousands of years,” says Jandali. “I am confident that I will perform my Syrian Symphony in a more beautiful Syria in the near future.”

• The Malek Jandali Trio perform at Abu Dhabi Theatre on Friday, May 15, 8pm, tickets from Dh300 at www.ticketmaster.ae; and at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, on Saturday and Sunday, tickets from Dh200 at madinatjumeirah.etixdubai.com

aahmed@thenational.ae

Published: May 13, 2015 04:00 AM

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