Chords for accord: Malek Jandali hopes to spread harmony throughout Syria

The US-based composer and pianist explains the 'duty' he feels to preserve his country's cultural heritage and promote peace

Malek Jandali has accumulated many laurels on and off the world’s leading stages over the years, but the renowned pianist is not showing signs of resting on them.

Jandali barely rests at all. The focus of his indefatigable energy on composing, humanitarian projects and philanthropy is such that he sleeps only a few hours a night. It is, the Syrian-American thinks, worth the sacrifice.

“Well, the people in refugee camps aren’t sleeping,” Jandali tells The National.

“There’s an urgency. Time is ticking. That’s our most valuable asset and if we don’t utilise it by the minute, by the second from the day we are born, what are we doing?”

He is a musician cut from the same cloth as those he says our ancestors might have been more accustomed to seeing. Performers were once also philosophers, doctors, lawyers and writers.

Described by his long-time friend and music mentor Prof Paul Nitsch as a “man who gets things done”, Jandali, 49, is certainly on a mission.

It stems from an immense pride and love for the cultural heritage of Syria, which he feels duty-bound to protect.

The young Malek dreamt of one day playing the illustrious music halls of America. Years later, when he did, his greatest inspiration would come from an ancient Ugarit clay tablet inscribed with the oldest surviving musical notation, discovered less than 200km away from where he grew up in Homs. AFP 
The young Malek dreamt of one day playing the illustrious music halls of America. Years later, when he did, his greatest inspiration would come from an ancient Ugarit clay tablet inscribed with the oldest surviving musical notation, discovered less than 200km away from where he grew up in Homs. AFP 

Perhaps the strongest reason for this was unearthed less than 200 kilometres from where he grew up in Homs, and came to his attention only after he had emigrated to the US.

Nonetheless, Jandali never misses an opportunity to tell audiences about the discovery in the ancient port city of Ugarit of clay tablets inscribed with the oldest surviving notated melody.

He has a wooden replica of one, which he takes out to show off several times for emphasis as he talks about the enormity of the invention of musical notes 3,000 years ago.

It was, Jandali says, not just for the people of Mesopotamia, but “our contribution to humanity”.

His debut album, Echoes of Ugarit, was inspired by the excavated hymn and its influence permeates the prolific output of later work.

“The composer is crucial in preserving and presenting our heritage at this time when we are witnessing the eradication of that heritage,” he says.

Deeply critical of the recent destruction wrought on Syria in the civil war, Jandali was one of the first artists to take a high-profile stance against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.

He performed his Watana Ana, or My Homeland, on the steps of the White House in Washington in 2011, the first in a series of pro-uprising songs that earned him the moniker “musician of the revolution”.

It also won him the wrath of the Syrian security forces who paid a visit to his parents in their home in Homs, tied up his father and forced him to watch as they beat his wife brutally.

Through Jandali’s contacts with the “highest authorities” in his adopted country, his parents were whisked away from all that they knew to the US, where they still live today.

But moving overseas in their 70s was not something they had ever expected.

“They’re healthy but you know ...” he says, trailing off. “We are here and we long to return home one day.”

The reaction of the Syrian regime to his music gave Jandali an epiphany about the soft power of the arts.

He has continued to wield its transformative quality through vocal activism and a steady stream of music, including the release of Syrian Symphony in late 2014.

Its performance a few months later made him the first Arab-American composer to make their debut at Carnegie Hall.

His most recent album, Piano Concerto No. 1, came out in February, the same month that Syria marked 10 years of war.

The symphony, his first as composer-in-residence at his alma mater, Queen’s University in Charlotte, North Carolina, reflects the reality of what people are asking for, “which is dignity, freedom of expression, peace”.

Jandali flashes the sign for victory after a performance giving voice to Syrian children in the middle of a crowded railway station mall in Paris just hours after the centre of his home city, Homs, was evacuated by fighters opposed to Bashar Al Assad in 2014. AFP Photo/Ammar Abd Rabbo. 
Jandali flashes the sign for victory after a performance giving voice to Syrian children in the middle of a crowded railway station mall in Paris just hours after the centre of his home city, Homs, was evacuated by fighters opposed to Bashar Al Assad in 2014. AFP Photo/Ammar Abd Rabbo. 

“That’s what I’m trying to do, a symphony for peace. It’s not very popular in the Arab world to have a piano concerto or a symphony but I’m always counting on the new generation that is changing the narrative.”

Jandali often says that the origin of the word "symphony" in Greek means “sing together”.

“We are all together,” he says, “trying to bring unity back to our community and present our symphony for peace to the entire world.”

Albeit at great personal cost, Jandali’s recognition of the power of his music has made him strive to speak on behalf of the victims of Syria’s war, particularly the young.

He focuses on children to avoid political and religious affiliation.

“I try to give them a voice to raise both awareness and humanitarian aid, preserving the culture at the same time, because that's where they come from, and emphasising the beauty,” he says.

Jandali's recent composition, Silent Ocean, commissioned by the conductor Marin Alsop, is a symphonic charge against the world’s failings towards refugees.

“It's about a little girl who escaped the atrocities in Syria with nothing but a little melody that her grandfather used to sing,” he says.

“And she ends up in the bottom of the ocean, the silent ocean, because the entire universe rejected her quest for peace and her quest for life.

"Sadly, she is resting in peace rather than living in peace and, to me, this is the fall of humanity.”

While Jandali grew up in Syria, he was born in the birthplace of Bach and Handel.

It was not until he turned 6 that his father, a doctor, and his mother, a teacher, decided to return to their native Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, to give back to the society in which they were raised.

He credits his early years in Germany with the liberated approach to creative expression that has become one of his most celebrated traits.

His parents encouraged the earliest of his musical endeavours, and Jandali recalls Mozart and Beethoven playing on LPs in the family living room.

From the start, the young man showed unusual dedication, undertaking “weekly adventures” to the capital of Damascus – a three-hour round trip by whatever means possible – for his 30-minute piano lessons at the Arab Music Conservatory.

Growing up in a country of scarcity meant regular power cuts that at times forced Jandali to practise at the keyboard by candlelight.

It did not deter his ambition, even if it did almost destroy his instrument.

The purpose of art is to seek beauty and truth. Sometimes the truth is ugly, but there is always beauty in it

“I remember ruining my piano from candles because I just forgot,” he says from his home in Manhattan, where it is doubtful that the impressive grand piano visible behind him suffers the same mistreatment.

"I was practising for hours and the wax just melted on the surface."

The romantic accounts of his own creative pursuits outside school, though, greatly differ to recollections of Jandali’s frustrations within a restrictive educational system.

He describes it as akin to being “compressed and put in a box you aren’t allowed to think outside of”.

His amusement is evident as he recounts how his younger self, “awash with heaviness”, would try to wave away the school bus each morning to avoid being picked up.

But dreaming was unrestrained and revolved around future performances in the most prestigious cultural centres around the globe.

To achieve the musical individualism he craved, however, meant moving abroad sooner rather than later.

Recording his first audition on a cassette tape in Beirut, Jandali sent it to institutions worldwide and was accepted for a full scholarship to Queen’s University, where the liberal arts curriculum broadened his horizons.

Through his charitable organisation Pianos for Peace, Jandali distributes brightly painted pianos to public places around Atlanta for people to play before they are donated to artistically under-served institituions. The aim is to make the arts 'accessible to everyone, no exception', he says. Courtesy Malek Jandali  
Through his charitable organisation Pianos for Peace, Jandali distributes brightly painted pianos to public places around Atlanta for people to play before they are donated to artistically under-served institituions. The aim is to make the arts 'accessible to everyone, no exception', he says. Courtesy Malek Jandali  

“It made me think more critically, more connected to world events, to politics, to human rights, to being a peace activist,” he says.

He won the Outstanding Musical Performer Award, graduated magna cum laude, and later received an MBA from the University of North Carolina.

Some years after the Syrian war made him a vocal advocate for humanitarianism, Jandali turned his attentions closer to his new home.

He set up Pianos for Peace, a non-profit organisation through which he distributes brightly painted pianos to public places around Atlanta.

The instruments are left out for two weeks for people to play before being donated to artistically under-served institutions.

“The long-lasting impact is when we bring that piano to the permanent home, in a hospital, or a nursing home or a school that is in much need,” Jandali says.

“Our slogan is building peace through music and education, and making the arts accessible to everyone, no exception.”

He also holds a yearly International Youth Competition to embrace and encourage young Arab talent, something he says is vital given the consequences of wars in the Middle East.

For these tireless works and others, he received the Global Music Humanitarian Award and was named the Great Immigrant Pride of America honouree in 2015 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

He is, he says, thankful that music is a “magical”, intangible legacy that is not subject to destruction, unlike the Church of Saint Elian where he last performed in Homs, or the hospital his parents built there, both of which have been flattened.

Music is, says Jandali, a 'magical', intangible legacy that thankfully is not subject to the same destruction that has been wrought on the buildings in Syria during the 10 years of civil war. Louai Beshara/AFP.    
Music is, says Jandali, a 'magical', intangible legacy that thankfully is not subject to the same destruction that has been wrought on the buildings in Syria during the 10 years of civil war. Louai Beshara/AFP.    

For someone who spends so much time dwelling on the grim realities of life, Jandali's positivity is unabated. He believes that the purpose of art is the search for beauty and truth.

"Sometimes, the truth is ugly," he says, "but there is always beauty in it."

There is a quirkiness about his character and his sentences are punctuated by bursts of humour in spite of the seriousness of the subject.

Guided and comforted by his convictions, it is unsurprising to hear him quote the poet Rumi: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do and wherever you stand be the soul of that place.”

“There's always a reminder of what I'm doing, where I'm standing and what is my soul doing at this moment,” he says.

“At the end of the day, it is about doing the right thing for the right reason at the right time.

“That's what I strive to do every single day in my musical journey, in my production and in my life."

For now, Jandali is what he calls a “phoenix in exile”, in common with the millions of other Syrians forced to live outside their homeland.

They inspired a symphonic poem of the same name, and what they will bring with them on their return allows him to hope for the future.

“These phoenixes, they will rise," he says proudly. "They are already rising.”

Updated: April 15, 2021 03:07 PM

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