Paul MacAlindin & the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq

Mike Lawson • Archives • December 14, 2012

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By Eliahu Sussman

In September of 2008, conductor Paul MacAlindin was enjoying a plate of fish and chips in a restaurant in Edinburgh, Scotland when he reached over to pick up a copy of the Glasgow Herald that was sitting on a nearby table. In that newspaper, an announcement caught his eye: “Search for UK Maestro to help create an orchestra in Iraq,” read the headline. “An Iraqi teenager is appealing for a British maestro to help her set up the country’s first national youth orchestra.” What followed was a brief description of the mission of Zuhal Sultan, a remarkable then 17-year-old Iraqi teen who had a vision. Sultan, a piano playing girl who grew up in Baghdad, dreamed of assembling a National Youth Orchestra. Her story gained attention when she was contacted by Raw TV, a British television channel that makes reality shows in London. Raw TV then put out the press release, which MacAlindin came across in a restaurant in Edinburgh.

Paul MacAlindin, a Scottish conductor and music director who is based in Germany but has worked throughout Europe, was hooked. “I was so impressed by the story,” he recalls. “I said to myself immediately, ‘I know how to do this.’ I contacted Zuhal through Raw and the British Council London, who put me in touch with their Iraq office.” With funding and assistance from groups like the British Council London and the Scottish Government, plans were put in place for a schedule to be arranged, tutors to be flown in, details to be ironed out, and the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI) was born.

SBO recently caught up with MacAlindin to discuss the rather incredible particulars of how this ground-breaking ensemble was launched, the logistical and musical challenges the NYOI has faced, and the larger significance of creating a unified outlet for young musicians in a war-ravaged country.

School Band & Orchestra: What were some of the logistical and conceptual challenges of getting the NYOI off and running? 

Paul MacAlindin: In year one, we had no idea who was providing security or where we were rehearsing as we flew into Iraq. It’s a last minute culture, so we were given the Palace of Arts by local government contacts on arrival, who also supplied us with local Peshmerga soldiers, the Kurdistan Region’s own army. These were burly young men in uniform patrolling the building and its surroundings with AK-47s. It became a ritual of our bassoon tutors over the years to get photographed holding the weapons. I guess there’s not much difference between a bassoon and a Kalashnikov, on some deep level.

SBO: How much of a realistic concern was safety? 

PM: Safety is priority number one. You can’t concentrate on learning music unless you have the basics in place. Choosing a Kurdish town in the north to hold the course was sensible for the Kurdish Iraqi players, but could mean a long and potentially dangerous journey from Baghdad for the Arab players. Because the Kurdistan region of Iraq is much safer than the rest, this was a logical location for the course.

Once we’d all started to relax into a routine, we began to get to know each other and the town of Suleymaniyah, which was a heartwarming and lovely experience. We were very fortunate to begin our life there.

SBO: Would you talk about the process of recruiting players?

PM: The musicians hear about NYOI through Facebook ( and word of mouth. Auditions have to be done by YouTube. I needed to know what standard the players were at, so I could choose suitable repertoire, and obviously, I couldn’t take on everyone. There are no course fees, so the players have to be fully financed by the project.

Auditions by YouTube were very difficult because Iraq’s infrastructure had been shattered by the war, and wireless capacity was just beginning to be set up. Uploading five minutes of video could take 10 hours, and if there were a power cut, you’d have to start all over again.

SBO: What were your initial expectations, musically?

PM: I had few expectations coming in. I was very clear what I wanted to do in that first two-week course in 2009, but I had no idea how this would work in reality. The repertoire was Haydn’s “Symphony No. 99” and Beethoven’s “Prometheus Overture.” I also had a pile of shorter, easier pieces, which I would weave into rehearsals in week one as I got a feel for how [the students] were progressing. There was a lot of ducking and diving, but we pulled together a final concert that the audience was pretty surprised and delighted at. I loved that they burst into applause, not just after every movement, but wherever there were two or three beats rest in the Haydn. This was hilarious fun, and made the whole relationship with the audience come to life.

SBO: What sorts of musical backgrounds do the players in the NYOI have?

PM: Many of the players have no formal teaching, and those with teachers are often not instilled with a pedagogy, or sometimes sabotaged by older players who try to quash their talent, as a threat to themselves. My tutor team agrees that those without teachers are generally better off than those with. There is no exam system, and players coming from certain districts of Baghdad or Kirkuk have to be careful how loud they play in case they get their families into trouble from local fundamentalist authorities.

There are Institutes of the Fine Arts around the country, so the foundations are there, and they provide what support they can. Some of my less financially well-off players have been given their first instrument through such organizations, but then often there is only the Internet to download from for further study. Classical music is seen as a basic educational necessity regardless of whether you play classical or Iraqi music. This takes young musicians up to a lower intermediate level, especially in terms of reading music and playing the more popular instruments such as violin. Many of the NYOI players know how to play Iraqi music, but don’t tell me, as they see their own traditions as being somehow less significant. This is why every program we do features an Arab and Kurdish Iraqi orchestral composition. Violinists and clarinetists are the most versatile, as they can alter their tuning with a good degree of control and play traditional Iraqi Maq’ams.

SBO: How would you describe the experience of working with students from conflicting ethnic backgrounds and across different languages?

PM: Back in 2009, the Kurdish/Arab/English tutor divide was obvious in week one, as people would simply not speak to each other outside rehearsal. Given that the Kurds don’t speak Arabic and the Arabs don’t speak Kurdish and only half the orchestra could get by in English, this is not surprising. But once we had a birthday party, and discovered what an irrepressible bunch of party animals we all were, the ice broke and everyone hunkered down with new determination to make the concert happen. Music and party are the two common languages of NYOI.

SBO: Could you elaborate on that birthday party? How did that come together?

PM: It was the Friday at the end of week one, and we were all in an Iranian restaurant that we’d booked to feed the orchestra during our stay. We’d all started sitting at our usual tables outside on the lawn, defined by language, Kurds, Arabs, English speakers. A birthday cake for Boran Aziz, a highly talented young pianist, appeared for her 18th birthday, on that day. After singing “Happy Birthday,” a violinist and Daff player struck up a tune and we started dancing around in a circle. All the differences melted away and we realised how keen we were to let go and have a good time. Now, every year, someone brings along a Daff, which is an Ottoman drum, and someone else will start playing a local melody on violin or clarinet, two very common folk instruments in Iraq, and we’ll all spontaneously start dancing, non-stop for hours on end. And without a single drop of alcohol. I think this first party made everyone feel they could have permission to be young, joyful, and silly while still taking music seriously.

SBO: How would you describe the strategy for getting the NYOI off the ground, and then developing growth?

PM: I think that first year worked with sheer guts and determination. The past four years have been blood, sweat and tears, especially for me, but there really is no other way of setting something like this up for sustainability. Although the orchestra intake is better each year, there are still fundamental problems of listening, musicianship, and technique that our tutor team – one per instrument – try their best to iron out in our brief annual courses, but this cannot replace the years of neglect that these young people have experienced.

Our strategy is to become diplomats, showing a more positive, united face to the world than it has seen so far, and to reach out to other youth orchestras. Last year, we collaborated with the German Youth Orchestra, Bundesjugendorchester, and this year with Edinburgh Youth Orchestra. Next year will be with the French Orchestre Francais des Jeunes in Aix en Provence. Our values, chosen in a players’ workshop in 2009, are love, commitment and respect.

SBO: What do you mean by “values” for the ensemble?

PM: In 2009, I ran a mission and values workshop with the players, because I needed to know who they were and what they wanted out of this orchestra for the coming years. We asked them to write down anonymously, on pieces of paper, what qualities they valued in themselves, in music, in the youth orchestra, and if they were to run their own youth orchestra, what values would be its foundation. The most common answers were love, commitment, and respect, along with hard work, love of Iraq, and peace clustering around them. So that gave me as good a mandate as possible for how the players themselves saw the orchestra.

In practice, as with any value system, this can be hard to live up to, but at least it’s there to refer to, and for everyone to remind themselves what NYOI is about. These are very broad and solid foundations that create a standard of behavior towards each other, especially through hard times.

SBO: How has the course of study and performance for the NYOI evolved since its inception?

PM: The 2009 and ‘10 courses were two weeks of rehearsal in Iraq and one concert. The 2011 course was two weeks in Iraq and one concert, then two more weeks in Bonn, a workshop concert in Berlin, two kids’ concerts and one final concert in Beethovenfest. This year, the whole course was in Edinburgh for 3 weeks, with concerts in Glasgow, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and London Queen Elisabeth Hall. We’re still trying to create the ideal formula for working.

SBO: Do I understand this correctly then, that in some respects the NYOI is as much an advanced music education training program as it is a select performance ensemble? 

PM: Yes. It has to be a musical boot camp to skill-up the players and get them through the course and final performance, as there really isn’t much of a music educational infrastructure to support them in Iraq. Those that make it through the auditions are largely self-taught.

SBO: Have you had the same musicians participating from year to year? 

PM: We run annual auditions, just like every other national youth orchestra. The best applicants from each year get in, subject to available places. I reckon about a quarter have been in since the start. The short-term goal is to put on a concert at the end of each course. The long-term goal is to train as many talented young Iraqis as possible so that they will return to Iraq with better teaching ideas and more motivation to start their own ensembles and chamber orchestras, and this is already happening. In that sense, the viral effect of good quality teaching influences Iraqi music making by stealth over the long term future. That we’ve made it through the first four years is a miracle, but it’s the deep impact over the next 25 years that we’re thinking about, as well. We can’t guarantee that there’ll be a musical infrastructure for the future, but we can change the way music education is perceived, one player at a time, and give them a strong feeling of success and achievement.

After four years of getting this baby organization on its feet, we now have rolling interest from various embassies, countries, festivals, and this is all we can do to make sure it has a sustainable future. The orchestra is a paradox from top to bottom, and like all good paradoxes, it works because, and not in spite of, it’s apparent contradictions.

SBO: The “orchestra is a paradox from top to bottom”? Could you expand on that? 

PM: The first paradox is why a Scottish conductor based in Germany is doing this. I still don’t really know, other than it still sounds like a great idea, and it’s easy to fall for the young players and want to try and help them.

The second paradox is how a 17-year-old female pianist in Baghdad rallied considerable support in that first year to get NYOI off the ground. Zuhal has a magnetic charm and is furiously intelligent. We’re lucky to have her.

Thirdly, how can a bunch of young people who can’t even speak each other’s language, and have been taught to hate each other, sit down in front of the same music and play beautifully together? Because of the discipline of orchestral playing, we have a very secure and productive framework to come together. Having me and the other foreign tutors there also creates a neutral third space between the Kurds and Arabs through which we can mediate and pour our energy safely.

The fourth paradox is between Arab, Kurdish, and Western musical culture, but this is also a generation who globally switches between cultures more effortlessly and articulately than ever before. It’s a real Generation Y orchestra, with a high awareness of music outside Iraq through the Internet. Taking a very conservative format, the orchestra, and fitting it into a very conservative country within this globally aware context actually fits strangely well.

The final paradox is the most tragic and most important, and that is the suffering of the players themselves. Although there is little evidence on the surface of what they personally have been through, everyone’s family has been affected by gas attacks, invasion, tribal tensions, and war. As young people, this is their normality. That comes out in the sound, which has been borne out of their determination to play through dangerous times, in order to shut out the world around them. It’s a crazy, tense energy, but one which we can convert into joy together.

SBO: In the bigger picture, what do you think this organization represents? 

PM: That’s a huge question. I don’t know really. The organization is a process. It represents a way of teaching and communicating that is kinder, more creative, more loving than what they’ve been used to. This has a stealth impact in Iraq, as people gradually realize what the true potential of these young players is, and it forces older musicians to deal with a highly informed, empowered next generation. The players know how to translate this experience to Iraq in ways I cannot. Diplomatically, we’re looking at an orchestra of Iraqis living in Iraq, all with Iraqi passports, but some people high up cannot let go of the divisions within Iraq, so we deal with some resistance to our symbolic wholeness. There’s another paradox – a national youth orchestra from a nation that doesn’t believe in itself as a whole.

SBO: How does this project differ from other conducting gigs you’ve had?

PM: NYOI will always be a coaching more than a conducting experience for me. Due to lack of experience, the players don’t really know how to watch and play at the same time, and if they do, classical conducting technique doesn’t have much meaning. I adapt my physical communication to be more energetic and direct than with professionals. My verbal communication is very economical, because it also has to be translated into Kurdish and Arabic. There’s a Kurdish and Arab concertmaster sharing every concert, which helps keep a cultural balance. Working with two concertmasters is also a joy, because you’re giving two people leadership experience instead of one, and leadership is a key development goal for when they return to daily Iraqi life. I’d say after four years, we’ve gotten all the lead positions about right.

SBO: How would you describe the impact that this ensemble has had on the musicians, their families, and their communities? 

PM: That’s a huge question. I don’t know where to begin. In short, the average age in Iraq is about 21. Our upper age limit is 29. Therefore NYOI players, who are about 18-25, are really the current generation of music teachers and performers in Iraq. So those who teach, teach better. Some create ensembles like the Kurdistan String Quartet or the Babagoorgoor Chamber Orchestra in Kirkuk, and those who already play in ensembles like the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra or the Kurdish String Orchestra, bring their NYOI experience to the rehearsals and performances.

SBO: Have you faced skepticism about the concept of playing classical music in Iraq?

PM: The first orchestra in the Middle East was the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, founded in Baghdad in 1959. But really, why are we still having this discussion today? The idea that orchestras only belong to the West is something that might have held water 60 years ago, but now, orchestras are a world culture, composers of every background and style are writing for them, and practically every film you see needs one to bring the sound track to life. Even synthetic soundtracks end up imitating them.

Also, the contemporary definition of orchestra is broader than the 19th-century model, with Kurdish and Arab orchestras mixing violins, clarinets, double basses, ouds, nyes, josas up into whatever ensemble does the job of making the music. I’d say that four years on, we’re well on the way to integrating diverse Iraqi voices into the programming, language is no longer a barrier with our superb team of trilingual translators, Kurdish/Arabic/English, and the diversity of individuals, regardless of where they come from, or what they speak, is richer than the anodyne characterless conservatoire playing you now get that churns out perfect and perfectly dull musicians for the global market.

SBO: What sort of potential do you see with this ensemble, both culturally and musically? What are the long-term goals of the NYOI?

PM: The energy, the grist to the mill that we bring to each other and our audiences, is irrepressibly joyful and defiant. It’s really the beginning of a 30-year arc that I can only see bringing good things to the people of Iraq. Iraq is so focused on rebuilding and attempting to maintain it’s fragile democracy that culture is pretty low down on the list of priorities.

And yet, for a post-war country as fragile as this one, I wonder who else but organizations like the NYOI is going to keep it from falling apart? Culture binds us together in common understanding far more powerfully than infrastructure. As Iraqis soul-search for a new identity, music will play its part. Let’s not forget that the 21st century will not be shaped by the West, but by other cultures who are comfortable with paradox and see answers in apparent conflicts that we, with our linear thinking, don’t understand.

SBO: What particular lessons have you taken away from this experience?

PM: The lesson for me is to enter into as many challenges as possible in order to help others grow, because the most important resource I have for getting the best out of people isn’t talent, but compassion.


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