Africa Express Presents… The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians with Damon Albarn and Guests

with Damon Albarn & guests

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The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians is led by conductor Issam Rafea and features current and former members of the Syrian National Orchestra of Arabic Music.

Songwriter and producer Damon Albarn first played with Syrian conductor Issam Rafea and SNOAM musicians at the Damascus Opera House in 2008. Albarn later worked with Rafea and members of the orchestra when they appeared on the Gorillaz track ‘White Flag’ – which debuted at an Africa Express concert in Paris. The musicians, together with Rafea, later joined Gorillaz on their 2010 Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour which included shows at the 11th century Citadel in Damascus, Syria, as well as dates in Lebanon and across Europe and North America.

As a result of the on-going conflict, many Syrian musicians - including Issam Rafea - have been forced to leave the country. This special concert will see musicians who previously worked with Albarn, travelling from both inside and outside Syria, to reunite for an orchestral performance alongside Albarn and other guest performers. The event will highlight and celebrate the remarkable music culture of Syria, providing a more positive perspective than events currently seen in the news.  In addition to the Amsterdam show, Africa Express presents… The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians will play London’ Southbank Centre as well as festival dates across Europe including: Glastonbury, Istanbul and Roskilde Festival.

Paul Weller, Bassekou Kouyaté, Bu Kolthoum, Eslam Jawaad, Faia Younan, Malikah, Mounir Troudi, Noura Mint Seymali, Rachid Taha and TALA who will join Damon Albarn as guests when The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians.

Programme

Background information

In the spotlight tonight are the members of The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, featuring former and current members of the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music (SNOAM). The orchestra will

be joined by performers from Britain and Syria as well as Algeria, Lebanon, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Tunisia and the United States, including Damon Albarn, Bassekou Kouyaté, Bu Kolthoum, Eslam Jawaad, Faia Younan, Malikah, Mounir Troudi, Noura Mint Seymali, Paul Weller, Rachid Taha, Seckou Keita, and TALA for a rare concert to showcase Syrian and Arabic music. 

Albarn first played with Syrian conductor Issam Rafea and SNOAM musicians at the Damascus Opera House in 2008. He later worked with Rafea and members of the orchestra when they appeared on the Gorillaz track White Flag. The musicians, together with Rafea, joined Gorillaz on their 2010 Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour which included shows at the 11th century Citadel in Damascus, Syria, as well as dates in Lebanon and across Europe and North America. 

As a result of the on-going conflict, many Syrian musicians – including Issam Rafea – have been forced to leave their country. This special concert will see musicians who previously worked with Albarn, travelling from both inside and outside Syria, to reunite for an orchestral performance of Arabic music alongside Albarn and the other guest performers. The event will highlight and celebrate the remarkable music culture of Syria, offering an alternative providing a more positive perspective than events currently seen in the news. As well as tonight’s concert in Amsterdam, The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians will open the UK’s high profile Glastonbury Festival, ahead of a show at Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London which will be streamed globally via YouTube; with additional dates also scheduled for Istanbul and Denmark’s Roskilde Festival next week. 

Reunion
The orchestra members have been looking forward to working together again. ‘It’s fantastic Damon Albarn has brought the orchestra back together,’ said Rafea, who is still involved with the orchestra as a muscial advisor. ‘It was his idea – fifty former and current members of the orchestra will join the tour: twenty singers and thirty instrumentalists. It wasn’t straightforward getting so many of us together. A lot of work has been done behind the scenes – Africa Express has laboured tirelessly.’ 

Rafea sees this reunion as more than just a festive occasion. It is a concert for peace in a time of pain and despair: ‘I’m convinced that music can make an effective contribution towards peace. It’s no easy task, but the universal language of music can enable us to communicate openly and with a positive and peaceable attitude with musicians from other parts of the world, in spite of our differences. This is ultimately the core of any meaningful peace – in Syria, too. The orchestra is performing here with an overwhelming sense of sadness, but Syrians have decided life must go on. They don’t give up, however much pain they suffer. They carry on making music, art and theatre, in the hope of a better future. I’m sure that by using all of the energy we have in us we can show a little of Syria as it should be. We hope the situation in Syria as it should be. We hope the situation in Syria soon returns to normal.’

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Festival focus: Edges of Europe

During the first six months of this year the Netherlands holds the Presidency of the European Union. But what is left of the dream of European unity? At the Holland Festival international artists 

present a series of performances focusing on current European issues and exploring this changing continent. The festival’s opening performance by Estonian directors Ene-Liis Semper and Tiit Ojasoo Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander wußten shows the diversity and tensions of modern Europe. And in their film Ash and Money they focus on the phenomenon of political populism. Directors Milo Rau (The Dark Ages), Joël Pommerat (Ça ira (1) Fin de Louis), Wael Shawky (Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala) and Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha delve into Europe’s past, exploring the effect of some of its history’s darkest chapters. From the heart of Europe, the collective God’s Entertainment stages a test about chauvinism, which is causing the European dream of unity to falter. The Dutch theatre company Wunderbaum responds to European issues in its project The New Forest. A large Syrian orchestra for Arabic music will reunite for a special concert in Africa Express Presents… The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians with Damon Albarn and Guests. Artists may not be able to change the world, but they can change the way we look at it.

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Biographies

The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians features current and former members of the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music (SNOAM). SNOAM started life as the Orchestra for Arabic Music, 

 which was founded in 1990 by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, together with the Higher Institute of Music. Issam Rafea, as then chief conductor, completely restructured the orchestra in 2003, professionalising it and giving it its current name. It has performed in Syria, Tunisia, Germany and Italy. The orchestra took part in the Damascus Opera House’s opening ceremony in 2004. As well as performing traditional Arabic music, SNOAM also performs contemporary music based on traditional forms. Whilst traditional Arabic music usually maintains a single melody, SNOAM emphasises harmony as an extra dimension in its performances, while preserving the musical and spiritual identity of the music. SNOAM performs all kinds of traditional Arabic music, for the most part vocal repertoire. The orchestra also performs lesser-known instrumental Arabic music, to which it gives its own interpretation. Adnan Fathallah currently heads the orchestra in Damascus, where it still performs.

Damon Albarn is a Grammy Award winning singer, songwriter, producer and composer whose eclectic musical style and observational lyrics have made him one of the UK’s most influential and consistently interesting musicians. Best known for his work with Blur and Gorillaz, other releases include include: Mali Music (2002) recorded with local musicians in Mali; The Good, The Bad and The Queen (2007) with Paul Simon, Tony Allen and Simon Tong; Kinshasa One Two (2011) by DRC Music – recorded with Western producers and contemporary Congolese musicians in the Democratic Republic of Congo over 5 days in July 2011 to benefit Oxfam; Rocket Juice and The Moon (2012) with Tony Allen and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dr Dee (2012); and the critically acclaimed Africa Express presents… Maison Des Jeunes (2013) which saw Africa Express bring Western artists together with local Malian musicians to make an album in just 5 days. 2014 saw the release of Albarn’s first solo album, the Mercury Award nominated Everyday Robots.

Hailed as the most revolutionary force in popular music for two decades, Africa Express brings together musicians from different cultures, genres and generations to break boundaries and offer a new perspective on Africa and its music. 


Africa Express began in 2006 with a trip to Mali, when co-founder Damon Albarn took the likes of Fatboy Slim, Martha Wainwright and Jamie T to work with African legends such as Toumani Diabate, Salif Keita, Amadou & Mariam and Bassekou Kouyate. This was followed by a trial London event, the now-legendary Glastonbury 2007 show, followed by trips to Nigeria, the Congo, Ethiopia, together with shows in a Liverpool variety hall and at the BBC Electric Proms, as well as for a 25,000 strong crowd in Paris town centre and 50,000 people on a Spanish beach show. In 2012 a week-long train tour of the UK, with more than 100 artists taking part, captured global headlines. 


Each event is unique, based upon on-the-spot collaboration and filled with one-off moments of magic. Past events have included Johnny Marr duelling guitars with Amadou and Mariam; Mick Jones and John Paul Jones among the stars backing Rachid Taha on Rock el Casbah, Peter Hook joining Spoek Mathambo on his cover of Control; and Paul McCartney and John Paul Jones both playing bass with Rokia Traoré, who then joined the former Beatle on Wings track Good Night Tonight at the final show of the Africa Express in September 2012. 

The critically acclaimed album Africa Express presents… Maison Des Jeunes (2013) was recorded in Bamako, Mali over 7 days in October 2013. Africa Express musicians and producers, including Brian Eno, Nick Zinner, Ghostpoet and Damon Albarn, set up a temporary studio in a city youth club and worked with a new wave of contemporary Malian musicians - including Songhoy Blues, Kankou Kouyaté and Bijou - to complete the album in one week. The club, situated on the banks of the Niger river and known locally as Maison Des Jeunes, became the venue for a week of discovery, collaboration, music-making and live performances. The resulting 11-track album captures the spontaneity and excitement of a unique week in a country famed for its musical heritage, yet which saw music briefly banned in much of the nation following 2012’s coup and militant takeover in the north. 

And in January 2015, to mark the 50th anniversary of Terry Riley's pioneering masterpiece In C, Africa Express released the first African version of the minimalist classic, Africa Express presents… Terry Riley's In C Mali. This new version was recorded at the Maison des Jeunes youth club in Bamako, Mali in 2013, led by contemporary conductor André de Ridder. The release followed a performance of the piece, presented by Africa Express and Tate Modern, on the Bride of the Turbine Gallery at Tate Modern, and at the Ruhrtriennale Festival of Arts in Bochum, Germany.

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Credits

performers
Damon Albarn and guests: Bassekou Kouyate, Bu Kolthoum, Eslam Jawaad, Faia Younan, Malikah, Mounir Troudi, Noura Mint Seymali, Paul Weller, Rachid Taha, TALA, Seckou Keita
musicians
Al Mothana Ali, violin
Amer Dahbar, percussion
Badi Rafea, percussion
Emad Moursi, cello
Fajer Alabd Allah, double bass
Feras Charestan, qanoon
Jamal Al Sakka, percussion
Jamil Al Bittar, violin
Jehad Jazba, violin
Joseph Samaan, viola
Khaldoun Al Najjad, viola
Maher Mahmoud, oud
Mazen Hamzeh, percussion
Mhd Majed Jaredeh, violin
Mohamad Amir Karjoli, violin
Mohamad Namik, cello
Moslem Rahal, nai (reed flute)
Mouhamad Souhaib Alsamman, cello
Nawaf Hlal, violin
Rachid Hlal, violin
Raghad Haddad, viola
Razan Kassar, violin
Sousan Eskandar, violin
Tarek Zaidieh, violin
Thaer Eid, viola
Walid Khatba, violin
choir
Abdalhade Deb, Basel Saleh, Hamsa Mounif, Heba Fahmeh, Iyad Hanna, Lina Alshahin, Louna Mohamad, Mais Harb, Mervat Rafiea, Mirna Kassis, Mohamad Saleh, Omran Abo Zainaldin, Osama Al Sultan, Ossamah Kiwan, Raneem Barakat, Reem Rafiea, Samer Jaber, Sanaa Barakat, Tammam Taifour
visuals
Tammam Azzam, Jaber Al Azmeh
musical advise
Issam Rafea
production
Africa Express
co-commissioned by
14-18 NOW,
Holland Festival

This performance was made possible with support by