Writer: Raya Jalabi
Classically trained in Damascus and now based in Atlanta, Syrian composer and pianist Malek Jandali takes liberally from his country’s storied past to compose symphonies that highlight the plight of his country’s littlest victims.
“Many artists in the Arab world underestimate what they can do. They think they are too small to make a difference. But I ask you, have you ever spent a night with a mosquito?”
Malek Jandali proffered this philosophical conundrum in our recent interview. As I quickly learned, a conversation with him is rife with thoughtful titbits, evidence that he is forever trying to teach and touch his audience. From ancient Mesopotamian civilisations to Mozart, he is well-versed in a wide array of topics. But it is when speaking of music that his zeal really comes across. After all, Jandali, a composer and classically-trained pianist, has been making waves in recent years with his politically charged and delicately elegiac compositions to his homeland.
Born in Germany to Syrian parents in 1972, Jandali was steeped in music at an early age. He began his musical training around the age of five, when his family returned to Syria. He started with piano lessons in his hometown, Homs, moving on to study at the Arab Conservatory of Music in Damascus, where he won first prize at the National Youth Artists’ competition in 1988. He quickly earned a full scholarship to the U.S., where he studied piano at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Though he later switched to studying composition for his Masters’ degree, he maintained his rigorous piano practice throughout.
Jandali’s music is one of stark contrasts and unlikely combinations. Upon first hearing his music, I was immediately struck by a certain familiarity with the notes. This is perhaps because he borrows liberally from ancient Syrian and Arab traditions and presents them in Western-style symphonic works, rendering certain melodies and phrases recognisable to a Middle-Eastern ear. These juxtapositions of East and West result in exquisite sound.
Take Jandali’s first album, ‘Echoes from Ugarit’. In many ways, it is a perfect embodiment of contrast. The 2008 album was a project born out of the oldest known forms of musical notation, discovered in the ancient city of Ugarit, an ancient port city on the eastern Mediterranean some 10 kilometres north of Latakia in modern-day Syria. Its people are said to have invented musical notation. Jandali created a piece - the album’s namesake song - that incorporates some of Ugarit’s almost 5,000 year-old melodies.
“The album came from my journey in search of beauty and truth,” he tells me. “Even though Ugarit was only 100 kilometres from my hometown, nobody ever taught us that ancient Syrians invented the musical scale, notation and instruments.”
The references to ancient Syria in his album and song titles are evidence of Jandali’s passion for his nation’s history – a passion that seeps into our conversation, demonstrating his sense of Syrian consciousness, over and over. It becomes increasingly obvious that although Jandali lives in Atlanta, his heart remains in Syria.
“I feel I have a duty to present all the wonderful facts about my people,” he says, referencing the myriad musical innovations by Arabs once upon a time, which remain largely forgotten today. “In our region, we always tend to speak in terms of the past – in Ugarit, in Jesus’ time, Abraham’s time, the Phoenicians’ time. And that’s because we don’t have pride in the present. We don’t have freedom.”
Jandali is of course alluding to the ongoing war in his homeland, the result of what he calls the “historic revolution for freedom”. Presumably as a continuation of his sense of duty, the composer has been extremely active politically, lending his support to those “fighting for their and our freedom”.
In his new album, ‘Emessa’, the ancient name for Jandali’s hometown Homs, he includes a song composed in memory of Ibrahim Qashoush - a martyr for the Syrian rebels. A fireman and poet from Hama, whose lyrics were chanted by thousands in public protests, Qashoush was found floating dead in the Orontes in July 2011, his vocal chords ripped out, a violent act committed by alleged Syrian government representatives.
“The revolution has a legend and that legend, at least musically, was Ibrahim Qashoush,” Jandali continues. “Having witnessed the results of his courage, as an artist, the only thing I could do was to take his memory and present it again, through a symphonic work. To pay tribute to him.”
No surprise then, that Jandali has been nicknamed, ‘the musician of the revolution’. It’s a moniker he doesn’t take lightly and he’s constantly touring the world, playing fundraising concerts for UNICEF in some of the greatest concert halls, for the children of Syria. This January, he performed a concert in Kuwait, revenues from which specifically went towards purchasing milk for Syrian children.
Many threats have been made against Jandali and his family as a result of his activism. His elderly parents were severely beaten and threatened with death in Homs after his 2011 song, ‘Watani Ana’ (My Nation) was released. They fled to America, where they now live. But this didn’t deter him from returning a few months ago to spend Eid with some of the Syrian children he helps.
“I knew the dangers and the risks I was taking, but I felt a duty to go inspire those kids, to do my part and be a citizen,” he explains to me, adding that he spent time visiting children in the camps and in hospitals. “I feel like I’m in a position to give them a voice.” He brought back a jar of his Syrian soil with him to Atlanta.
Jandali is now working on a new national anthem, something he feels his country needs. He is also working on a major symphony, inspired by the Syrian revolution, which he records this February. “You know, your life is a message to the world. You just have to make sure that it’s inspiring. My life is a message of music, peace, harmony and hope,” he says, as he digresses once again into another philosophical aside.