Iraq National Orchestra: And the Band Played On


Massive Hat Tip to Spot-the-Dog, who emailed me this article: I didn’t even know Iraq had an orchestra!

This is a difficult article to excerpt, so you should read the whole thing, but here are a few money quotes to give you a rough idea.

“Karim Wasfi, age 36, arrives driving a white Range Rover and dressed in a blazer, vest and ascot. Sporting aviator shades, his ample form topped by lush black hair, he could be one of the Three Tenors — or a staunchly civilized orchestra director, which is, in fact, what he is. When orchestra directors go around the streets of Baghdad looking exactly as they should, you know that things are bucking up. Except that Mr. Wasfi has held that post at the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra since 2004, through the darkest of times, and he has always looked like this. We set off at speed out of Mansour toward downtown Baghdad listening to Wagner. “The Ride of the Valkyries” to be precise.”

I can’t listen to Ride of the Valkyries anymore without thinking of Apocalypse Now, I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” but it does seem apropos, non?

“In the car, I also listen to the Saint-Saëns requiem and the Mozart requiem — that’s usually the right mood for Baghdad,” says Mr. Wasfi, in his cultivated English…”

OK, that I get.

“At one point, I had to tactfully get a formal religious proclamation from a top cleric that music was not profane.”

Is any more proof required that Islam is evil?

“Mr. Wasfi launches into a bewildering tale. The symphony performed at the Al Rashid theater downtown for years, but soon after the invasion the place was looted and burned. So the orchestra moved to Al Ribat Hall, which was merely vandalized. But it was officially given Al Shaab Hall, which was attacked in ’06 and has been ineffectively repaired twice, while the Convention Center popped open briefly before that deal was rescinded.”

And I think booking my own gigs is a drag.

“”Any of us could find a job abroad,” Mr. Wasfi says. “In fact, I moved my sisters to Sweden — they think I’m crazy to stay. So why stay? To fight back against the malevolent and the ignorant. I like to think that we inspire people — they see us and they see the barbarism everywhere. It gives them a choice: It could be like this, or like this.””

I fucking love this guy!

“The symphony gets a bare minimum of funding. Its parent body is the Culture Ministry, which pays the salaries and little else. Hence the orchestra often survives on single concerts funded by the U.N. or the foreign community.”

Good God, I never thought I’d offer props to the United Nations!

“These days, Mr. Wasfi struggles not merely to keep going but to make gains against adversity. He has organized a quartet to perform all around the city, and he plays the cello wherever he can, sometimes solo, as he did at the Ibn Rushd mental asylum. “I had one chair, and everyone sat on the floor. I played Bach suites, and I improvised. You can imagine what it was like. They were intensely delighted, absolutely grateful. They asked for an extra hour. Of course I sometimes wonder why I do this, until something like that comes along. Then you know that you have to. Most of the time, that’s how I feel about Baghdad.””

Emphasis mine: I really, really love this guy.

In my estimation, there is no greater cultural ambassador that the West has at its disposal than classical music, because everybody with a brain relates to it. Music is both an art and a science: It is the most scientific of the arts, and the most artistic of the sciences – in fact, music was considered a science in the ancient quadrivium – so, naturally, I find this to be outrageously good news.

I’m wondering, though, why the article is only in the conservative WSJ? ~ahem~

Like I said, read the whole thing.

3 Responses to “Iraq National Orchestra: And the Band Played On”

  1. spot_the_dog Says:

    F-ING awesome job, Angus. And I knew you’d like the article and do it more justice than I could have.

    I’ve been a bit under the weather, but I’ve kept waiting for some “big” outlet to pick up on and disseminate that article and the story behind it (it’s been 5 days now) and … [crickets]. … Call me naive, but I was sure that by now we would have heard about this most inspiring example of the strength of the human spirit and the power of music on at least one mainstream outlet?

  2. Angus Dei Says:

    Thanks Spot.

    Re: Pipes. He contradicts himself in every paragraph. Doesn’t seem like a particularly intelligent person, IMO.


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