Composer Malek Jandali Considers Syria's Civil War, A Decade On

Mar 27, 2021

Composer and classical pianist Malek Jandali was raised in Homs, Syria, where he was visiting his family in 2011. During that trip, Jandali was first electrified by street protests challenging the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, both in his hometown and across the country. He composed a simple song in reaction to it, called "I Am My Homeland."

Jandali's first public performance of the song was in Washington, D.C., at a march in support of Syrian protesters. "My love for you is fire in my heart, When am I gonna see you free," Jandali quotes from the song's lyrics. "That word, 'free,' was the troublemaker," the composer laughs. "I Am My Homeland," or "Watani Anna," became kind of an anthem for the revolt. Jandali once received a letter from a woman in prison, who wrote that she was singing the song before a torture session. "Oh my god, my music entered the prison but it wasn't a prisoner!" he says.

Days after that D.C. performance, Jandali's elderly parents were viciously beaten; images of his mother's black eye and her broken teeth surfaced on social media. "I never, ever realized in my life how powerful music is — until I saw the horrific images of my parents," he recalls.

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Jandali has recorded 10 albums since the war began. He's become known for politically charged videos; in one, he plays the piano as his house burns — the fire set by men in gas masks and uniforms. He's also known for blending the sounds of protest into orchestral works, such as his composition "Yah Allah," which incorporates protest chants heard in his hometown.

Jandali notes that of his region's major contributions include not only the alphabet, but also do, re and mi. The world's oldest musical notations were discovered in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit, from which Jandali was the first to write a symphony based on the long-forgotten works. His latest album, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, returns to familiar themes in a composition called "The Moonlight," which is based on the oldest chant in Islamic culture.

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Music builds bridges, not walls, he says — a message from his elders. "Dear humanity, take it and run. Express more — show us your beauty," he says. "They didn't say, 'Oh, you know what, we are building a wall. And please don't use these scales because these are ours.' They didn't say that!"

Jandali is now a composer in residence at his alma mater, Queens University of Charlotte, in N.C. His parents have also relocated to the U.S. – but, he vows, his next concert will be in Syria. And everyone is invited.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Syrian American composer Malek Jandali makes music that helped inspire the initial protests in the Syrian uprising. That revolt began 10 years ago this month and turned into civil war as the government moved to crush it. Jandali explained to NPR's Deborah Amos how the chants and rhythms of the protest have inspired his work.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: A composer, a classical pianist, now an American citizen, raised in Homs‎, Syria, Malek Jandali was visiting his family in 2011, electrified by street protests that challenged a brutal dictator in his hometown and across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MALEK JANDALI'S "I AM MY HOMELAND")

MALEK JANDALI: And I composed a very simple song. I called it "I Am My Homeland."

AMOS: A simple song he eventually recorded. His first public performance was in Washington, D.C., at a march to support Syrian protesters.

JANDALI: My love for you is fire in my heart. When am I going to see you free? That word free was the troublemaker (laughter).

AMOS: Because days later, his elderly parents were viciously beaten. Images of his mother's black eye and her broken teeth were posted on social media.

JANDALI: I never, ever realized in my life how powerful music is until I saw the horrific images of my parents.

AMOS: "I Am My Homeland," "Watani Ana" became kind of an anthem for the revolt.

JANDALI: A woman wrote me that she was actually singing my tune inside the prison before a torture session. I said, oh, my God. My music entered the prison, but it wasn't a prisoner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

(SOUNDBITE OF MALEK JANDALI'S "YA ALLAH")

AMOS: Jandali has recorded 10 albums since the civil war began. He's known for politically charged videos. In one, he plays the piano as his house burns, the fire set by men in gas masks and uniforms. He's also known for blending the notes of protest into orchestral works. His composition "Ya Allah" uses chants heard in his hometown.

JANDALI: And what did they chant? Oh, God. You are our only savior. (Singing in non-English language).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA ALLAH")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

AMOS: In 10 years of war, the Syrian government has crushed the revolt and retaken most of the country, leaving vast destruction and displacement. Jandali focuses his art on loss and deep historical themes in concerts from Toronto to Moscow to Carnegie Hall.

JANDALI: My civilization invented not only the alphabet but the musical notes, the do re mi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

JANDALI: That was our contribution to humanity.

AMOS: The world's oldest musical notations were discovered in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit. Jandali arranged the first symphony based on those findings. His latest album, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, returns to familiar themes in a composition called "The Moonlight."

JANDALI: "The Moonlight" is based on the oldest chant in Islamic culture. (Singing in non-English language).

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

JANDALI: And I just did it like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MALEK JANDALI'S "THE MOONLIGHT")

AMOS: He writes to show how connected we all are. Music builds bridges not walls, he says, a message from his elders, who wrote down the first notes more than 3,000 years ago.

JANDALI: Dear, humanity, take it and run. Express more. Show us your beauty. And they didn't say, oh, you know what? You're not allowed. We're building a wall. And please don't use these skills because these are out. They didn't say that (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MALEK JANDALI'S "THE MOONLIGHT")

JANDALI: This is where we have Beethoven. We have Lady Gaga, and we are having today's music.

AMOS: Malek Jandali's music. He's now a composer in residence at his alma mater, Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. His parents relocated to the U.S. He vows that his next concert will be in Syria, and everyone is invited. But he cannot say how long that will take.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MALEK JANDALI'S "THE MOONLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.