“We need freedom for true art”: Interview with Syrian pianist Malek Jandali
When Syrians took to the streets in March 2011, they rebelled not only against the ruling Assad family, but also against the obscurantism that had been imposed on them for decades. Art as a whole, and music in particular, have played a crucial role in the paradigm shift that has accompanied the revolution, as Syrians discover their voices for the first time.
Syria Untold spoke to renowned composer and pianist Malek Jandali about the emergence of new forms of art and music in Syria. Jandali, who composed the song “Watani Ana” (My Homeland) at the start of the revolution, told us what he considers to be his personal contribution to his country: Music for freedom and justice, music for a new Syria.
Syria Anthem of the Free
Jandali’s latest work, a song called “Syria Anthem of the Free,” is something he described as “an anthem by the people, for the people.” He collaborated with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra and the Cairo Opera House Choir to produce the song, as he thought Syrians deserved an anthem that represented the people.
The anthem tells the story of the millions of Syrians impacted by the current uprising; the martyrs, the women, the children and the refugees. “There are so many stories, and we artists, especially musicians, are so lucky because we can cut through the social political limits, and geographical boundaries, and go right into humanity, into the hearts of those children,” Jandali said. “We can be the voice, rather than the echo of these kids. Music, as this universal language, can tell the story and put a human face to the sacrifices and the story of those courageous kids.”
The current Syrian national anthem, “Humat al-Diyar” (Guardians of the Homeland), was first adopted in 1938. It was replaced briefly in 1958, when Syria joined the United Arab Republic with Egypt, but has been the symbol of the country since 1961.
Jandali said he did not write “Syria Anthem of the Free” with the intention of it being the new national anthem, but would be honored if the Syrian people chose it to be so. It starts off with the words Syria and freedom, two references missing from the current anthem:
Syria, Syria! Homeland of the free and land of freedom. Syria, Syria! Land of the golden grain
Jandali was born in Germany, but went to school in his home town of Homs. “Every morning, we were forced to chant and memorize regime slogans,” he said, adding that the Assad regime connected the flag, the country and the national anthem to the regime and Assad family,” and that Syria was “Assad’s Syria.” He said he grew up feeling like a hypocrite; praising the Assad dictatorship while at school, and returning home to a family that was against the brutal regime.”
Suppressing art and culture
“[Dictators, in general] are fearful of art and music, because it’s the search for truth and beauty. If I spoke my truth then, I would be killed, tortured or deported,” he said, adding that portraits of dictator Assad are on our stamps, walls and notebooks and in our schools in a way that has colonized Syrian spaces, our culture and even our history.
“Most references in the anthem are to the military. Why don’t we talk about Syrian inventions like the alphabet and music, instead of military forces and war?” Jandali said.
Syria’s coast is home to the world’s oldest music notation, and the Ugaritic alphabet, which is thought to the civilization’s first alphabet. But instead of paying homage to the country’s rich history, the national anthem begins with a reference to the military, the “guardians of the homeland.” Ironically, the Syrian Arab Army, in reality the Assad thugs, has been the cause of the destruction of my homeland Syria and committing war crimes against humanity over the last 29 months. More than 185 thousand civilians have been kills, over 6 million refugees inside Syria and million outside Syria and the entire world is watching!”
Two years ago, Jandali produced an album called “Echoes from Ugarit,” in an attempt to bring back to life Syria’s forgotten music. He returned to his home country after an absence of ten years and presented the project to the Ministry of Culture and the Syrian Symphony Orchestra, but was met with rejection. Jandali said he eventually was forced to to go to the Presidential Palace to seek permission.
“It took about eight months to get security clearance and all the approvals to perform Syrian music in Syria,” he said. “That shows how corrupt the system is, how they forced expats like you and me to be demonized or disrespected.”
Because his performance went against the wishes of the Ministry of Culture and the symphony, Jandali said they accused him of being a spy. “They wanted to keep me from being involved in such projects in the future. They were fearful of knowledge and fearful of exposing the truth.”
The musician feels that it is not only Syria that has suppressed the expression of art; rather, the entire Arab world has. He gave the example of the Suez Canal in Egypt and the commissioning Italian composer Verdi for an opera “Aida” for the opening ceremony. “Why didn’t we have an Arabic opera composed by an Arab musician to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal? Didn’t our ancestors invent music?” he said.
“That’s insulting as an Arab musician,” he said. “Where are our symphonies, our operas? We are the inventors and yet we don’t have a voice.”
A new generation of Syrian artists
Jandali said dictators fear the soft powers that can transform people’s mind, which is why they target artists and intellectuals. He has personally suffered this persecution. Though he left the country years ago, regime forces have repeatedly ransacked his Syrian home and severely beat his parents in retaliation to his anti-regime activity. But the revolution has allowed for the birth of a generation of artists, breaking away from the decades of official propaganda present in art production.
“That was not art,” Jandali asserted. “You need freedom to produce. You need freedom for true art, for knowledge and culture, for innovation and progress. Without freedom, there is nothing.”
All of Jandali’s work since the start of the start of Syrian revolution has been self-funded. He generously donated his time and music to help suffering Syrian children in his benefit concerts worldwide. As the artist wondered, “When are Syrian organizations going to step up and support the very few real Syrian artists who stood with the people in their quest for freedom and human rights?”
The translated lyrics of his latest song, “Syria Anthem of the Free,” are:
Syria, Syria! Homeland of the free and land of freedom
Syria, Syria! Land of the golden grain
Oh my country, cradle of civilizations, Its heritage inspired scribes
Homeland of the honorable, resting place of the martyrs
Our sun shines bright, our eagle soars the highest skies
Oh my country, river of virtues
Its glory is engraved in tablets and stones
Homeland of the Prophets, the alphabet and music
We pray to God, never to part from my country, my family
The olive groves of my grandfathers, and the children’s hands
Land of the free and home of freedom
Syria, Syria! Homeland of the free and land of freedom.