Daily Bow: Iraqi Musician Adapts El Sistema for Iraq’s Orphans

Daily Bow LogoAs Iraq works to rebuild and remake itself after many war-torn decades, it’s hard to imagine that much outside the difficult business of rebuilding a government and infrastructure would be a matter of concern. But for Karim Wasfi, former conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, the business of building a better life for the nation’s many orphans is just as important. Wasfi launched an ambitious new project in his home country in 2007, one that seeks to train orphaned children in classical music. Founded on the now-legendary Venezuelan system called, fittingly, “El Sistema,” Wasfi’s project aims to advocate for what he calls “a segment [of society] which is badly and unjustly treated by circumstances.” Five years into his project, Wasfi’s vision is transforming the lives of children who would otherwise have no opportunities and no one to advocate for them.

Venezuela’s El Sistema was founded in mid-1970s by Jose Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan pianist, politician and economics professor, and since then it has trained thousands of youths to play in orchestras, often attracting the volunteer students from some of the toughest and least privileged strata of society. Since founding the Wasfi House of Music in 2007, Wasfi has sought to help children in Iraq in similar situations, looking to attract attention from orphans by distributing t-shirts and hats. Many of the children with whom Wasfi now works lost one or both parents in the bomb attacks that ravaged the nation after the hall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The children, after being introduced to the various instruments, receive instruction in both Western and Eastern instruments and music, but the school, as befits a school emulating the legacy of El Sistema, emphasizes the classical tradition and ensemble playing. Says Wasfi, “We offer them space, musical instruments, classes, lectures and accommodation at the center free of charge. They will be safe and protected and at the same time they will receive knowledge free of charge in order to give them a chance to add a new side to their lives, a practical and a professional one, which can benefit them in the future. And at the same time they are forming an orchestra, which can perform at the same places where they used to beg.”

Wasfi’s hopes are twofold: to improve the quality of life and opportunity afforded these orphaned children in Iraq and to strengthen the tradition of classical music in Iraq. The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, of which Wasfi was formerly a conductor, was founded in 1948 but recently had a very close brush with collapse after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led forces. The INSO managed to survive and is making a strong comeback, with its membership up to 90 musicians as of 2010 from 52 in 2005. As the violence is generally decreasing in Iraq, Wasfi hopes that the ranks of the orchestra will be bolstered by exiled musicians returning home after the wars. With this mix of the old and new, Wasfi envisions a secure future for not only music in Iraq, but musicians, too.

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