Pianos for Peace: Syrian pianist, composer Malek Jandali

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 27 Jan 2018

Jandali’s upcoming album, The Jasmine Tree - yet another ode to the rich history and beauty of Syrian culture - will be released on 3 February, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Malek Jandali
Malek Jandali, founder of Pianos for Peace. (Photo: Dan Carmody, courtesy of Malek Jandali)

“I was born in Germany but I was lucky to grow up in Syria, with the sounds of church bells, calls to prayer from the minarets, folk songs, oud improvisations and chants of ancient melodies, but I was also listening to live concerts and recordings of the masters of Western classical music…”

Born in 1972, Malek Jandali studied piano at the Arab Institute of Music in Damascus.

His unique talent brought him the first prize at the Syrian National Young Artists Competition (1988) and a scholarship to continue his education at the North Carolina School of the Arts (1995).

His career as a pianist took him to international concert halls, but as a composer Jandali is strongly linked with his homeland and his Arab roots.

This creative marriage is apparent in, among other compositions, Jandali’s Syrian Symphony (2014) album, which features Phoenix in Exile recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, alongside EPs and singles such as Syria — Anthem of the Free (2013), Ya Allah (O God, 2013), or a more recent Piano Quartet, Aleppo, commissioned by the Apollo Chamber Players.

Jandali’s name is not only connected with his worldwide musical achievements, but also with activism calling for peace and freedom of expression. The latter efforts became particularly obvious during the 2011 Arab Spring as it reached the shores of Syria and tragically affected his family in a direct way.

A few days after Jandali had participated in a pro-democracy rally for Syria in front of the White House in Washington — during which he performed the Syrian national anthem and premiered Watani Ana (My Country), with hundreds of attendees singing along in solidarity with the Syrian people — his elderly parents were beaten by the Syrian forces.

The same year, the artist received the 2011 Freedom of Expression Award — from CAIR Los Angeles. This was followed by several other awards such as the GUSI International Peace Prize (2013), the Global Music Humanitarian Award (Los Angeles, 2014), the award of the Great Immigrant “Pride of America” Honoree from the Carnegie Corporation of New York (2015), to name but a few.

To Jandali, music is not only a great art through which he expresses himself but also an important form of soft power he utilises to make the world a better place.

“Art both reflects and shapes the human condition, and my hope is not only to preserve the rich history and beauty of Syrian culture with my compositions, but to engender peace and humanity through the soft power of music,” he says.

In 2015, Jandali coupled his belief in music as soft power with his need to give back by founding Pianos for Peace, a non-profit organisation that aims to build peace through music and education.

“For two weeks every fall, we bring beautifully painted pianos to public parks and streets throughout the city for everyone and anyone to enjoy. As one of the largest public art display projects in the city, Pianos for Peace featured 50 pianos and impacted an estimated one million people this year,” Jandali explains, adding that after the two-week outdoor festival, all Pianos for Peace are donated to local schools, nursing homes, healthcare facilities and community centres where volunteer artists participate in programmes making art accessible to all.

“We serve underserved communities through three major year-round programmes: Public Arts, Music Therapy and Arts Education through strategic partnerships with local and international organisations that share both our vision and mission. I am very proud of this initiative, which makes a positive social impact and makes the arts accessible to all.”

Malek Jandali
Malek Jandali, founder of Pianos for Peace. (Photo: Ed Kashi, courtesy of Malek Jandali)

While growing in size and impact on the music scene, Pianos for Peace has developed numerous partnerships with local and international organisations as well as academic institutions around the world. It contributes to the discovery and support of pianistic talent.

One such project is the Malek Jandali International Youth Piano Competition that was launched in 2014 and which this year was sponsored by Pianos for Peace.

The competition entries are completed online, making it easily accessible to young pianists up to age 18 from all over the world and all walks of life. The contestants have to perform one piece by a composer from their country of origin and one of Jandali’s original piano works, then post their video recordings online.

Last year, the selected work was Eid and in 2018 it will be Andalus. The submissions are then reviewed by a panel of professional judges made up of professors and musicians who evaluate each entry and select the winners.

Jandali explains that the winners then receive a monetary prize with trophies, a complete set of his albums and piano music books as well as their debut at Carnegie Hall.

“The goal is to change the narrative about the piano repertoire and let the next generation of pianists search for the beauty and truth of their cultural identity and cherish it,” Jandali adds proudly.

“I felt the need to embrace the young talents and guide them on their musical journey to launch their career by inviting the winners to New York City to perform at my annual Carnegie Hall concert. It’s my way to give back to the community. We are building organic cultural bridges for these young talents away from traditional methods and institutions by utilising technology and social media outlets along with our partners around the globe. In 2017, we received over 50 submissions from all over the world. Their love for music is evident and their talent is undeniable. It has been amazing to hear music from Tunisia, India, Egypt, Korea, not to mention Poland and Chopin’s one minute waltz by pianist Antoni Kleczek, the grand prize winner this year.”

With many concerts, commissions and projects on his agenda, Jandali’s schedule is full to the brim. He has just completed a successful tour in Australia where he debuted his Syrian Symphony for Peace at the Sydney Opera House, and held academic workshops and master classes.

At the same time, he has been commissioned by Maestra Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to compose a new symphonic work. Titled The Silent Ocean, the composition tells the story of a little Syrian girl who drowned in the sea after she escaped the ravages of war.

Jandali’s upcoming album, The Jasmine Tree, will be released on 3 February, 2018 at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

“This album is very special to me on many levels. It features original chamber music for piano, oud and cello inspired by works of great poets from around the world such as Rūmī, Sarojini Naidu and Pulitzer Prize-winner Natasha Trethewey, integrating the authentic sounds of Arabic maqamat and the ancient music of Syria and the Levant. It is a rich, loving and nostalgic ode to my homeland, and I hope it transports the listeners to the beautiful, ancient cobbled streets of Syria, with the scent of the Jasmine tree wafting through the air.”

While he continues to perform, create and promote peace, Jandali is already working on other commissions, including a number of chambers works, a saxophone quartet, a string quartet, a viola concerto, a violin concerto and other symphonic works for major orchestras and recording projects in the US and Europe.

As his passion for music and life takes him on the most exciting creative journeys, he hopes to set an example to all younger and aspiring musicians.

“Art is about searching for beauty and truth. To be a true artist, you must be free to speak the truth. My advice is simple. Love what you do and do what you love. Be authentic.”

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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