Pianist Malek Jandali on the Soft Power of Music and the Syrian Revolution

[ 0 ] March 27, 2014

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary, on MARCH 30, 2014:   

Malek Jandali's very last concert he gave in Homs; before the revolution started.  At the beautiful and historic St. Elian Church, which has since been completely destroyed by the Assad regime's bombardment of Homs.

Malek Jandali’s very last concert he gave in Homs; before the revolution started. At the beautiful and historic St. Elian Church, which has since been completely destroyed by the Assad regime’s bombardment of Homs.

“After three years of conflict and turmoil, Syria is now one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a child,” notes UNICEF in a new report.

More than 10,000 children have been killed since the revolution began, and nearly 3 million have been displaced inside Syria, while 1.2 million are living as refugees outside the country.

Syrian-American pianist, composer and human rights activist Malek Jandali, who grew up in the now war-ravaged city of Homs, performed a benefit concert thursday night at Duke to help these suffering children — together with Duke Arabic & Arabic Music Instructor Azeddine Chergui on our, and Jonathan Kramer (NCSU and Duke) on cello. Duke choral students joined the stage to sing two Syria anthems.

“The Voice of the Free Syrian Children” concert was part of Jandali’s world tour and the opening event for this year’s Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies Annual Conference   — Arts of Revolution — that featured artists from Baghdad, Libya, Turkey, Qatar, and Bahrain. Jandali spoke sabot the soft power of music and art in the Syrian revolution as part of a conference panel on Friday.

In collaboration with organizations including UNICEF and Life USA, Jandali has dedicated his performances to these children who have lost their childhood and their hopes. Duke’s Muslim Student Association collected donations from a long line of attendees following his Duke performance Thursday night.

Jandali is no stranger to North Carolina. He received a full music scholarship to North Carolina School of the Arts and graduated from Queens University in Charlotte where he received the 1997 “Outstanding Musical Performer Award.” He then went on to earn an MBA from UNC Charlotte.  Jandali also held the position of music director and organist at St. James Catholic Church in Concord, N.C., for about a decade, beginning in the late 1990s. When not on tour, Jandali, 41, makes his home in Atlanta and New York.

Last week I had the chance to do a short interview Jandali — who became a US citizen while living in North Carolina — about his roots, his music and his activism.


Tell me about your early life? Where were you born? Where did you grow up and did you have a happy childhood?  What did you enjoy about growing up in Syria?

I was born in Germany, and spent the first few years of my life there. My early childhood in Germany was a great experience.  I learned so much about that culture, music and tradition. My family decided to move back home to Syria when I was about 5 years old so we could be closer to our extended family. I grew up surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents – it was a wonderful childhood and I have many happy memories of my youth in Homs.

I used to travel weekly from Homs to Damascus for my one-hour piano lesson, since there wasn’t a music academy in Homs. That was quite an adventure for a young boy, and I developed many friendships during those trips. After high school, I moved to Damascus to pursue higher education in music. I quickly learned that the cronyism and oppression of the Assad dictatorship reached every level of society, even into the music academy.

Malek Jandali's First Piano Recital; in 1982 in Homs.

Malek Jandali’s First Piano Recital; in 1982 in Homs.

When did you start composing music?

I have been composing music since I was young and had my first piano concert at the age of 8 in my hometown, Homs.

Why did you come to the United States?

In 1994, I was awarded a full scholarship to study music in the United States. Attending university here in the US was a real eye-opener for me, and planted the seeds of what would later become my belief in the soft-power of music to make a positive difference in the world.

Do you still have friends and family in Syria?

I still have family and friends in Syria, and try to communicate with them as often as possible. Many of my friends were detained by Assad forces, questioned and tortured for their participation in the revolution.


Malek with paralyzed child in Syria; during a visit in 2012.

Malek with a paralyzed child in Syria; during a visit in 2012.

Was your response to the crisis in your homeland in Syria your first experience with humanitarian activism? What spurred you to action?

When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a duty. The rise of the Arab Spring was a pivotal time for me. It awakened in me a longing to be able to live in my homeland as a free artist – someone who could express himself without fear of recrimination. When my fellow Syrians started rallying peacefully in the streets, I felt the duty to stand with them and support them in any way I could.

A group of 10-15 year old schoolboys in the city of Daraa started the peaceful Syrian revolution by drawing and writing slogans for peace and freedom. These innocent, courageous children faced the most brutal response from the Assad dictatorship. They were kidnapped and tortured.  As of today, the death toll of children has reached more than 10,000, according to UNICEF.  I personally believe that the number is much higher, since the Assad mafia has banned journalists and human rights organizations from entering Syria and exposing the facts on the ground.

Why was it important to you that you speak out (publicly), and how did this affect your family?

I felt it was my duty and obligation as an artist to speak out and attempt to be the voice of the free Syrian children in their noble quest for freedom and peace. Less than 72 hours after my 2011 performance of “Watani Ana – I Am My Homeland” in Washington DC in front of the White House, my elderly parents were brutally attacked in their home in Syria by Assad regime thugs. They wanted to intimidate and terrorize me into silence. What happened to my parents was horrific, but it only made me more determined to stand against oppression and dictatorship in the world. (his parents now live in the US)

I felt that I had to use the freedoms I have as an American Syrian artist to stand with the brave people of Syria, who are only demanding the same freedoms we enjoy here.

My current project is “The Voice of the Free Syrian Children.” (inc. US dates in Detroit, New Jersey, New York, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and Durham, plus Croatia, Spain, Canada, Sweden, and Germany) Just last week, we had the incredible and historic privilege of presenting “The Voice of the Free Syrian Children” at the United Nations headquarters, where the attending ambassadors and guests joined together in a moment of silence to honor the Syrian victims. This world tour is my attempt to tell the story of these amazing children and unite our efforts to do whatever it takes to save a child.


When was the last time you were in Syria? What inspires you about your homeland? 

In October 2012, I was able to cross the border to meet the children inside Syria.  I visited the camps for the internally displaced and witnessed Syrians living in the most atrocious conditions. Even with everything they had lost and had been through, their hope, optimism and determination were incredible.  The fearless children I met there were the inspiration for my album “Emessa – Homs”.

The rich heritage of Syria was the driving force behind my previous project “Echoes from Ugarit,” which is based on the oldest music notation in the world, discovered in the ancient city of Ugarit, Syria.  When my ancestors were free, they were able to invent the alphabet, music notation and countless other innovations that contributed to the enhancement of all humanity.  I am confident that the Syrian people will overcome the oppression and achieve the freedom, dignity and human rights they deserve.

How do you think this is possible? No one seems to have a solution to the conflict. Are you just hopeful or are you convinced some how that they will overcome ? What has to happen in the world, in order for this to be realized?

This is not just a “conflict,” it is a grass-roots revolution and the solution is to rid Syria of the Assad dictatorship and hold them accountable for their crimes against humanity —  they must be brought to justice. The Syrian people have proven that they are committed and dedicated to the revolution and their legitimate demands of freedom, democracy and human rights.




I understand there is a campaign to make one of your compositions into a new national anthem for Syria? Why does Syria need a new anthem and what is your composition about?

I have heard about this campaign, and am nothing but humbled by it.  If the Syrian people choose to make “Syria – Anthem of the Free” the new national anthem, it would be the most incredible honor.  I felt it was time to compose a truly Syrian anthem; one that describes the hopes, dreams and optimism of the brave Syrian people, as well as pays homage to our illustrious past and the contributions that our culture has made to civilization. It is just my small way of thanking the Syrian people for their steadfastness in the face of the terrible atrocities being committed against them, and striving to be a beacon of hope and encouragement for the bright future we all envision– for a free, united Syria.

All proceeds from the sale of “Syria – Anthem of the Free” will be donated to humanitarian aid for the Syrian children, who are facing the largest humanitarian catastrophe in modern history.


You were music director and organist at St. James Catholic Church in Concord, N.C., for about a decade, beginning in the late 1990s.  You are an avid composer. How important is building bridges of religious harmony to you? 

It is very important, and actually an essential means to understand each other.  Too many people try to use religion as a means to separate themselves from others – where in fact, we have more in common than we realize! I always felt welcomed in the St. James family. I was proud to build bridges of religious harmony between my Muslim faith and the community at large. It was a wonderful experience for me.  Music has the ability to cross socio-political and religious boundaries, right into the human heart.


I am my homeland, and my homeland is me
The fire in my heart burns with love for you
Oh my homeland, when will I see you free

When the sun of virtue rises in your sky
When the pen writes of loyalty and love

When the land is watered with the blood of martyrs and the brave
And all people shout: Freedom to mankind! Freedom to mankind

Oh my homeland, cradle of humanity
From which the light of civilizations spread

The birthplace of prophets
The resting place of martyrs

We pray to the heavenly God 
To lift calamities from my country, my people and all mankind 

وطني أنا وأنا وطني

حبُك نارٌ في فؤادي
متى أراك يوماً حراً يا وطني ؟

يومَ تعلو في سماكَ شمسُ الكِرم
وللوفاءِ والحبِ يكتِبُ القلم
يومَ تسقى أرضُكَ من نهرِ القيم
من دمِ الشهيدِ وأصحابِ الهِمم
ويَهتِفُ الشعبُ: حريةَ الأمم حريةَ الأمم

يا بلادي يا مهدَ البشر
نورُ الحضارةِ منها أنتشر
موطِنَ الأنبياء مرقدَ الشهداء
ندعو ربَ السماء أن يزيل البلاء
عن بلادي وأهلي وكلِ البشر


According to notations published by last.fm, “Echoes from Ugarit is much darker and more reflective, taking us back to 3400 B.C. and has some fascinating chord changes. This work is based on the oldest music notation in the world, discovered on clay tablets in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit. These tablets contain a hymn to the moon god’s wife, Nikkal. Although thousands of such tablets were discovered over the years, these very tablets contain words and notation of a song all composed in the same “maqam” or mode (called nid qabli). Further, they contained instructions for a singer accompanied by musicians, as well as instructions on tuning the strings of the harp.

The hymn was arranged into a melancholic piano work preserving its rhythmic structure and building a musical bridge to the past. The scale was modified to the modern D minor.

The following excerpt from the Ugaritic hymn provides us a glimpse into the people, mood and music of this primordial culture. Apparently, the song is a lament, “the plaintive cry of an infertile woman” seeking the answer to her barrenness from the moon goddess, Nikkal.” (SOURCE)

She (the goddess) let the married couples have children,
She let them be born to the fathers
But the begotten will cry out, “She has not borne any child”
Why have not I as a true wife borne children for you?

This article was made possible (in part) by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center — in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies — aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See www.islamicommentary.org/about and www.tirnscholars.org/about for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s). 

Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary. 


LISTEN: Syrian Composer-Turned-Activist Asks Americans for Support (by Jessica Jones for NPR’s Weekend Edition, April 26, 2014)

LISTEN: Syrian Pianist Helps Children in Conflict (WUNC’s The State of Things on March 27, 2014)

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