The Orchestra for Syrian Musicians with Damon Albarn, Paul Weller and a selection of other guests perform at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Saturday 25 June 2016.Photo by Mark Allan

Review: Orchestra of Syrian Musicians with Damon Albarn & Guests @ Southbank Centre (London, 25th June 2016)

Some events have the gift to happen in the right place and at the right time. Maybe they were planned months in advance, but when they finally occur they give a different meaning or shine a new light on current events. That’s what happened at Southbank Centre on the day following the infamous Brexit referendum. More than 2000 people turned out to the London debut of the new African Express show and reconciled with the reality.

The collaboration between the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians and Damon Albarn began eight years ago. In 2008, before the Syrian Civil War outbreak, the London born and bred musician visited Damascus to perform with the 90-strong local Orchestra in the Opera House. The partnership between the artists continued during the following years. The Syrian performers participated to the third album of Albarn’s side-project Gorillaz, recorded White Flag together and followed the band on its world tour. However, 2011 drastically changed the present and future of the Orchestra. The war forced many Syrians to flee their country and seek refuge abroad. That’s why many members of the Orchestra (some of them are also relatives) had to separate themselves from their families and communities.

After five years, thanks to the help of Africa Express and Albarn, 50 of those musicians had the chance to reunite in Amsterdam and give life to a significant project, which officially debuted on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival on the 24th of June. The Southbank Centre gig was the first indoor performance of the reborn ensemble and even if the Royal Festival Hall lacks part of the sumptuousness of an Opera House, it was more than capable to magnify the emotional drive of the Orchestra.

Despite still needing some improvements and rehearsing, what went on stage was a moving and hard to forget show. If the Syrian musicians honoured their roots performing traditional compositions and folk tunes like “Bayat Samaei” and “Badat”, throughout the two-hour event, there was also time for distant cultures and styles. Middle Eastern music was also celebrated by the exquisite voice and elegance of Lebanese singer Faia Younan, and hip-hop MCs like Bu Kolthoum, Eslam Jawaad and Malikah who interpreted together an imaginative rendition of “White Flag”. Then, the attention moved towards Northern Africa with Mauritanian griot Noura Mint Seymali, uplifting voice of Tunisian Sufi singer Mounir Troudi and bare-faced expressivity of Algerian icon Rachid Taha. While, Malian Bassekou Kouyaté and his ngoni and the kora played by Senegalese Seckou Keita exalted West African sounds performing together “Al Ajahleh”, giving life to inspiring duets with British music stars like Paul Weller and the aforementioned Albarn during “Wild Wood” and “Out of Time”.

The show unavoidably and gloriously came to an end with a grand finale. The more than 70 participants gathered together on stage presenting the chaabi ballad “Ya Rayeh”. Rachid Taha, who included the tune on his second album, introduced it to the audience and invited everyone to stand up, clap their hands and follow the rhythm. No one had to be asked twice and wiggled throughout the song, mimicking the mellow Algerian melody. When the last note faded away, the Orchestra of Syrian musicians was left alone on stage. They had the pleasure to give the last greeting to the Queen Elizabeth Hall performing “Orghneyat Men Baladim”, infusing a bit of Syria into everyone’s heart.