The Iraqi National Symphony Comes Out Of Hiding

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Iraqi National Symphony i

Karim Wasfi conducts the Iraqi National Symphony, with American Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner on piano. Susannah George/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Susannah George/NPR
Iraqi National Symphony

Karim Wasfi conducts the Iraqi National Symphony, with American Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner on piano.

Susannah George/NPR

Hear Music From The Live Performance

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The Iraqi National Symphony is slowly making a comeback, and the symphony's conductor, Karim Wasfi, is the driving force behind it. He says that as Iraqis wait for their leaders to form a new government, music is more important than ever.

"We are a bridge of civilizations," Wasfi says. "We fill the gaps that were created due to the political instability."

Wasfi has been with the symphony for the past 25 years. He began as a cellist, and in 2005 — when the country was reeling from brutal sectarian violence — he became its conductor. The symphony practiced throughout the U.S.-led invasion and the violence that followed, but it wasn't easy.

Pianist Ahmed Mahmood says he remembers when the lack of security made it difficult for musicians to get to practice. Islamic militants enforcing an extremist interpretation of Islam that bans all music threatened musicians seen carrying instruments. Mahmood says the performers would hide their instruments in their cars when traveling to and from practice. Those who didn't have cars were forced to conceal violins and trumpets in plastic shopping bags.

The Show Must Go On

Nowadays, the musicians carry their instruments openly, and the orchestra has grown to 90 members. At the height of the violence, membership was nearly half that. With improved security, the orchestra can practice and perform regularly.

The orchestra's most recent performance featured a special guest: pianist Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner, a 13-year-old American prodigy who has performed around the world. Werner says he jumped at the chance to play in Iraq. Once he arrived, he says he was instantly impressed by the trials and tribulations the Iraqi musicians had to endure.

"It takes a lot of courage, the fact that they are willing to risk their lives and risk their safety to just come together and play this music. ... I think it's amazing," Werner says.

Although the event was open to the public, it was held inside Baghdad's highly fortified green zone — a convenient location for U.S. Embassy staff and Iraqi politicians. But for Iraqis who live outside its walls, getting inside meant running an obstacle course of security checks.

Wasfi says the location wasn't ideal, but adds that he rarely allows logistical hurdles to keep his symphony from an opportunity to perform.

"The way to fight back is to function," he says. "If I decided to stop rehearsal because of a delay or because of an explosion, then I think I'm not giving back properly to the nation — or to society or to humanity."

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