A Choir of Angels

22 December 2009

Choir of Angels pic22 December 2009

Damascus

Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti. Mi, Fa, So, La Ti, Do... A melodic ensemble of voices escapes through the windows of the Salesian-Italian Theatre into the streets and alleyways of Damascus. It is a chilly winter afternoon but the surprisingly tuneful choir warms up the hearts of every listener, making them feel at home.

Inside, the theatre is packed. Over 200 people follow the concert featuring 27 talented little voices of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestine refugee children aged between 8 and 16 years. All of them have different histories, come from difficult backgrounds and pursue diverse interests, but share one thing in common: their love for music and the happiness it brings to their lives. As Mohammed Shangleh, one of three professors in charge of providing these children with musical education through the Italian Cooperation Office for Development-funded project Musicanto, puts it: "music is life". And the tender smiles of Batoul and Sira are there to prove it.

Sira is seven years old; she is Palestinian and attends Ain-Ghazal UNRWA School in Damascus. Eight-year-old Batoul is Syrian and also attends Ain-Ghazal School. Sira would like to become a doctor when she grows up, and Batoul a teacher. However, both know what they will be doing for sure in the years to come: singing. They have become very good friends since being selected to be part of Musicanto about a year ago. Ever since, they have dutifully attended their weekly music lessons, not only learning about music but understanding it and loving it. As they agree: "music helps to spread happiness to the world". Sira and Batoul perform a solo during the concert, "Teeri, teeri, ya Asfoura". It is one of the most applauded pieces of the night. No wonder it has become their favourite tune.

This is the fourth time the Musicanto choir has performed for a live audience. It took several weeks of rehearsals, and a lot of effort. As the teachers themselves recognise, it is not easy to harmonise so many different voices and styles. The project, which started with the aim of introducing children to culture in order to complement their education, is now finishing its current phase. The most important of its objectives has already been achieved: improving these children’s quality of life by adding music to their lives. Professor Mohammed Shangleh confides: "Iraqi and Palestinian children are sad from the inside and this is a way to change that, to make them happy."

The project was launched and has been implemented in coordination with UNRWA and UNHCR; hence the presence of both Palestine refugee children and Iraqi youth. Ali, a 16-year-old boy from southern Iraq, is as excited as Sira and Batoul and the rest of his 24 peers to be a part of Musicanto, which he defines as a "magical" project. He had to flee Iraq five years ago after some of his family were killed in the civil conflict, and his own father and brothers were kidnapped. All of that is now in the past and there’s nothing more than a bright singing future for Ali, who aspires to follow a music career professionally.

The evening is coming to an end and the emotion among both the spectators and the young artists is evident. The professors and musical directors are very proud, nothing surprising considering the hidden talents of their alumni. The children take their places for the last song of the concert, the conclusion to a year of heavy work and of big dreams come true. "The sound of music" fills the walls of the theatre while tears fill the faces of the families seated in the audience, as the children sing songs about the future, songs of joy and happiness.

Text and photos by Diego Gomez-Pickering