For Syrian pianist Malek Jandali, music is about more than art and entertainment. It is a mechanism for social change, particularly in the context of conflict.
The Syrian musician studied and worked in North Carolina in his youth. At 19, he moved from Syria to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts. On the weekend, he would drive to Concord, North Carolina, to work as the organist for multiple masses at Saint James The Greater Catholic Church. He enjoyed the community of the church and appreciated their acceptance of his Muslim faith. In celebration of December 24th birthday, the congregation would conclude their Christmas Eve service with a singing of "Happy Birthday."
At the dawn of the Arab Spring, Jandali turned from performance to composition and he wrote, "Watani Ana" or "I Am My Homeland." He did not identify his native country. "My citizenship is humanity," he explains.
Jandali performed the piece just outside the White House at Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. The work sparked controversy in the United States and abroad. Seventy-two hours after the performance, Jandali's parents were severely beaten in Homs, Syria. "They handcuffed my dad...They beat my mother in front of him, in her bedroom." he recalls. His parents eventually fled to the United States.
The event was a pivotal moment in Jandali's understanding of the power of the arts. "Across the oceans, here is a piece of music that shook an entire dictatorship," he says. "For the first time I realized the soft power of art. I told myself, 'Art is the reason and music is the way.'"
Jandali returns to North Carolina this evening to perform at the “Voice of the Free Syrian Children” concert at Nelson Music Room on Duke’s East Campus. It is the opening event of this year’s Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies Annual Conference, Arts of Revolution. The event will include a performance of the world's oldest music notation, Ugarit.
Host Frank Stasio talks with Jandali on The State of Things about his art and the struggles of Syrian children in the midst of conflict.