Zuhal Sultan, a musician with a heart

Pianist and percussionist Zuhal Sultan from Bagdad has been living in Notting Hill while she prepares to go to northern Iraq to lead a programme of  music therapy for 6 – 14 year olds held in two refugee camps, one for Syrians fleeing the war and another for people displaced by ISIS. Sultan, just 25, is the founder and artistic director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, UNESCO’s Young Artist for Intercultural Dialogue and also a British Council Global Changemaker. For her mission back to Iraq next week she has prepared music scores and she will spend the first 14 days guiding the refugee children to trace and explore their feelings through music. “Music induces feeling for the people listening or watching,” she explains. The children will listen to classical music which echoes nature, like Debussy’s La Mer  youtube to try to see what that moving water would look like. In the third week, the children will start with woodwind instruments borrowed from local musicians and she hopes to keep the programme going by using local people. Music can bring happiness, is unifying and the effect of music in improving lives of disadvantaged youth living in war-torn areas has been demonstrated by other projects around the world.

Funded by one-time Guns N’ Roses manager Merck Mercuriadis and with support from the We Are Family Foundation’s Nile Rodgers and Nancy Hunt. Sultan says: “I was heavily involved with the UN and with all the crises with refugees, I want to do something now, I don’t feel comfortable watching and not doing anything, so I just did it. I figured the most logical place was to go back to northern Iraq, because of the orchestra I played in there.”
majid_350_001Sultan learnt to play on a toy piano. “I would listen to music on the radio or TV and I would play. My mother heard me and thought I might have a musical ear.” After a few years of private tuition she joined the Music and Ballet school of Bagdad when she was nine. Set up in 60s, it was the first music school in the Middle East. Then in 2003, when Zuhal was just 15, war broke out. The school was bombed, crushing much of the building and the instruments were destroyed (pic right, with bombed Steinway), and so was the music library, which burnt down. “We got used to the reality of living in those circumstances and it became part of life,” she says.
At one point during our conversation the boiler rumbled, and I saw Sultan flinch. Yes, she admitted, she was now very sensitive to sudden sounds. As the war progressed and with bombs relentlessly raining down, teachers began to leave Iraq. “In general the country has had a massive brain drain, especially the cultural institutions and so we were self taught. People would give music to the music library,” Sultan says. “We developed good sight reading as that was the only way we could play new music and teach ourselves. I was able to join the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra when I was 15.”
Having already lost her father, who was murdered when she was 11, as the civil war went on into 2005 her mother, a scientist working at the National Laboratory suddenly died. Both parents had spent time studying in the UK, her father doing a Ph.D at Kings and her mother a Ph.D at Sheffield and had taught Sultan fluent English, which allowed her to talk with visiting journalists and people from NGOs who would eventually help her and her fellow musicians. During the war they held concerts by word of mouth. “People would show up and some became very emotional. One lady was crying and saying she couldn’t believe she was listening to classical music while bombs were going off. She said it was giving her hope. When you look at the maps of the bombing its a miracle anyone survived,” says Sultan.
She was made a British Council Global Changemaker in 2008 and joined people from all over the world who had projects tackling poverty. Sultan was flown out of the war zone to play solo concerts, for the Iraqi cultural week in London, for UNESCO in Paris and after each concert, shockingly, she was returned to the war zone of Bagdad.
When she was only 17 she set up the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, and they mostly played in Kurdistan in the north of Iraq where it was safer and they flew in tutors, paid for by the British Council and online crowdfunding. Money was sent by people all over the world. Barham Salih, at that time deputy prime minister, donated US$50,000 after Sultan emailed him for help. The youth orchestra did auditions via You Tube, and played at the Beethoven Fest in Bonn, at the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall, in Edinburgh and Aix en Provence. Because of her amazing work Sultan was designated as a Global Teen Leader by the We are Family Foundation in 2011. Everything temporarily unravelled for the orchestra in 2014. The growing orchestra was due to go to the US but the ISIS offensive caused all visas to be cancelled. The rise of ISIS means is no longer safe for the orchestra to play, and in any case the musicians have been displaced by ISIS. Sultan left Iraq then, and has spent seven years in Scotland staying with her doctor brother and studying law before she returns next week to try to help through her music. What a truly brave woman. Lucky us to have her in Notting Hill NYO.IRAQ
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