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Africa Express Presents: The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

The new album from Africa Express & the Syrian National Orchestra is a bold alternative to the images of war torn Syria that flood our media.

It's the penultimate night of Africa Express tour of Europe with former and current members of the Syrian National Orchestra. On stage in Istanbul’s stunning Cemil Topuzlu Open Air Theatre, Julia Holter’s boldly vulnerable voice skips above the soaring orchestral strings and Seckou Keita’s lightly percussive kora playing.


It's a transportive musical tapestry with moving vocal lines from the Syrian choir woven into the background as nay (a traditional Syrian flute) and riq (tambourine) playfully compete for space in the song’s undertow. This recording of Holter’s "Feel You" finds itself halfway through the forthcoming live album Africa Express Presents… The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians & Guests (out December 9th), a hinge holding together 13 recordings of music that re-contextualise and re-invent pop classics like "Blackbird" and "Wild Wood" with a traditional Syrian sensibility.

On that night, tracks such as "Oghneyat Men Baladi" and "Old Damascus" connected with a group of Syrian refugees dancing with white handkerchiefs in the audience. The songs are bold affirmations of what the album stands for, an auditory alternative to the images of war torn Syria that flood our media. An intimate and earnest coming together of sounds, stories and people The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians and Guests offers a balm for what feels like a regressive turn in our modern history.

The tour, which brought together musicians from both inside and outside Syria and artists including Bassekou Kouyaté, Damon Albarn, Mauritanian diva Noura Mint SeymaliFaia Younan, Malikah, Paul Weller, Rachid Taha and many more, represented reunion on several fronts.

The conflict that has ravaged Syria meant that some Orchestra members had not seen each other for five years. It was also a chance for Africa Express co-founder Damon Albarn to reconnect with the Syrian musicians he had worked with on the Gorillaz track "White Flag" and, later, on the 2010 "Escape to Plastic Beach" World Tour which included shows at the 11th Century Citadel in Damascus, Syria.

A distinct move from other Africa Express ventures, like the 2012 train tour of UK and the more recent In C Mali (a spellbinding version of Terry Riley’s In C), Africa Express Presents… The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians and Guests set out to celebrate the rich musical culture of Syria rarely captured in today’s headlines. Viola player Ragha Haddad put in best when he said:

"The album is very important to us. It was a very unique project, bringing together artists from all over the world to perform with the most brilliant musicians from Syria. It was a great honour. And this new album will give people another opportunity to get to know The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians for what we are—passionate, professional musicians and singers."

All aboard Africa Express airways ✈️en route to @glastofest with #syrianorchestra

A video posted by Africa Express (@africaexpresshq) on

As with most Africa Express adventures, there was a distinct lack of ego present during the tour, whether piling into two coaches to liven up Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage on a glum post brexit Saturday, or the spontaneous outbursts of song that took place on most of their journeys, including the chartered flight to London from Amsterdam, the tour was infused with a tangible sense of how music crosses borders, and most importantly asks group members and listeners to re-evaluate their purpose in today’s world.

Africa Express Presents… The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians & Guests (out on Transgressive Records) will be available on CD with a digital download stream available via Google Play Music. An LP vinyl edition will follow in 2017. In the meantime, watch the album trailer below for more information:

The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians Track List

1 Intro – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

2 3azely – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

3 Wild Wood – Paul Weller & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

4 Yah Mahla El Fus’ha – Faia Younan & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

5 Out Of Time – Damon Albarn & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

6 Rakeb 3al Hamra – Mounir Troudi & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

7 Feel You – Julia Holter & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

8 Al Ajaleh – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians feat. Bassekou Kouyaté & Seckou Keita

9 Blackbird – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians feat. Damon Albarn & Paul Weller

10 Old Damascus – The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

11 Richa – Noura Mint Seymali & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians

12 White Flag – Damon Albarn & The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians feat. EslamJawaad, Malikah, Ceza & Bu Kolthoum

Photo by Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez

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