Behind the Scenes with the Basra Youth Orchestra

Waheed Khanim, Basra


A plucky group of around 35 children from Basra are busy learning Beethoven and other classical music.

Behind the doors, one hears the tinkling of a piano, a wayward flute, and the untoward scrape of violin strings. When you open these doors, you are likely to meet confident 13-year-olds like Shamil Bader. “I started training three years ago with my sister Abrar, who is younger than me, playing the piano with the encouragement of my mother,” Bader tells Al Menassa proudly. She started with the piano but switched to violin after seeing it played on television. “Some people said I couldn’t do it,” she continues. “But I didn’t have any trouble. And although I wouldn’t say I’m the perfect player, I’m at a good stage,” the Iraqi teenager reports.

Welcome to the practice rooms of the Basra Youth Orchestra. They are part of a project launched by the musicians of the city to encourage younger players. Funding was difficult in 2015 so the project only really launched in 2016, says the orchestra’s director Adnan Sahi. At first, the veteran musicians gave free lessons and the pupils worked with donated instruments, some of them from US children.

“Later on Basra University allowed us to practice in their college halls during the summer break but this site has been rented since March 2018, thanks to the support of the students’ parents,” Sahi explains.

There are currently around 12 music teachers and 35 members of the orchestra, with 15 more training to join by the end of the year. There are also many applicants for lessons.

The youth orchestra has already played publicly several times including at the opening of a local shopping mall, in restaurants and at an orphanage. The children usually play Western classical music and their biggest audience numbered around 1,200.

Unfortunately lessons are no longer free, Sahi explains: They must now charge 80 dollars a month per child to cover costs, with family discounts if siblings are also attending lessons. “But there are also children whose families cannot afford this, so some pay less and others come for free,” he notes.

In another room, 11-year-old Ayad Muntazar practices piano; she’s been playing in the orchestra for over three years already. “I had a hard time at first but I managed to get past it,” the little girl explains. “I love playing piano and I chose the instrument myself.”

“The children can play the tunes and we hope they can also really feel the spirit of the work,” says Ali Qassim, who teaches flute here and who is also a senior member of Basra university’s fine arts faculty. “If a child understands that, then they will never forget.”

The teachers are trying to ensure a balance between Western music and Oriental  tastes. “We are working on some traditional Iraqi songs but we don’t have a complete orchestra for that yet,” Qassim explains. “We lack some of the brass and wooden instruments.”

Not all the music is easy to play, concedes fledgling piano player Bader. “And some people thought I wouldn’t be able to learn all the notes. Teachers at school also warned me about being late and getting distracted by music. But the director stood by me. I’d like to become a famous musician,” she concludes happily, “and play in a large symphony orchestra.

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