YEMEN

The Yemeni teacher who’s setting up a national orchestra, despite war

Students practising at the music institute in Sanaa en train de répéter. Photo by our Observer.
Students practising at the music institute in Sanaa en train de répéter. Photo by our Observer.

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The Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s war against Houthi rebels in Yemen has plunged the country into an unprecedented crisis, with tens of thousands killed, millions forced to leave their homes, a cholera epidemic and a resurgence of diphtheria. But one Yemeni teacher is turning to music in the midst of the bombs. He wants to give classical music training to a group of young people, with the aim of forming a national Yemeni orchestra.

Abdallah al-Debi, 53 years old, used to be a member of Yemen’s national orchestra in the 80s. He’s given himself the challenge of setting up a new orchestra that can play well enough to represent the country in festivals abroad – in only a year’s time. But it won’t be easy.

"I’ve got 20 student violinists – but only six violins"

I’ve been thinking about this idea of setting up a national orchestra for years now. I wanted to revive the national orchestra that was created in 1975 and then dissolved in 1981.

But the war is never-ending. I can’t wait forever. We have to keep living and hoping.

So I started this programme in September 2017, at the beginning of the school year. There were 140 people who auditioned at the beginning. But I couldn’t keep everyone, because we didn’t have enough instruments. In the end I only took on 75 students for the year-long course.

And even then, we had to find a solution for our problem of lack of instruments. I split up the students into two groups. One group had their lesson in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, and that way they were able to pass on the instruments.

Video by our Observer Mohamed.

 

I’ve been thinking about this idea of setting up a national orchestra for years now. I wanted to revive the national orchestra that was created in 1975 and then dissolved in 1981.

But the war is never-ending. I can’t wait forever. We have to keep living and hoping.

So I started this programme in September 2017, at the beginning of the school year. There were 140 people who auditioned at the beginning. But I couldn’t keep everyone, because we didn’t have enough instruments. In the end I only took on 75 students for the year-long course.

And even then, we had to find a solution for our problem of lack of instruments. I split up the students into two groups. One group had their lesson in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, and that way they were able to pass on the instruments.

Photos of music courses sent by our Observer Mohamed. 

 

I’ve got 20 student violinists but only six violins. Ten students have to practise on only eight ouds. Some students had to bring in their own instruments – mostly only guitars – in order to follow the classes.

We need all sorts of instruments: oud, pianos, violins. We also need notebooks so they can take notes.

But when I see the determination on the faces of my students, I’m confident. It’s the girls that impress me the most – there are 35 of them in the programme, almost half of the whole group. And not only do they bravely confront the terror of perhaps being hit in an airstrike when they’re coming here, but some of them also have to face staunchly conservative parents who don’t approve of a woman playing music.

In a country that has been ripped apart by war, where there are many shortages and the prices of even basic goods have skyrocketed, paying for music lessons is a luxury that most young people are not able to afford. Abdallah al-Debi is offering the classes for free – and he himself has no salary.

Mohamed, 20, was one of the first students to join the classes. He dreams of becoming a brilliant oud musician.

"When fighter jets fly overhead, everyone runs for shelter"

Every day it’s a battle just to get to the music school. Like most of my classmates, I don’t have the money to get the bus, because the ticket price went up so much due to the petrol shortage. I usually walk there – it’s about 12 kilometres away.

When we’re at the school, if there are fighter jets flying overhead, everyone runs to shelter themselves at home [the international coalition led by the Saudi authorities regularly conducts air raids in Yemen to chase out Houthi rebels who seized control of the capital Sana’a in 2015]. No one stays at the school, which is right in the middle of the Centre of Culture. It’s a government building in the centre of Sana’a – these types of buildings are major targets for airstrikes.

But I want to get to the end of the training. It’s a breath of fresh air, an escape, as it is for many of my classmates.

In March 2015, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched an offensive in Yemen to reinstate the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who had fled the capital a few months earlier. The war has killed about 10,000 people, and wounded about 53,000 people.

According to the United Nations, it’s the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now, with 22.2 million people reliant on humanitarian aid, and famine, cholera and diphtheria ravaging the country’s population.