Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul MacAlindin


It's been so long since I posted an actual book review here. I do still read, I promise! In fact there's been so much reading recently for all of our upcoming secret boxes that I've not had much time to read anything that isn't top secret...

A while ago though I did read something pretty great and I've been meaning to share it with you all for a good month or two now. Upbeat is a really unusual book and tells the story of the founding and continuation of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. This might sound like something you wouldn't be interested in, but it's one of those stories that'll grab you whether classical music is something you care about or not.


Paul MacAlindin became involved with the project pretty much by chance after he came across an advert in a local newspaper. Zuhal Sultan, a 17 year old Iraqi pianist was looking for a conductor to lead a youth orchestra. From a Western perspective, with our mostly media driven knowledge of Iraq's recent history, this seems like a crazy project, and in many ways, such it proved to be.

Upbeat takes the reader through the whole process of founding and forming the orchestra, from MacAlindin's initial Skype meetings with Zuhal through logistical issues and the many financial hurdles that they faced to get the project off the ground, along with the audition process and through the question of how musicians practice and even get instruments and keep them maintained in a difficult climate and one that is often hostile to music.

From the summer of 2009 Paul worked with Zuhal and a team from the UK and Iraq to run an intensive two week course in Iraq ending in a performance by the orchestra. The book details the experience of running the course as well as the way that musicians managed to be musicians and be part of the orchestra when music isn't regarded in the same way as it is in the UK.

I found Upbeat to be really interesting reading. Paul MacAlindin has done a really good job of contrasting his own life in Germany and Scotland with the lives of the orchestra participants in Iraq, and Zuhal's as she moves to the UK. There's lots about the various processes of trying to raise funds when there wasn't much interest in a National Youth Orchestra from inside Iraq itself, and I found MacAlindin's view of Iraqi culture really intriguing. Having only seen it through the lens of the British media before now it was very interesting to read about the experiences of the orchestra members and how they came to be musicians. Running an orchestra with groups of people who are culturally predisposed to hate each other is shown to be the challenge that it must in reality be, and the struggle with having an orchestra and instructors who speak a mixture of three different languages is present throughout.

Although at times I found the tone of the book a little on the patronising side I don't think that it was meant to be so. Running the NYOI was obviously a highly stressful and consuming job for Paul MacAlindin and I felt a little like writing this book may have been a bit of a process of coming to terms with that for him, and sometimes that came through in the voice of the story. The general premise of the book - founding a National Youth Orchestra in a country as divided by violence past and present as Iraq is, and attempting to fund a summer program with professional musicians as tutors as well as, in later years of the program, a trip abroad for the orchestra directly after, is an incredible undertaking and one which everyone involved deserves huge credit for attempting.

Upbeat is an absorbing story, well told by a man who is obviously in love with music and wants to share that love with others. I connected to this book a lot because I had the feeling throughout that the organisers of the orchestra cared about music the way that we care about books - they want everyone to know how great it can be and to love it like they do. They really care about the music and about helping people to become better musicians, and the passion for that in Upbeat is hard to resist.

The book is published by Sandstone Press and you can get a copy from them here.

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