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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Cellist From Baghdad Brings Music Message To San Antonio

Karim Wasfi at Musical Bridges Around The World event. Jan. 17
Kenneth Mahnke for Musical Bridges Around The World
Texas Public Radio
Karim Wasfi at Musical Bridges Around The World event.

You may have seen the YouTube video showing a cellist playing in the ruins left after a car bombing in Baghdad. That cellist is Karim Wasfi, the conductor of the Iraqi National Orchestra.


Wasfi was performing in San Antonio last week, including a DreamWeek concert Saturday for Musical Bridges Around The World.

Credit Kenneth Mahnke for Musical Bridges Around The World
Karim Wasfi greets concert goer

"Terrorists and radicals were turning every element of life into a battlefield. I have decided to turn every element of life — whenever it's doable and possible — into an area of creativity and beauty to counter,” he said. “It's to counterattack. It's to proactively defy radicals and terror."

To understand where Wasfi is coming from, it’s good to know his backstory. "I think music found me before I was even born, we had music. My late mother, who is originally from Egypt, where I was born, was a pianist. My late father was also a musician," he said.

Wasfi said the war with Iran was a major a part of his young life. So much so that Iraqis like him could identify countries of origin by the sound of the falling mortars.

"Which one was Austrian, which was German, which one was French, was because they could identify the noise of the mortars," he said.

It was in this backdrop that Wasfi began to think of all sounds and the powerful sound can have in impacting lives.

"It empowers imagination. It empowers the connecting the subconscious to the conscious,” Wasfi said. “And it creates a certain level of transcendence beyond time and space."


Credit Jack Morgan / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Pianist Elena Portnaya, from left, violinist Erik Gratz, cellist Karim Wasfi at San Fernando Cathedral for the Musical Bridges Around The World concert.

He studied music in Iraq and at the Indiana School of Music in Bloomington, before returning to Baghdad and conducting the Iraqi National Orchestra. War also returned to Iraq in 2003, challenging the musicians of the orchestra when their rehearsal space near the city's morgue lost electricity for three days.

"It was a very weird smell of death that had invaded our space while I was conducting the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Surreal,” he said. “Actually, it was that day when I decided to stay in Iraq, as opposed to fleeing like many people were."

His reasons formed the basis of his many performances at the sites of bombings in the years to come.

"We had to retaliate and fight back,” he said. “We had to fight back through arts; through culture; through music."

So Wasfi began having his friend videotape his visits to bombings sites.

"Let's share this message. Let's use Facebook; let's tell everyone this is exactly what's happening and we keep doing this to prevent more from Happening,” he said. “And so it was in condolence of those we have lost, but it was also in support of life and commitment to life."

WATCH | "Combating Terror With Music"


Wasfi says terrorists lead lives completely devoid of art.  "Some of these people haven't even seen a live performance before," he said.

He said the best weapons against terrorism, are civility, art, and, of course, music.

"I can assure you that terrorists are afraid of beauty, and music creates enough beauty within itself and enough beauty that is shared with others that defies the concept of terrorizing others," he said.

Wasfi created a foundation to help further his vision called Peace Through Arts.

"The mission is to create a peaceful world, to empower the future leaders and to utilize the impact of arts and music — in particular — towards sharing, better lives," Wasfi said.

Peace Through Arts may have started in a building but it has quickly moved to the streets.

"So now instead of one place in Baghdad, we have 16 centers,” he said. “We've got an operation in Erbil in Kurdistan healing the ISIS survivors from Mosul. We focus on events and performances."

Credit Kenneth Mahnke for Musical Bridges Around The World / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Karim Wasfi performing at a private concert in San Antonio.

Volunteer musicians offer lessons of rudimentary songs. And in roughly two weeks, a performance is scheduled.

"Instead of doing it in eight months, we do it in a very intensive, short period of time to help people integrate and engage and identify talent within the self," he said.

He said that makes playing a highly personal endeavor and something the students can take with them and build on throughout their lives.

"It's proven scientifically that the brain functions in a different way — obviously a better way — when there's a certain level of engagement to music and to practice and to playing an instrument," he said.


Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii