All for Music (Profile of Syrian Musician Toufiq Mirkhan)

Photo Manaf Hassan

All for Music

Carrying a qanun almost twice his size, Toufiq Mirkhan was often teased by other children for playing an instrument that was larger than him. At the time, he could never have guessed that by the age of 23 he would be an internationally renowned musician, performing in the prestigious Opera Bastille in France and starring in concerts in Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain and Germany among others. Playing as a solo qanun player in the acclaimed Dutch Nieuw Ensemble orchestra is just an added bonus.

His parents’ determination to teach him music was key to Mirkhan’s success. “My parents were ready to cancel everything in order to take me and my two younger sisters to our music classes,” Mirkhan says. “They would wait for us outside, until we finished.” Though not a musician himself, Mirkhan’s father made music a top priority. For him, the children’s daily music practice was far more important than homework. “It was only after finishing music practice that I was allowed to pick up my books and study,” Mirkhan says.

At the age of 14, he joined the Al Sham folklore band. Playing with graduates from the High Institute of Music in Syria, he realised that music doesn’t put food on the table. “My graduate colleagues had to play in discos and nightclubs to make ends meet,” Mirkhan says. “I saw then that if I wanted to play the music I like, I had to earn a second income.” So upon graduation from school, he applied to the Faculty of Pharmacology as well as to the High Institute of Music. He was accepted to both and by 2007 he had two diplomas in his pocket.

The High Institute’s curriculum didn’t fulfil Mirkhan’s expectations however. He felt that qanun students were isolated from the world beyond. While other students had the opportunity to participate in workshops with foreign maestros, qanun players only received classes from a small number of teachers in the school. The restricted curriculum, based mainly on traditional music and folkloric tunes, only added to his frustration. “Folklore is essential to our understanding of music,” Mirkhan says. “But there’s a lot more to learn in the world of music.”

As the proverb says: “If the mountain doesn’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed goes to the mountain.” So in 2005 and 2006 Mirkhan packed up his things and travelled to Turkey, the Kaaba of qanun players. He took private classes with two of Turkey’s most famous musicians: Göksel Baktagir and Halil Karaduman. “Turks have revolutionised the study of qanun,” Mirkhan says. “They have mastered the instrument, using techniques unknown anywhere else.”

While Syrians picture qanun players as tarboosh-wearing musicians who play oriental background music to accompany a traditional singer, the Turks have recognised the potential of the solo qanun artist. According to Mirkhan, jazz, classic, flamenco and almost any kind of contemporary music can be performed on the qanun.

Since his return from Turkey in 2006, Mirkhan has joined forces with other young Syrian musicians to introduce other aspects of the qanun to young students. They teach at the Sulhi Al Wadi private music school and participate in Music in ME, a project sponsored by the UN to teach music to the Palestinian children living in the refugee camps in Syria. “Qanun has started to attract young musicians,” Mirkhan says. “It is slowly being recognised as a solo instrument in Syria.”

Mirkhan’s efforts bore fruit in 2007, when the Dutch Nieuw Ensemble chose him among three other Syrian musicians and composers to participate in their Middle Eastern music project.

Playing with the orchestra formed a turning point in Mirkhan’s musical career as it introduced him to contemporary music, a style that hardly exists in Syria. For Mirkhan, his experience abroad once again underscored how stagnant the Syrian music scene is. “We keep reproducing our traditional music in the form of jazz, piano or symphony music, but basically it stays the same,” Mirkhan says. “We should preserve our folkloric tradition, but at the same time we should produce new music, something that reflects our age.”

Mirkhan sees his future as a musician rather than a composer. His dream is to develop a unique style that distinguishes him from any other qanun player. “Making music has always been number one in my life,” Mirkhan smiles. “And it always will!”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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