This is part of a series of stories we are featuring from artists involved in Create Syria – our project with the British Council and the independent cultural organisation Ettijahat - Independent Culture that empowers Syrian artists in exile to build resilience between refugees and communities across Lebanon.
“I always say, tackle any problem at its roots. When you are introducing arts to these children who have known nothing but war, you are paving the way for a better future,” says Maestro Barkev Taslakian.
Growing up in Anjar, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and son of Armenian immigrants, Barkev didn’t have formal musical training. He taught himself by exploring the different forms and notes of music.
As a child, he experimented with any musical instrument he could lay his hands on, and even created innovative ways to engage people in his experiments. “I used to line up all the kids from the neighbourhood and conducted a band that played instruments made entirely from cans!” he says.
After the Lebanese civil war ended in the early 1990s, he pursued his passion for conducting academically and studied music for eight years. He ended up forming the well-known Fayha Choir in Tripoli.
But after 30 years of conducting, Barkev wanted to do more. He wanted to share his knowledge, as he believed in music’s transformative power.
Since 2014, Fayha have been working with educational NGO SONBOLA Group for Education and Development. They designed a programme to train Syrian teachers to become choir leaders.
The project enabled trainees to create children's choruses with other associations to spread the art of choral singing among Syrian children living in refugee camps, helping them overcome psychological issues and give them a sense of hope.
Barkev together with SONBOLA visited schools attended by Syrian refugee students. As they entered classes, Barkev kept a serious face while holding his famous cane and asked: “We are here on a very serious mission, who wants to help?”
Barkev worked both with children with nice voices and those with no singing skills. He was keen on selecting children who didn’t know how to handle themselves in the ‘outside world’, as he calls it, and those who lacked confidence. He went on to select 200 children.
During the workshops, they didn’t talk only about singing, but also about courage, family and Syria. “They became calmer and more united. When you sing in a choir, you are supposed to go along with other voices, not like when you are singing alone,” he says.
SONBOLA, Barkev and his trainers are continuing the project with the same enthusiasm as when they started.
“We had a conducting trainer who was previously enrolled in an armed group. He joined our choir and now trains refugee children. He left his violent past behind,” Barkev says with pride in his eyes.
Barkev's work and story, along with other Create Syria artists, was showcased at our exhibition in London from 22 September–2 October 2016. Find out more: talkingpeacefestival.org/create-syria
Photo: Courtesy of Fayha Choir
Video © Johnny Abed/International Alert (2016)