The Desert Rose: Preserving heritage through the magic of music with Syrian composer Malek Jandali and his stunning symphony

Syrian-American pianist and composer, Malek Jandali gestures on stage
5 min read
11 November, 2022

Malek Jandali believes that the Arab world deserves symphonies.

These elaborate compositions are not historically part of the Arab musical tradition, but for the German-born Syrian-American composer, his latest work is an attempt to show the rest of the classical world that the Middle East is part of the conversation and “deserves a symphony celebrating this unique vocabulary.”

Titled The Desert Rose and debuting at the National Museum of Qatar, the symphony was inspired by a natural phenomenon of the same name, where sand, salt and gypsum crystals evaporate, erode and eventually form petal shapes over millennia. These tough, beautiful forms also inspired the architecture for the museum, where Malek is the new honorary Composer-in-Residence.

"This is the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen – there’s an idea that architecture is frozen music"

“The mission behind The Desert Rose was to preserve the rich heritage and culture of the Arab world while integrating my knowledge as a composer of orchestration and the expertise of using harmony with the folk music of Qatar.

“I consider myself a humanist, an activist and a musician on a mission, and that mission is to preserve and present my rich heritage through the magic of music without having a single word being uttered. We celebrated Islamic tunes, interesting, complex rhythms, sea and land music, the Ardah dance that’s performed with swords, women’s dances, children’s songs… you name it,” Malek says.

Desert Rose premiere
The Desert Rose World Premier took place at the National Museum of Qatar
Desert Rose premiere
The symphony was inspired by the natural phenomenon of the desert rose, where sand, salt and gypsum crystals evaporate, erode and eventually form petal shapes over millennia

The culmination of six years of research, Malek says he had so much fun studying and archiving Qatari culture. “I observed all that beauty and searched for the truth and message behind it to put into symphonic form. Rumi said, ‘wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.’ That’s what we witnessed. 

“My symphony is in black and white, hundreds of pages of dots. The last movement has 539 measures, just like the 539 discs that the museum is constructed of. This is the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen – there’s an idea that architecture is frozen music,” he adds. 

But rather than integrating East and West, Malek explains that his symphony is integrating all of those Qatari sounds into the sonata form with a Western classical symphony orchestra to tell the world ‘we are a part of you – we have our own symphony of our own heritage, recorded in Vienna, the capital of classical music.

Sometimes musicians in the “West” think you’ve made errors because they’re not familiar with these intervals or rhythmic patterns and metres, but I feel like we’re contributing to the modernity of classical music.”

The symphony, which premiered in October, also pays tribute to the Qatari flag, with each of the nine movements referencing an aspect of Qatari culture, including Islamic chants, mangroves, sand dunes and the country’s children. Tickets to the premiere sold out within hours, Malek tells us with a smile, but it was actually the diversity of the audience that he held closest. 

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“An elderly Qatari gentleman came to me after the concert and said ‘I’m not an expert in classical music, but I recognised your symphony because I could hear my folk music in it. Every time I recognised a tune, I got engaged.’ He didn’t hear a single word being uttered, and he listened to an entire symphony. 

"There were families sitting with their children, women, elderly grandparents, a covered woman filming with her phone… ordinary people listening to this music for the first time and we get that engagement, as well as diplomats and ambassadors. That gives me a lot of hope that the future is bright because people are interested to hear their own music in the symphonic form,” he says

It’s not just the audience who broke expectations, either. While the symphony was performed live by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra with Grammy-nominated guest conductor Alastair Willis, The Desert Rose album features the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and American conductor Marin Alsop. While most classical conductors are male, Marin changes that narrative.

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“In my humble opinion, I think classical music needs a fresh vocabulary and rhythms. That will help us collectively advance music. It’s a journey of modernity. It’s from the people, by the people, to the people, and that’s what we experienced in Qatar. Marin is a wonderful friend and I could not be prouder of what we made,” he adds.

But if you’re expecting to see Malek play the piano on stage, think again. “I used the piano in a percussion context. The message of The Desert Rose is so much larger than me, and I wanted it to be in this melting pot of a symphony.”    

Desert Rose premiere
Malek Jandali  says he had so much fun studying and archiving Qatari culture
Desert Rose premiere
Bella Hadid was among some of the famous faces in attendance 
Desert Rose premiere
HE Sheikha Mayassa also attended the event 

From a composer known for making music that has a purpose and responds to political situations – Malek is also the founder of Pianos for Peace, a nonprofit organisation that aims to build peace through music and education, while his world tour is titled The Voice of the Free Syrian Children.

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Malek describes The Desert Rose as a “symphony for peace. Salam,” and aims to put unity back into the community. “We are a community of humanity. As Muslims, when we greet each other we don’t say ‘what’s up?’ or ‘hi.’ We say peace. It has a very clear message of our shared human values of justice and equality.”

Malek refers to the “soft power of music… to transcend geopolitics, geographies and artificial barriers that we create to get straight to the heart. You can’t touch or see music like you can with art, but it requires your time. You could look at a painting for five seconds or two hours, but for The Desert Rose, you need a set amount of time to experience it.” 

But what’s next?

“To partner with other museums that give me new platforms to continue my musical journey. I want to come up with more symphonies and integrate my Arabic and Islamic culture, Qatari culture, the sound of this land and the rhythms, to archive our heritage and present it on an international stage," he says.

"We invite everyone to join us in this mission to promote the soft power of music. I don’t think there’s a better tool to unite us under our shared common values of humanity and peace.”

Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages.

Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks