Canadian composer and pianist strikes harmonic notes in China
By Tao Xing  ·  2024-01-02  ·   Source: NO.50 DECEMBER 14, 2023
Steve Barakatt, a Canadian-Lebanese composer and pianist, at a concert in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on December 3, 2023 (COURTESY PHOTO)

During his concert tour across seven Chinese cities in December 2023, Steve Barakatt, a Canadian-Lebanese composer and pianist, performed a piece titled Riding Around the Forbidden City every night. The Forbidden City, formally known as the Palace Museum, is the largest and best preserved ancient wooden palace complex in the world.

The ode to the structure that housed China's emperors from 1421 to 1911 can be found on Barakatt's 2011 album Someday Somewhere. The entire album was about visiting different places and creating music based on a specific location. Barakatt visited the Forbidden City in Beijing around 2010, on his first visit to the Chinese mainland.

"When I was in the Forbidden City, I really enjoyed its spirit. I composed the piece right after. I also listened to some traditional music of China," Barakatt told Beijing Review. "I think it's one of the Chinese audience's favorite pieces of music, they really enjoyed it."

"I was actually missing China a lot. I've been to China many times over many years. I started to come here on a regular basis around 2010," Barakatt added.

Riding across China 

Barakatt described his most recent trip as "amazing." "This tour started in Shanghai and wrapped up in Beijing. And it went extremely well. I felt that the people were extremely open, truly kind. And it wasn't only my experience during the tour, but also during my 'outside' activities, I visited cities, I met amazing people," Barakatt recalled.

The musician said he experienced the warmth of the Chinese people during the trip. "I saw the people, I went to the train station, I went to the restaurants, and I found the people to be very open," he continued. "One day, my music publisher took me to a nice place in the hutong area of Beijing (a hutong is a type of narrow alleyway found in northern Chinese cities, especially Beijing). And then I went to a bar where many musicians hang out. I started playing with them. We all played together. It was a great evening."

During this time, Barakatt also took up some traditional Chinese musical instruments, such as the pipa, a plucked string instrument with a fretted fingerboard, and the Chinese harp. "I'm learning, let's say. I already have my mind set on going back to China in the months to come to do something with a traditional Chinese instrument," he said.

During the concerts, Barakatt realized there were many families in attendance, parents and small children, something he considers a positive sign for any country. "The country wants to bring culture to the kids and the family," he explained.

"Every time [I come to China], it is definitely surprising. China is developing so fast. I have seen all the changes. The past 10 years saw a lot of infrastructure construction and subsequently the development and boom of transportation," Barakatt said. One example here is the rapid development of transportation in Beijing, with more and more electric cars, most of them silent, now on the road. A positive change Barakatt, for one, thoroughly enjoys.

In addition to Beijing and Shanghai, Barakatt also visited the cities of Chongqing, Chengdu, Hefei, Jinan and Tianjin in the last month of 2023.

He elaborated that because most of his friends are there, Beijing is the place he knows best. "For sure, Beijing is like my Chinese home. But I need to discover more because China is so diverse. For instance, you can eat a different Chinese dish every day for the rest of your life," Barakatt marveled, adding he is still exploring the country.

"The regions I haven't visited yet are mostly located in the south, I wish to discover more," he said. And that future exploration also includes more cooperation on cultural communication with China.

Barakatt signs autographs for members of the audience after a concert in Beijing on December 10, 2023(COURTESY PHOTO)

Harmony in diversity 

Barakatt's ancestors are from Lebanon, a country in West Asia that is also part of the Middle East, giving him a mix of Asian, European and Middle Eastern qualities. Lebanon is diverse in languages, religions and cultures, and this diversity and inclusiveness is reflected in his music.

His family traditions and customs, such as the sharing of food, are heavily influenced by Asian culture, lending him a unique perspective and experience that can be expressed in his music.

Barakatt's assorted cultural background enables him to harmonize and integrate differing cultures.

And he's also had the chance to communicate the values of unity and harmony. From 2007 to 2017, he was an ambassador for the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), together with his Russian wife Elena Grosheva, an Olympic silver-medal gymnast. They were the first couple to be appointed as UNICEF ambassadors.

"When we were appointed, we got a sense of mission," Barakatt said. During his term, Barakatt in 2009 composed and orchestrated the UNICEF Anthem Lullaby, a monumental undertaking that involved 250 artists worldwide. The artist took his time on the project, to ensure Lullaby would be a well-crafted piece of music that could stand the test of time and be played by future generations.

It took a year to complete, recording different segments in different parts of the world. On November 20, 2009, the anthem was officially launched on five continents with performances by 15 symphony orchestras and a dedicated event in the International Space Station, a joint project of the five space agencies of the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada.

Since 1995, Barakatt has composed music for many Cantopop stars. So it felt like the natural choice for him to have Beijing-born Hong Kong singer Leon Lai Ming, his long-time friend and professional collaborator, sing the opening verse of Lullaby.

The anthem has been performed at many events around the world. "Music is harmony. I do believe that it's very important to create more and more links. And I think music plays a big role in inspiring people and is definitely a nice language to create," the musician said.

Today, he also tries to create more connections between China and other countries.

"I think people [in the rest of the world] just don't know a lot about China. I always tell my friends to come and visit China and I tell my Chinese friends to come and visit Canada," Barakatt said, adding there's nothing better than forging bonds between people.

"This is what I say to all my friends, around the world, when they ask me how I'm doing. I tell them, 'I'm having an amazing time in China. People are open, friendly. You should visit China, enjoy it, come as a tourist, enjoy the beautiful cuisine, etc.'," he added.

"We should [all] get to know each other better," Barakatt concluded.

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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