Cook: The Cellists of Chattanooga

Cook: The Cellists of Chattanooga

May 2nd, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

In 1992, the bombs began to rain onto Sarajevo. Exploding out of the hills that surround the Bosnian city, the mortars held captive tens of thousands of people for three years, as rebel Serbs used bombs and snipers to try to send the people of Sarajevo back to the Dark Ages.

As their city crumbled, people began to value food, water and loved ones above all else. Waiting for hours in line for clean water or a crust of confiscated bread, they never knew what the sky would bring.

Their horizon held death.

Last Wednesday, so did ours.

It was the Three-Hundred-Tornado Storm, the most violent weather event anyone in this area can recall. Hundreds dead and untold damage to property. Thousands of people who huddled in closets, hid in bathtubs, clung to children, spouses and pets will mark last Wednesday as the most frightening moment of their entire lives.

As I toured our city and received news reports Thursday, the day after the storm, I thought of the destruction and nothingness of Sarajevo.

"It was pure bedlam," said David Kaplan of the Greater Chattanooga Area American Red Cross, as he recalled the long hours of last Wednesday. "The tornadoes kept coming and coming.''

Rocking in her front porch chair in Alton Park, Reva Scruggs began to worry as the day turned to dusk. Huge oak trees strained on taut power lines like some giant fiddle bow leaning on strings.

"I dread to see the darkness," she said.

In the midst of such wreckage, how do we go on?

And then I remembered Vedran Smajlovic.

It had been a particularly wicked day in Sarajevo: 22 citizens died from a bomb blast while standing in line for bread. Smajlovic, a member of the Sarajevo Orchestra, realized that while bread was rotting and water was spoiling, there was another food of sorts that people ached for.


Dressing in his orchestral suit and tails, Smajlovic carried his cello into the sniper-soaked streets of Sarajevo, set up a burned chair in the crater left behind by the bomb, and began playing symphony.

For 22 days, Smajlovic - alive and well today and known as the "Cellist of Sarajevo" - defied sniper bullets with classical music, giving a louder soundtrack of hope to the hiding masses of war-torn people in Sarajevo.

His story was broadcast around the world, and resonates even to this day a truth of human existence: In the face of vast suffering, there is another we need more than shelter, food and water.

There are times when we need music to stay alive.

And today, in this tornado-wrecked region, we need Kayoko Dan and the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra.

Dan, recently named the new maestro of the CSO, is moving from Kentucky to Chattanooga; she will find a city shaken and in need of healing. The CSO represents the richness of Chattanooga art, yet often is viewed as inaccessible and reserved, a black-tie luxury only for the wealthy.

That's why Dan needs to take the symphony to the streets.

We need a symphony of string musicians to sit in the craters of Ringgold, Apison , Bradley County and North Alabama and play the deep music of the Requiem. And when the days of rebuilding come, they return to play the Hallelujah chorus.

We need the brass sections to visit the Red Cross shelters and lift the spirits of those without homes or power sleeping there.

"It would help mellow the mind," said Dennis Appleberry, who, along with his partially paralyzed wife, Darlene, watched the storms maul through Alton Park.

We need a clanging cymbal to visit City Hall, where elected leaders still mindlessly require police to store their vehicles at a downtown parking lot at massive risk to our entire city. Had tornadoes struck there, Chattanooga's police force would be car-less.

We need Artists Without Borders: a group of local comedians, guitarists, bluegrass bands, jugglers, jazz trumpeters, magicians and maestros to go out into the city and find the people whose spirits have been torn from the foundations - including the trauma-shocked volunteers - and begin to help them rebuild.

"We operated a shelter here for people fleeing from (Hurricane) Katrina" said Kaplan. "And I had a friend who was a comedian. He came out to do a show.

"And that was really great."

For those 22 days in Sarajevo, Smajlovic often played an adagio that had been reconstructed out of the ashes of World War II. The story goes that a musicologist discovered fragments of the 17th-century manuscript in a bombed-out Dresden library, and taking the fragile notes - which had barely survived the destruction - he rebuilt them into a most beautiful, unforgettable and undefeatable symphony.

One day, the same will be said about Chattanooga.

David Cook can be reached at