Calgary cellist can once again play instrument that shielded him from bullets in Baghdad

A cello, nearly destroyed in Iraq after blocking bullets from hitting a professional musician, was brought back to life here in Calgary by a generous luthier.

Now-repaired instrument saved Iraqi-Canadian immigrant from a militant attack

Cellist Tariq Abdul Razzac (left) and luthier Natanael Sasaki look over parts for Razzac's formerly-bullet-ridden cello sitting on the table. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

A new Calgarian's musical instrument is back in playing shape, after an incredible journey that started with bullets in Baghdad nearly destroying a cello while saving a cellist's life.

Tariq Abdul Razzac has lived in Calgary since March 2018. His family immigrated to Canada after the situation in their native Iraq became too unsafe.

Before leaving Iraq, Razzac was a member of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad.

More than three years ago, after performing in a chamber music concert at the U.S. Embassy in that city, he was confronted by Iraqi militants after leaving the compound. According to the cellist, they objected to both what he was performing, and who he was performing for.

Tariq Abdul Razzac's cello took bullets for him - literally - in Iraq. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"They don't love the music, because they told me this is haram (forbidden). [They said] you work with the U.S.A … this is [like the] Army," recounted Razzac.

The militants were armed, and as Razzac attempted to flee, they shot at him.

His cello, strapped to his back, absorbed the shots.

The bullets pierced through its hard case and passed through the cello — causing extreme damage and rendering it practically useless.

Tariq Abdul Razzac points to one of the now-sealed bullet holes in his cello case. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"The cello ... saved my life. I thank ... the cello, because he saved my life," said Razzac.

Razzac attempted to repair the instrument himself using parts cobbled together from other cellos or sources of wood, with limited success. He kept it over the following months and years, until eventually landing in Calgary to settle.

As he met more people in Calgary's music community, Razzac would mention his damaged cello and the story started to spread.

I think the cello somehow found me in all of the madness.- Natanael   Sasaki , Calgary luthier

Former Calgary Philharmonic cellist Phil Hansen eventually mentioned the bullet-ridden instrument to someone who could help — Calgary luthier Natanael Sasaki.

"It [was] still a beautiful cello," said Sasaki. "I kind of renamed it the Bullet Cello because it was so unusual and it had such a heartbreaking story behind it."

After an initial assessment, Sasaki thought the cello could be repaired in as little as two to three weeks, a project he happily took on in the early spring.

The "Bullet Cello" during the repair process. Luthier Natanael Sasaki described the insides as "kindling." (Natanael Sasaki)

"I think the cello somehow found me in all of the madness," said Sasaki.

Several weeks grew to several months after Sasaki cracked open the cello to find what he described as "kindling" inside.

"That was kind of a bit of a can of worms," said the violin and cello maker.

Thousands of dollars worth of repairs

The repair job eventually took 85 hours of work in total, worth more than $7,000. Sasaki donated his time and did not charge Razzac for the repair, which was completed in mid-September — nearly six months after he started.

In addition, hundreds of dollars worth of material was donated by Issac Boskovic of Toronto's Bosco Violin Supply.

Natanael Sasaki is a Calgary-based luthier. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Sasaki, who moved to Calgary from his native Finland more than a decade ago after learning the art of violin repair in England, occasionally considered giving up on the Bullet Cello during the lengthy repair process.

"Some days you kind of sat down and it's like, why did I take this one?" joked Sasaki while laughing.

"A thousand happy"

The reaction from cellist Razzac made the endeavour worth it for luthier Sasaki, who says presenting the cello to its owner after so many months of reconstruction was nerve-wracking.

"I knew he had a [previous] idea of how it would sound and how it would look," explained Sasaki, who, despite the nerves, remained confident. 

Natanael Sasaki points out a now-sealed bullet hole in the cello. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"I knew it was going to be good," said Sasaki.

Razzac said his reaction was joyous, describing it as "a thousand happy."

The "Bullet Cello," fully repaired by Natanael Sasaki. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

The cello is back in action on the stage as well, serving as Tariq Abdul Razzac's instrument when he performs with the Calgary Civic Symphony.

Natanael Sasaki (left) looks on as Tariq Abdul Razzac plays his "bullet cello" post-repair. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

About the Author

Anis Heydari

Video Journalist

Anis Robert Heydari has worked in jobs ranging from cleaning up oil spills to fixing phone lines, but all those roads eventually led to being a jack-of-all-trades and CBC News reporter. Reach him at anis@cbc.ca.