In Iraq, young artists seek to heal a musical heritage wounded by war

Across the region, music is under siege from religiously inspired bans and the destruction of archives. But in Baghdad, some are trying to preserve Iraq's multicultural maqam.

Jane Arraf
Baghdad antique shop owner Mushtaq Jassim Mohammad plays a shellac recording of Iraqi maqam music on a gramaphone. The music is listed by UNESCO as part of the world's intangible cultural heritage.

In an antique stall near al-Mutanabbi street, shop owner Assam al-Ani wipes the dust off a brittle black disc, winds up a gramophone, and plays the multi-layered melodies and melancholy lyrics that are part of Iraq’s vanishing musical history.

The coffee houses ringing the street of booksellers are still full of Iraqis, but the tradition that brought diverse communities together to listen to music in them is long gone. So, too, is the national archive of music and sound that was destroyed in 2003. 

In the region where the world’s first musical instruments are believed to have appeared, musical heritage is under siege from war, upheaval and religious fundamentalism.

The earliest known recordings were done on wax cylinders, including dozens of recordings of music produced in 1908 in Jeddah, almost unthinkable today in religiously conservative Saudi Arabia. Mosul and other parts of Iraq that produced some of the richest musical traditions are now under control of the self-described Islamic State (IS), which bans music.

Despite the ongoing war against IS and the difficulty of daily life in Baghdad, some young Iraqi musicians are trying to revive the music their parents and grandparents listened to.

Zaidoun Hussein, a recent graduate of Baghdad’s Music and Ballet school, is modernizing some of the traditional songs for young listeners more interested in jazz and hip-hop. His cover version of Iraqi Jewish singer Filfil Gurgi’s half-century-old love-lorn “Ach Minak” (Roughly: “What you’ve done to me”) has the appeal of a modern pop song.

“The young guys don’t listen to this music so I had the idea of putting it to new music so it’s not lost,” he says. “I want young people to know the Iraqi musical legacy.”

Rolf Killius, a London-based ethnomusicologist working on preserving musical heritage, is trying to encourage Iraqi collectors to establish a trust that would house a new sound archive of traditional music.

“When you look at the 1930s, ’40s and ‘50s, Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo were the centers of the Arab world,” Mr. Killius says.

Maqam reflected diverse culture

Shellac recordings, produced from the 1920s to the 1960s before being replaced by vinyl, helped forge that shared musical culture.

“For the first time, it became possible to listen to music in a different place, so it was possible to listen in Baghdad to music from the south,” he says.

The pre-eminent Iraqi musical tradition was maqam – performed at the homes of patrons and in coffee houses in Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, and Mosul. Based on poetry, each song has several lengthy sections and features an interplay of vocal improvisation with musical accompaniment on traditional instruments.

Iraqi maqam (listen to some here), listed by UNESCO as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage, reflected the cultural mosaic of Iraqi cities with Turkish, Persian, and Kurdish influences. Many of the musicians were Jewish or Christian.

“Iraqi maqam is difficult to sing and a bit difficult to listen to as well,” says Abdul Razzaq al-Azzawi, director of Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra. “There about 75 different songs in Iraqi maqam. To be considered a maqam singer you have to know at least half of them. “

When shellac recordings, made from a compound based on beetle shells, became popular in the 1920s, coffee house owners played the records on huge gramophones.

Archive was damaged, looted

Early recordings were done by British and German recording companies in Baghdad hotel rooms. But most of the Iraqi music that followed was recorded by an Iraqi company, Chakmakchi, established in 1918. The establishment of Iraqi state radio two decades later helped build up a large archive of Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen music.

That archive, along with the Center for Traditional Music in the Iraqi Culture and Information ministry, was damaged and looted in 2003. Many of the surviving recordings are now in the hands of private collectors.

“I don’t know how Iraqis can preserve this music. The country has such terrible problems,” says Scheherazade Hassan, whose thousands of field recordings in the 1970s established the Center for Traditional Music.

Ms. Hassan, a Paris-based ethnomusicologist, says when the Information and Culture Ministry roof collapsed due to air strikes in 2003 she was unable to get any information from UN or Iraqi authorities about what had happened to any of the sound archives.

The archives contained 4,000 recordings with 2,000 hours of music recorded across Iraq between 1971 and 1977 as well as photographs, notes, and musical transcriptions.

“After the war many of these things are gone, nobody knew how or where or what happened to them,” says Mr. al-Azzawi. “I know very well because I saw and listened to so many of them – when I went after to the library to listen to them I found only the cover, and the reel is not there. It is a disaster.”

Soundmap of Baghdad

Killius’s suggestion of a new sound archive, meanwhile, has few prospects for official support. The cash-strapped government has other priorities and little interest.

Falah Hassan Shaker, a director general at the Ministry of Culture, agrees it would be a good idea but is unlikely to get done. “There are many things we have to work on: the leaders of the government and how they think. We have to educate our government officials first.”

In the meantime Killius has come to Iraq for a workshop sponsored by Ruya – the foundation for contemporary Iraqi culture – that is aimed at creating a soundmap of Baghdad.

The project, called One Baghdad, will eventually be a website in which Iraqis across Baghdad send in music or other sounds they’ve recorded of the city. The audio files will be linked to a map of Baghdad.

“Iraq is rich with music and sounds and it’s a shame that a lot of it gets lost in time,” says the Ruya Foundation’s Furat Jamil. She says even in the last few decades the sound of birds and the sound of the wind in the palm trees has diminished in Baghdad.

“The idea is to bring together the different groups of people in the city,” says Killius. “It’s also about bringing together the communities so you will feel you belong to this multi-culture of Baghdad.”

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