Les Rossignols de Bagdad - © UAP 2020

The greatness and neglect of Iraq’s Jewish musicians

Artists of the Jewish faith and culture played an impor­tant role in the music of the Arab world until the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, from the strong tra­di­tion in Anda­lu­sia to the Magh­reb and sin­ging Egyp­tian film stars – a natu­ral conse­quence of the emer­ging music indus­try – such as Lei­la Mou­rad (daugh­ter of the com­po­ser Zaki Mou­rad) and Souad Zaki. In Bagh­dad per­haps more than elsew­here, howe­ver, the music scene has par­ti­cu­lar­ly power­ful links to this community. 

Lay­la Mou­rad – El Donia Ghenwa

 

We take a look at why that may be. The Ira­qi Jewish com­mu­ni­ty is one of the oldest in the region, esta­bli­shed in Baby­lon since time imme­mo­rial. With a very large urban majo­ri­ty, it forms an impor­tant part of the popu­la­tion of Bagh­dad and has become ful­ly inte­gra­ted into the socie­ty of the city, having made a pro­found contri­bu­tion to its culture over the cen­tu­ries. Moreo­ver, and des­pite the oppo­si­tion of cer­tain more conser­va­tive fringes that disap­prove of secu­lar music, it is rela­ti­ve­ly easy for those – espe­cial­ly women – of the Jewish and Chris­tian faith to forge a career in the field. Final­ly, the esta­blish­ment of a num­ber of cha­ri­table ins­ti­tu­tions aimed at trai­ning young blind musi­cians (one of the few pro­fes­sio­nal pros­pects com­pa­tible with the disa­bi­li­ty), pro­vides plen­ty of qanun‑, ney‑, vio­lin- and per­cus­sion-players, reco­gni­sable on stage or in the stu­dio by their tin­ted glasses. 

From the 1920s to the 1958 revo­lu­tion that put an end to a short-lived monar­chy esta­bli­shed by the Bri­tish man­da­to­ry power, music in Bagh­dad expe­rien­ced a gol­den age, dri­ven by the socio-eco­no­mic deve­lop­ment of the city – the for­mer Abas­sid capi­tal, until the after­math of the First World War it was mere­ly a small and per­iphe­ral Otto­man Empire town – as well as by tech­no­lo­gi­cal pro­gress in recor­ding and broad­cas­ting music. The famous Ira­qi maqam – a sys­tem of modes and scales arti­cu­la­ted around a pre­cise set of ins­tru­men­tal and vocal pieces of music – renow­ned throu­ghout the region for its refi­ne­ment and sophis­ti­ca­tion, is undoub­ted­ly not new. The popu­la­ri­sa­tion of the radio (for the gene­ral public, nota­bly in cafés), of the record player (for the most pri­vi­le­ged) and later, of cine­ma was a game chan­ger : per­for­mances by artists were kept for pos­te­ri­ty and made acces­sible to all, regard­less of mate­rial obstacles. 

Daoud et Saleh Al Kowei­ti Bint El Moshab

 

This gol­den age was dri­ven by a num­ber of figures, star­ting with the bro­thers Daoud and Salah Al-Kuwai­ty. Ira­qis, they were the sons of a Jewish mer­chant who set­tled in Kuwait for busi­ness that took him from Alep­po to Cal­cut­ta. Child pro­di­gies – Daoud (on the oud) and Saleh (on the vio­lin) – they star­ted out in the cafés of Bas­ra then Bagh­dad, before, as adults, taking part in the Cai­ro Congress in 1932, the foun­ding event of modern scho­lar­ly Arab music. With the excep­tion of the great sin­ger Moham­med Al Qab­ban­ji, who over­saw it, the Ira­qi dele­ga­tion was com­po­sed enti­re­ly of Jewish musi­cians, tes­ti­fying to their impor­tance in Bagh­dad. On their return to Iraq, the Al-Kuwai­ty bro­thers, very popu­lar with the monar­chy, were invi­ted to orches­trate the cele­bra­tions for the coro­na­tion of King Gha­zi, then of his son Fay­sal II. Their fame was such that the giants of Egyp­tian music Moham­med Abdel Wahab and Umm Kul­thum visi­ted them in Bagh­dad to dis­cuss com­po­si­tions and learn the intri­ca­cies of the Ira­qi maqam from them. Their count­less com­po­si­tions (“Fog al Nakhal”, “Talaa Min Beit Abou­ha” and “Yana­baat el Rai­han”) conti­nue to form part of the popu­lar Ira­qi repertoire. 

The Al-Kuwai­ty bro­thers regu­lar­ly col­la­bo­ra­ted with ano­ther great diva, their com­pa­triot and fel­low Jew Sali­ma “Pasha” Mou­rad. Dis­co­ve­red in her sister’s delight­ful esta­blish­ment popu­lar with Baghdad’s smart set, she lear­ned from the greats who also com­po­sed songs for her. Mar­ried to the tenor Nazem Al-Gha­za­li (the mixed mar­riage was also mar­ked by a consi­de­rable age dif­fe­rence bet­ween Mou­rad and the youn­ger Al Gha­za­li), she per­for­med with her hus­band in Iraq and abroad before being pre­ma­tu­re­ly wido­wed and run­ning the caba­ret the couple had ope­ned. Sali­ma Mou­rad died in rela­tive ano­ny­mi­ty in 1974 in a com­mu­ni­ty that was alrea­dy a sha­dow of its for­mer self. Promp­ted (not to say for­ced) to leave Iraq in the ear­ly 1950s, Baghdad’s Jews who went Israel found them­selves met by severe mar­gi­na­li­sa­tion due to their Arab origins. 


Dudu Tas­sa & The Kuwai­tis,  Dhub Utfa­tar 

 

Daoud and Salah Al-Kuwai­ty, favou­rites of King Gha­zi, found them­selves living off odd jobs and occa­sio­nal appea­rances at Ira­qi wed­dings in the sub­urbs of Tel Aviv. They refu­sed to pass on their culture and art to their des­cen­dants in the hope of avoi­ding the all too bit­ter taste of exile that constant­ly grip­ped their throats and tigh­te­ned their hearts. More com­for­table in his rela­tion­ship with his dual iden­ti­ty, Douad Al-Kuwaity’s grand­son, Dudu Tas­sa, has never­the­less reap­pro­pria­ted his fami­ly heri­tage through two albums under the name “Dudu Tas­sa and the Kuwai­tis”, which offer a reso­lu­te­ly rock and elec­tro twist on songs now consi­de­red clas­sics. He also regu­lar­ly col­la­bo­rates with other artists of Ira­qi ori­gin, such as Yair Dalal. 

Yair Dalal  Ya Ribon Alam  

 

In Iraq, as in the dia­spo­ra set­tled main­ly in North Ame­ri­ca, Israel and England, the Kuwaity’s fer­tile reper­toire conti­nues to resound and repre­sents a strong link with a dis­tant coun­try and a gol­den age long since pas­sed to dust. The Al-Kuwai­ty bro­thers no lon­ger offi­cial­ly exist in their native land, howe­ver, joi­ning other artists dee­med “sub­ver­sive” by their iden­ti­ty or poli­ti­cal opi­nions thanks to the cen­sor­ship poli­cies intro­du­ced by the Minis­try of Culture on Sad­dam Hussein’s rise to power. Their 1,200 com­po­si­tions have thus been ano­ny­mi­sed, joi­ning a “tra­di­tio­nal” body of work that does, never­the­less, conti­nue to exist.

 

 

Coline Houssais

© UAP 2018

Born in 1987 in Brittany, Coline Houssais is an independent researcher, curator and writer, specialising on the cultural history of Arab and Berber presence in Western Europe as well as on music from North Africa and the Middle East. Coline’s recent projects include “Les Rossignols de Bagdad” (a music, storytelling and VJ performance exploring the golden age of Iraqi music) and “This Is Not A Veil” (a visual journey through archives and interviews questioning the use of headwear in France through time, subject of a TEDx talk and recipient of the IMéRA-MUCEM 2021 Residency).

In addition to regular contributions to various media, Coline recently published « Musiques du monde arabe - une anthologie en 100 artistes » (Le Mot et le Reste, 2020). A 2020 Camargo Foundation Fellow, Coline currently teaches History of Arab Politics and Culture in Europe, as well as Music and Politics in Contemporary MENA and Reflection on Memory and Museums at Sciences Po.

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