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rossignols-2 - "Les Rossignols de Bagdad "

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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