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Baghdad – music’s fertile territory

BAGHDADI BEATLE: Ilham al-Madfai, in Amman in 2004 - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

One of the world’s richest cultural inheritances and a recent history unrivalled in its trauma, Baghdad’s music has drawn on both. 

Music has always measured the rhythm of Iraqi life, whether in celebration or mourning. These sounds are ancient. Iraq was a cradle of civilisation, with Baghdad itself situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ where so much early innovation happened, including the emergence of the first complex musical instruments.

Founded in the 8th century and lying 50 miles from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon and 150 miles from Uruk, the first city in history, Baghdad was the largest city in the world and central to the flourishing Islamic civilisation of the Middle Ages.

But the mid-13th century Mongol invasion, when Baghdad was razed to the ground, was the first of a series of subjugations. Baghdad was taken by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1534, and Iraq remained part of the Ottoman Empire until the post-First World War British takeover. Then came the perennially unstable Kingdom of Iraq in 1933, a short-lived republic following a coup in 1958, and a scarring 35 years under the Ba’athists after 1968.

The city’s modern music has drawn both on the rich cultural influences of Iraq’s long history – Persian, Turkish, Kurdish and Turkmen – as well as its experience of trauma.

The quarter-century-long period of the Kingdom of Iraq was a golden era for Iraqi music, when Iraqi Jews had a dominating presence as musicians in Baghdad’s lively nightlife. Singer Salima Mourad was among them. Dubbed ‘the voice of Baghdad’, Mourad was the biggest star of the period alongside her Muslim husband, singer and actor Nazem al-Ghazali.

Both sang in the pesteh tradition of light songs that conclude performances of maqamat – the improvisational, sung poems central to Iraqi musical tradition. But with the establishment of the State of Israel, many Jewish Iraqis – including sibling musicians Saleh and Daud Al-Kuwaity, who wrote for Mourad – left the country, taking their musicianship with them. While Mourad stayed, an era of Baghdadi music had ended.

Ilham al-Madfai was born in Baghdad in the swinging 1940s, and would be the man who brought the Beat Boom to Baghdad two decades later. As a teenager, the guitarist formed probably Iraq’s first rock band, The Twisters, playing a repertoire of Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Elvis and Beatles covers. When his parents pressured him to go to London to study at the Chelsea College of Engineering, it seemed that his musical dreams were over. In fact, the move would bring the young man into the orbit of the cream of Western popular music.

It is difficult to imagine a more exciting place for a young musician to find themselves than London in 1964. There Al-Madfai played the city’s hot spots and rubbed shoulders with Paul McCartney. But instead of more fully initiating him into the British rock idiom, the experience saw him turn to playing Iraqi songs, embraced by London audiences for their exoticism.

Back in Baghdad in 1967 he was playing a fusion of the two styles with his band which shocked conservatives – traditional Iraqi instruments, including the zither-like qanoun, the bowed joza made from a coconut shell, and the nai flute, played to a rock ‘n’ roll beat. The result had all the passion of flamenco and the drive of rock, but the unmistakable flavour – and poetic bent – of the Middle East.

Dubbed the ‘Baghdad Beatle’, Al-Madfai enjoyed the golden years of his musical career during the oil-rich and relatively stable 1970s. But this time was not to last. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 destabilised the region, and Saddam Hussein’s seizure of power was followed by the brutal eight years of the Iran-Iraq War.

Al-Madfai fled and spent 10 years in exile. A visit in 1991, on the eve of the First Gulf War, turned into a four-year involuntary stay. He trod a perilous path, the whims of Saddam meaning you could be condemned or rehabilitated at a stroke. Al-Madfai told the Independent that when he was invited to perform for Saddam’s sons, “I realised that I was standing in the middle of quicksand”.

Having got out of Iraq to a new life in Jordan, Al-Madfai found himself beginning from the very bottom of the music industry again, playing in restaurants, but an EMI contract launched him in the West in the late 1990s. His songs remain the sound of a better time in Iraq, with Khuttar (‘Visitors’) about the transience and unpredictability of happiness (“Joy might visit us unexpectedly”), Baghdad, his ode to his home city, and Chal Chal Alayea El Rumman (‘The Pomegranate Tree Has Smothered Me’), about the pulling of Iraq between two empires at the end of the First World War, considered classics of his back catalogue.

Generations of Baghdad’s musicians have spent most of their careers in exile. The oud player Munir Bashir was born in Mosul in 1930 and educated at the Baghdad Conservatoire. Roles as professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad and music director of the state broadcaster in the dying days of the Kingdom followed before the 1958 coup saw him leave for Budapest. There he worked with ethnomusicologist Zoltán Kodály and developed his mission of preserving the musical traditions of Iraq in the face of commercialisation and Western influence.

By the time Saddam came to power, Bashir’s standing in Europe meant he was considered a natural ambassador for Iraqi music, and he was made director of the Department of Musical Affairs and received government support for his vision for the Babylon International Festival, first held in 1987.

But the outbreak of the First Gulf War saw Bashir permanently retreat to Budapest, and his festival thereafter became a sham, a propaganda exercise amid Saddam’s bizarre, Disneyfied reconstruction of Babylon at the site of its ruins. Bashir died in Budapest in 1997, the year the expulsion of US weapons inspectors from Iraq marked the start of the path to a second war in the Gulf.

That same year, Bashir’s protégé Farida Mohammad Ali – some three decades younger, she had only ever known a Ba’athist Iraq – claimed asylum in the Netherlands. She was there to perform with the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble, which she had established with her joza-player husband, Mohammad Gomar, in Baghdad in 1989.

A rare female singer of maqamat, she has responded to Iraq’s years of war and her exile in Utrecht by changing the lyrics of traditional songs to make the long-for love object her homeland rather than a person – “my Iraq” in place of “my beloved”.

Ali’s near contemporary Kadim al Sahir, who grew up in Baghdad, took a similar approach on his hit Beauty and His Love where Baghdad itself is dramatically revealed as the rival love interest to the singer’s sweetheart.

The singer has taken a defiant position ever since his 1987 song Ladghat el Hayya (‘The Snake Bite’) was banned for seemingly referring to the atmosphere of repression in Iraq at the time (“The one who’s bitten by a snake/ Is afraid of the move of a rope”). He left the country in 1991 and his song Fi Madrasat Al Hob (‘In the School of Love‘) (1996), written with Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, was composed during the 42 days of bombing of Operation Desert Storm, its lyrics speaking of “cities of sadness” and “eyes more pure than the Gulf’s water”.

But by the time of the 2003 war, Al Sahir’s songs had become more overtly political, and he collaborated with Lenny Kravitz on the anti-war song We Want Peace in 2004. As the world’s most famous Iraqi singer with 100 million album sales to his name, his passionate voice still represents his home and its sufferings, even as he remains living anywhere but Iraq.

Since 2003, Iraqi music has suffered an onslaught. The archives of Iraqi state radio and the Centre for Traditional Music in Baghdad were damaged and looted in the wake of the US-led invasion. Across the country Al Qaeda targeted musicians in attacks and when Islamic State took Mosul in 2014, the city’s musicians were silenced completely. A twin suicide bombing in Baghdad in January – the deadliest in three years – shows Islamic State have not gone away. But as long as musicians in exile like Kadim Al Sahir and Ilham al-Madfai play the old – and the new – songs, Iraqi music still has a voice.


A generation of oud players born in the 1960s followed the original modern master, Munir Bashir. Rahim AlHaj studied under Bashir himself, and settled in the US after the outbreak of war in 1991. His fellow native Baghdadi, Ahmed Mukhtar, studied at the city’s Institute of Fine Arts and later in London, where he still lives and teaches. Naseer Shamma studied at the Institute of Phonetic Studies in Baghdad and has opened branches of his Arab Oud House music schools in Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Alexandria, as well as Baghdad itself.

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