After Saddam, The Music


The end is coming for Saddam. Right now. He knows it, his torturers know it. In the words of a new song—to be released in April—by Iraq’s most famous singer, Kazim Al Sahir (his name has many spellings; he’s also called Kadim Al Saher), “The War Is Over.”

Still, if the war to come does indeed end by April, the divided nature of Iraq—and of its music—will not end. Indeed, the division may widen, as Iraq’s Arabic majority population and its Kurdish minority each feel free to develop their already flourishing, very dissimilar cultures. The new Iraq may well look—and sound—something like today’s Belgium, where the techno-heavy music of that country’s Flemish-speaking regions bumps up against the Parisian Euro-pop of its francophone southern half. If so, those of us who want to know well the new, hopefully democratic Iraq dare not overlook the music of Kurdistan.

But first, Arabic Iraq. In the Arabic music scene, Baghdad (ironically, a Persian name, meaning “God-given”) plays a minor role. Cairo is its recording center—its New York City—and Beirut, in Lebanon, is its “beach division,” its Miami. Techno acts like DJ Jim and girly Eurodisco-ists like the 4 Cats reign supreme in Beirut; Nubian pop, classic chanson, and the funky desert music known as sha’abi command the 12 million ears of Cairenes. What small prominence the music arising in Baghdad does claim comes almost exclusively from Kazim Al Sahir, Arab pop’s most loved male star.

Sahir’s almost innumerable albums, created over two decades, have conquered nearly the entire Arabic-speaking world. With good reason: Compared to the localized focus of most Arabic pop singers, Sahir’s ebullient sentimentalism and virtually limitless range of melodies, rhythms, instrumentation, and song lengths depict a whole world of places and passions. If the sha’abi so favored by traditional Arabic pop singers feels as locally tribal as its Bedouin origins, Sahir draws upon the entire geography ruled by Arabic governors during the years (A.D. 700 to A.D. 1100 ) when Baghdad caliphs commanded the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Tarab, the light television-show pop that rivals sha’abi in popularity in the Arabic world—tons of it issues every month from studios in Cairo and Beirut production teams—also takes in European (and American) musical styles; but tarab is breezy, comfortable—profoundly unlike the life-or-death profundity of Sahir. Tarab is one of the least dramatic musical genres; Sahir’s music, dramatic to the max. He describes his songs as “sometimes very long, with lots of difficult changes—a full-length opera, unlike the songs of Fayrouz, which are short stories.”

Sahir’s depiction is not overkill. He writes 12- and 14-minute songs—an early CD, Ana Wa Laila (EMI), features two such—and he foresees a next CD in which the songs will, taken together, perform a continuous drama. In doing so, he says, he will “fulfill my love for Mohammed Abdel Wahab, the [Egyptian] classicist who wrote so many of the songs I’ve put to music.”

As a classicist, who dislikes “the techno that so many Arabic kids are making now,” Sahir means no disrespect to the chanteuse Fayrouz by describing her songs as short stories. Fayrouz Rahbani, a Lebanese Christian, has for many decades been Arabic variété‘s reigning international diva, and deservedly: She sings the breadth of Arabic pop, from rhythmic sha’abi to the francophone, almost classical chansons that dominated Arabic performance during the not so distant past—a time in which French, not American English, was the language of polite conversation in the eastern Mediterranean.

Fayrouz is a star in Paris, and even has a huge fan base in Israel, a country she will not visit. Sahir has not performed in Israel, but when he performs in Jordan, as he tells it, “huge numbers of Israelis come to see me!” And why not? The music on Kadim Al Sahir Live (EMI), Ya Nas (EMI), and The Impossible Love (Mondo Melodia), his newest, features rhythms redolent of Nubian pop, instrumentation echoing Indian Bollywood, orchestral atmospherics not very different from those of Italian Eurodisco, and tons of melisma (the Arabic word is mawal) familiar enough to fans of American soul singing—not to overlook his 16-piece orchestra’s classical violin solos. Nor is Sahir’s singing exclusively in Arabic (unlike Fayrouz, who often performs in French) any bar to attracting Israeli fans: Hebrew, let’s not forget, is, like Arabic, a Semitic language.

Like so many millions of Iraqis today, Sahir has not returned home for many years. He says he is able to go back, yet “The Betrayal,” a song he did in the late 1980s critical of the Iran-Iraq war, drew negative attention, and he left. He has lived in Paris; records in Cairo, Istanbul, and Los Angeles; and today holds Canadian citizenship and lives there. Canadian citizenship has given Sahir an entree into the U.S., and his present tour, which brought him to the Beacon Theater late last month, is his 10th.

The music of Iraq’s Kurdish north cannot afford to live in exile. It has no caliphal reach to draw upon. The Kurds are not Arabs. Kurdish is an Indo-European language, as similar to Persian as Dutch to German; the Kurds therefore are linguistically closer to English speakers than to the Arabs who neighbor them to the South. Kurdish pop sounds nothing like the music of Baghdad and beyond. If Arabic pop ranges from Sahir’s sweaty love music to tarab’s smiley face, that of Kurdistan sounds like combat—not surprising in a nation that has been fighting Saddam (and the Turks) for 20 years now. Kurdish hits feature harsh acoustic lute riffs, Turkish melodics, and guitar solos remarkably like American blues-rock. The two best-known male vocalists boast completely dissimilar styles: Sivan Perwer’s harsh, storytelling baritone sounds like J.J. Cale doing Jacques Brel; Xero Abbas sings one of the purest, most melismatic high tenors ever. Fronting his band’s blues-rock guitar and rhythmic delicacy, Abbas has the most righteous and fervent soul voice I’ve heard since 1970s Marvin Gaye. The only even slightly similar Iraqi singer is Siham al Madfai, whose new CD (on Virgin) features delicate Greek-style guitar lines and a tenor recitative somewhat like Abbas’s. Except where Abbas agitates, Madfai soothes.

I’ve yet to find music as vital as these from any of Kurdistan’s female singers—though ubiquitous Kurdistan heartthrob Natalia sings her version of Beirut pop in a husky contralto far fiercer than the genre’s usual cuteness. Fierce singing is, of course, a necessity for a society of pesh mergen (people who face death); less expected is that the Kurdistan Democratic Party Web site, on which you can download the music of Perwer, Abbas, and Natalia, also features music from Israel—prominent in its downloads is the Israeli pop group Silan. Abbas, too, has a song—from Xeribo, his new CD (available from—in which he forcefully mentions Israel. Definitely the enemy of their enemy is their friend. Our own country, when we (hopefully) soon do what has to be done in Iraq, must not forget the Kurds: their courage, their difference, and the large expectations they have of what our friendship can mean to them—and to the future of Kurdish arts.

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