Jewish Role in Iraqi Music

| י״ח בשבט ה׳תשע״ז (14/02/2017) | 0 Comments

by Yeheskel Kojaman

The Iraqi Jewish community settled in Iraq long before the Arabs occupied the country.

Jews mastered the Arabic language quickly, and participated in all fields of life. The leaders of the community were treated with great respect by the Khalifs.

This article deals mainly with the role of the Jews in music during the first half of the 20th century. The Jewish community in Iraq liked instrumentalists and treated them with respect for their skills and their artistic talents. Thus, during the first half of the twentieth century, Jews were virtually the only instrumental players in Iraq. They were the musicians of the Iraqi people. In 1932, for example, all the instrumentalists who attended the first Arabic music congress in Cairo were Jews, while the singer, Mohammed Al-Qebbantchi was Moslem. At that Conference the Iraqi ensemble received the first prize from King Fuad. When Iraq Radio was first established in Iraq in 1936, the entire instrumental ensemble, apart from the percussion player, was Jewish. Almost all instrumentalists in the night-clubs of Baghdad were Jews. For this reason, on Yom Kippur and Tish’a ‘be-Ab, the two most solemn days in the Jewish calendar when Jews did not play music, no live music was broadcast on Iraq Radio; only records were played.

During the late 1920’s, an instrumental ensemble at a night-club consisted of violin, qanum (plucked trapezoid zither), ud (middle-eastern lute) and two percussion players. Only in the broadcasting station were cello and nay (flute) introduced.

Singers, both men and women, were of different religions – Moslems, Jews and some Christians. The most famous woman singer, since the early 1930’s, was a Jewish vocalist called Salima Pasha (later Salima Murad). At the time, it was considered shameful for a woman to sing in public, so that no respectable family would allow their daughter to become a professional singer. Thus, a situation existed whereby women singers (and dancers) were recruited from local brothels from among those who had musical talent. Despite this, Salima Murad was loved and respected; she was asked to sing at numerous private parties where she earned a high fee. She is known to have helped many people financially, and by interceding on their behalf at Government level when necessary.

In 1936, an institute was started for the teaching of instruments, singing and acting, but most of its instrumental classes were for brass and other western instruments, such as piano and violin. The only eastern instrument to be taught was the ud (middle-eastern lute). However, another institution, the school for blind Jewish children existed since the late 1920’s. It was started so as to teach these children a profession – such as weaving, and the making of brushes, cane seats and cradles of rope – to save them from the usual fate of begging. Most of the children liked music, and the school provided them with instrumental lessons. Many of the students became musicians in Iraq, and later, as part of the Arabic Music Ensemble Qol Yisrael (Israel Radio), was formed of these blind musicians. The term “Art Music” is used to denote all music which is pre-composed, and thus in most cases has a known composer; it is distinct from folk music. In Iraq, there are two traditions of art music as sung and played in the big cities such as Baghdad, Mosul and Basra.

1. Modern Music

This tradition is identical with music sung and played in all other Arab countries. In vocal music, it was Egypt that dictated the new repertoire. Composers and singers of new songs appeared first in Egypt, which became the leader in the development of the “modern music” style. The new repertoire then spread to other Arab countries. It was only in the late 1920’s that Egyptian musicians began to compose new instrumental pieces.

In Iraq, new compositions emerged somewhat later than in Egypt. Until the early 1920’s, there were no famous composers, except for Ezra Aharon, an ud player who was one of the musicians in the group that represented Iraq in the 1932 Congress of Arabic Music at Cairo; he later became famous in the Middle-East Broadcast (from Cyprus), and later (first in Palestine) and then in Israel, as the director of the Arabic Music Ensemble for Israel Radio.

During the 1920’s, two brothers began to gain prominence in the field of music in Iraq; the Kuwaiti brothers – Salih, a violin player, and Dawud, an ud player. Almost at the same time, the name of a woman singer, Salima Pasha (then Salima Murad) began to achieve fame. The brothers, Salih and Dawud el-Kuwaiti began to perform and to compose new songs for Salima. Salih became the most prominent musician in Iraq, and Salima became the most famous singer. Following the opening of the Iraqi Broadcast Station in 1936. Salih was asked to form the official music ensemble for the radio station. It was due to him, that two instruments, the cello and nay (flute), were introduced for the first time into the instrumental music ensemble.

2. Iraqi Maqam

In Iraq, this second tradition of art music is known as Iraqi Maqam. No other Arab country had encountered this form of music until the Congress of Cairo in 1932.

The Maqam tradition in Iraq is in fact, a composed repertoire of about sixty songs, to be performed by a solo singer accompanied by an instrumental ensemble, the latter being known as the Chalghi Baghdad. In the past, the Maqam (pl. maqamat) was also sung without instrumental accompaniment. Most Maqamat were composed before the twentieth century. Some were composed by known composers, for example, Ahmed Zaidan and Mohammed Al-Qebbantchi (both twentieth century composers), and some are anonymous. These songs are transmitted orally from one singer to another, and on the whole are sung as the original composer composed and performed it.

All these songs were composed according to a strict set of rules which they share in common, and any new Maqam must be composed according to the same set of rules.

The Maqam is usually formed of three sections – the tahrir (introduction), the matan (the text of the poem) and the tasliim (conclusion). Generally, they are all sung with instrumental accompaniment.

The Maqam is often followed by a light song called pasta. The instruments that are used to accompany the maqam singer, differ from those used in the Modern Music tradition. The maqam ensemble, called the chalghi, consists of a santur (struck dulcimer), a kamana-joza (a four-string spike fiddle; body constructed from a coconut shell) and two percussion instruments, the daff (frame drum, with metal discs) and dumbuk (goblet-shaped drum; also known as “tabla” in Egypt.

During the end of the nineteenth century and until about the beginning of the 1950’s the chalghi instrumentalists were exclusively Jewish. This profession was strictly a “family business.” During this period, there were two such chalghi ensembles in Baghdad – the Patao ensemble and the Bassoun ensemble.

Maqamat were sometimes sung in coffee houses. Traditionally, though, they were performed at family celebrations; at such celebrations they performed until morning. At such performances, the maqamat were divided into five groups known as “chapters.” Each chapter is composed of four to six maqamat, based on different melodic modes. These maqamat are generally sung in the same order, and are not repeated in another chapter.

Each maqam is followed by a “pasta.” There are many pastat in the same melodic mode, and the singer may choose any one of them. The texts are mainly popular dialect. The pasta gives the audience an interval of light music during which they can clap, accompany the singer and even dance, changing the atmosphere from the very serious attention which is demanded during the singing of the maqam.

The majority of Iraqi Jews emigrated to Israel during 1950/51. All the Jewish musicians emigrated as well, except for some of the women singers, such as Salima Murad, Sultana Yusef, Nadhima Ibrahim. Musically, it was a difficult period in Iraq, as there were insufficient musicians, but the problem was initially solved by using graduates of the Institute of Fine Arts and by borrowing musicians from other Arab countries. Later, many musicians and composers in modern music appeared, and any new maqam singers and chalghi players were trained at the Institute, which opened a special branch for teaching maqam.

In Israel, the situation for the Iraqi musicians was also difficult. In Iraq, their numbers had been sufficient to play to the millions of Iraqi people, but in Israel they found themselves limited to an audience of only tens of thousands – and an audience that is diminishing day by day, because the old are dying and the young are now accustomed to Israeli music.

There was only one Arabic music ensemble in Qol Yisrael (Israeli radio); the ensemble originally consisted solely of Iraqi musicians most of them young graduates of the School for Blind Children in Baghdad. Salih and Dawud el-Kuwaiti continued to play and compose and sing in addition to their regular work to earn their living, outside the music profession. Music was part of their life, and they continued to play and sing to their last day.

The above photograph was taken in 1933 at a gathering at the home of Yousef Za’arur Senior showing the Iraqi Jewish musicians with members of the visiting Egyptian orchestra. Sitting from the right: Yousef Horesh; Mohammed al-Qebbantchi; Hoogi Patao; Nahome Yona; tamborine player and an Egyptian musician.

Category: Iraq, Music

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