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Music in Iraq

For most of the 20th century, Iraqi musical culture thrived. There were folkloric traditions and pop and crossover traditions with many outside influences, including Western, as well as purely Western music, including classical music, jazz, and pop.

The most distinctive type of native Iraqi music, the maqam, is a refined musical form, based on a particular combination of melodic lines, tuning, sequence of sung and instrumental parts and texts, and a singing style often heavily influenced by virtuoso Iranian singing styles. It is performed by a singer with several instrumentalists. Singing in Arabic was the common practice, but several noted maqam singers also sang in Kurdish, Turkish, and even Hebrew, Armenian, or Persian, a result of the diverse roots of Iraqi culture.

During the Saddam Hussein regime many musicians of repute left the country, including the maqam singers Farida Mohammad Ali and Husayn al-Adhami, the singer Seta Hakobyan (b. 1950), pop-stars Kadim al-Sahir (b. 1957) and Majid al-Muhandis (b. 1971), and oud virtuoso Naseer Shamma (b. 1963).

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein musical life has come to almost a complete standstill. Not only has the economic situation worsened, but public life has become unsafe, and musicians have become a target of the militias.

Until very recently the names of famous traditional maqam singers – such as Mohammed al-Qubanchi (1900-1989), who represented the full (‘heavy’) maqam style – were still on the lips of virtually every Iraqi. Nazem al-Ghazali (1921-1963), a performer of a ‘lighter’ version of the genre, was the only Iraqi singer in those days to break through in the Arab world; his song ‘Muslim Girl and Christian Boy’ is a moving plea for tolerance and understanding. Lately, however, the maqam genre is under threat of gradual disappearance and is therefore on the UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritages. Besides the maqam genre there has been and still is a vast array of other musical styles. Each ethnic group has its own tradition.

Kurdish music

Under the Baath regime and that of Saddam Hussein, politico-cultural expressions of the Kurdish identity were systematically repressed. This did not prevent Kurdish singers such as Tahsin Taha, Mohammed Shekho and Ardewan Zakhoyi from enjoying huge popularity among the Kurdish population. They have all since died, either by natural causes or they were killed by the regime.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein there is a thriving music life in Arbil (Hewler) and Sulaymaniya (Silemani), partly fed by the returning of Iraqi-Kurdish musicians who had previously lived abroad. Today, Sivan Perwer is probably the most famous of Kurdish singers. His cry for help, Hawar ! (Help !), was written during the massive exodus of Kurdish refugees in the spring of 1991, after the unsuccessful revolt against Saddam Hussein’s forces, which had suffered defeat in Kuwait. It offers a poignant rendition of the human tragedy which took place in the mountains during their flight.

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