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Iraqi Traditional Music Revisited in a War Era
By Al Jadid Staff
As Iraq makes daily news coverage for the rapidly progressing political events many are concerned about the preservation of traditional Iraqi arts. Among them is the uniquely Iraqi music genre called Maqam Baghdadi, a style of singing distinguished from the rest of the Arab World in the performance, composition, and instrumentation. In an effort to highlight this art Inaya Jaber, an art critic and a columnist in the As Safir Lebanese newspaper, recently wrote two pieces on the subject featuring female Iraqi singers of this genre, the late Salima Murad and Maida Nazhat. Inaya Jaber beautifully described the accomplishments of Salima Murad and elaborated on the details of three of her songs: "Hatha Mu Insaf Minnak" (Not Fair of You), "Alhajr Mu' Ada Ghariba" (Abandonment is not Strange Behavior), and "Qalbak Sakhr Jalmud" (Your Heart is Rock Hard).
While eloquently describing how the lyrics reflect the society and lifestyle of the historical capital city and how exclusively Baghdadi are the lyrics, composition and the common rhythmic pattern known as jurjina,Jaber made the innocent mistake of referring to these songs as coming from the traditional folk music reservoir without identifying the composers (sadly, a common practice for authors to attribute songs to old folklore instead of explicitly stating "composer unknown" if they do not know the composer). This prompted a strongly worded counter article from Hussain al-Sakkaf, who criticized Jaber's research. Sakkaf asserts that these songs were composed by Saleh al-Kuwaiti who along with brother Daoud, Yousef Zarur, Salim Zabli as well as Salima Murad herself were Iraqi Jews who produced significant works in the period from 1930-1950. The names of the composers of Murad's songs were coincidentally confirmed by an article in Al Hayat Newspaper (25 February 2005 ) by Ali Ajjam, without reference to their religion.
This debate was not particularly interesting until a sudden twist was introduced by Sakkaf's claim that in 1973, the then Iraqi vice president Saddam Hussein formed a committee to study the Iraqi musical tradition and appointed the late world famous oud player and composer Munir Bashir as its head. Committee membership also included the then director of the Iraqi Radio and Television, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, later famous for being the Information Minister appearing in the nightly news to deny the American
invasion of Iraq. This committee declared its charter as producing an inventory of legitimate Iraqi songs: "keep the good ones and destroy the bad ones." These were apparently code words for erasing any reference to works by Iraqi Jews. Salima Murad was spared the purge because she had converted to Islam when she married the singer Nazem al-Ghazali, who is credited for preserving the Maqam Baghdadi after the all-time leader and teacher, Muhammad al-Qubanchi. Al-Ghazali had further popularized the repertoire by moving closer in performance style to the popular music of the Middle East. Today, Kazem al-Saher and Ilham Madfaii have taken inspiration from this reservoir to write their own popular material.
Nobody will know if the committee had a hidden agenda since getting a surviving member to admit it is unlikely. Except for diehard conspiracy theorists, this may be less relevant as long as the credit is historically restored to the composers. They probably would have wanted to share their art and stay above the politics.