Iraq has played a role of great importance within the evolution of Arab music. Especially the oud (Arabic lute), an instrument connected to the rich history and culture of Iraq. This Saturday, three noted Iraqi musicians will be playing at Bozar in Brussels, showing the intricacies of the Iraqi maqam, melodic modes used in traditional Arab music. This concert is timely, as in the coming weeks it will be the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the United States and their ‘coalition of the willing’.
Bleri Lleshi: You were born in Iraq, studied in Damascus and are now living in London. What is your experience of these three different places?
Ahmed Mukhtar: Four actually, as after Iraq I went to Iran. While I was staying in Syria I also went to Lebanon quite often to play music with other musicians. I studied in different places as I was always looking to learn something new, to get better. This has enriched me as a person but also as a musician as I feel home in the Arabic style of Middle Eastern music, but also in the Turkish and Persian genres.
BL: Why didn’t you study in Iraq?
AM: For two main reasons. Firstly, I had to go into the army but I didn’t want to, so I left for Iran. And secondly, there was an unfortunate shortage of material and opportunities to study music at that time in Iraq.
BL: How would you compare these cities to each other, say Damascus to London? Do you see similarities? Is there an artistic life in Damascus for example? And has the musical landscape changed in the Middle East after the recent events in the region?
AM: Damascus was always a city full of life. Being in one of the ancient cities of the Arab world you are constantly in contact with a rich culture of art and music. There is a lot that you can learn and experience in cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Beirut. In London I found something different than in these Arabic cities, but to me Damascus has been very important culturally and artistically.
BL: What about Dubai? Can you compare it to Damascus for example?
Khaled Mohamed Ali: I have been in Dubai for ten years now. I am working there for a music company, teaching the oud and violin. I have been also composing quite a lot in the last few years. Together with other people I organize concerts and parties all over the region, in Cairo, Jordan and Europe.
BL: You are also living in Dubai. Is there a good music scene over there? Are things moving?
Hassan Faleh: We mostly work with famous Arab singers. In Dubai there are big studios and lots of recordings take place there. For example, together with Khaled, we have performed in the orchestra of Kazem Al Sahir, a famous Iraqi singer.
In the beginning Dubai was a kind of tourist destination, but after people over there discovered the music we are playing, they asked us to stay and do recordings. We play popular music, but also traditional music not only of Iraq but also other countries in the region. This has to do with the fact that Dubai is very multicultural. Artists from everywhere are there, and this mixture broadens our horizons and exposes us to a richness of musical cultures. We have the chance to get in touch with Persian, Indian, Chinese and Western music, and we can play with all kinds of musicians. Recently for example I shared the stage with Plácido Domingo.
BL: On Saturday you will be playing maqam, however the definition of maqam is a subject of some debate. Could you tell us what it means to you?
AM: Maqam gets always translated as a ‘scale’, but I don’t agree with this. Maqam is pre-composed music, with a clear structure and steps to be followed. However there is free space within this structure, allowing the artist to express his feelings and interpret the music to connect the steps. To me maqam is pre-composed music which you link during its playing. You are allowed to add things through your feelings to the spirit of maqam, but you are not allowed to jump to another order of scales, or another genre of music.
BL: What about the state of Arab music at the moment? It is music with a great and long history, especially associated with big names such as Oum Kalthoum, Fayrouz, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Farid al-Atrash and so on. Is there an evolution right now?
AM: There are two main strands of the genre. Music made in the Arab world and the one made outside of the Arab world. Arabic music made in Europe is generally much more traditional and quite conservative. The associations here in Europe are more interested in tradition than anything else. The good thing is that we can connect easily with other musicians all over Europe and work together. For example Iraqi musicians work together with other Iraqi’s living in The Netherlands, France or Sweden. There is a market over here for traditional Arab music.
Generally it is thought that the Arab world does not have much going on musically, but in my opinion this is completely inaccurate. I agree that some countries are not doing so well, or perhaps not as well as the have done in the past, Egypt for example, which musically speaking is not the Egypt of the 60’s or the 70’s. However, if you go to the United Arab Emirates, there has been lots of progress and development in their music compared to the past. There is a change for the better. Gulf countries are doing great things in the area of music production. It’s a pity things are not moving as they should in Egypt and Lebanon.
BL: Khaled, you are living in Dubai. Do you share Ahmed’s opinion on the evolution of music in the Arab world?
KMA: I see a positive evolution. The fact that many musicians from all over the world can meet together in these states and produce new material leads to a progression in the field. When I compose music I bring together different feelings and experiences from my life. Recently I composed an Arabic opera which was played in Dubai. This was the first time this combination of genres has been performed, and the project was realized with other musicians from many different countries and musical backgrounds.
BL: We are speaking of Gulf countries, of Egypt and Lebanon, but where is Bagdad? I mean, when you say oud then you think Iraq, you think Baghdad.
HF: Even though Iraq is going through a difficult period, Baghdad still gives life to a lot of musicians. Often young musicians are fighting to find a way up. But they are inspired by professors and musicians and come together to make music. Many of them have left the country, but one thing is certain, there are also many who stay. Generation after generation, Baghdad is raising new musicians.
KMA: It goes back to the history of the country. Iraq is a country with a long history and full of culture, and this is being used as a source of inspiration for the present generation.
HF: For example, you should look at the revival of the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. They are playing music again all over the region and in the Western world. But there are also lots of small bands, young musicians who get together and play music. Music is inseparably linked to the Iraqi personality. There is a story of love between the Iraqi’s and music. It is not easy for them though, as they organize all of this on their own as there is almost no support from the state.
BL: Speaking of the state. What is the situation today in Iraq?
AM: I visit Iraq every year. I go to many places, even to these places who are called ‘dangerous’. I think the present situation has advantages and disadvantages. I believe that one particular advantage is our new-found freedom. We are now free to speak, to say whatever we think about politicians and so on. At the same time we cannot use the freedom properly because we are not used to it. We do not know how to practice democracy, so this creates a conflicting scenario of there being democracy, but at the same time, no democracy.
It is a confusing situation. There is money but very few people are profiting from it. There is also the problem of the guns. Sometimes it seems like the whole world is fighting in Iraq. The ones fighting are often fighting for someone else, but the victims are mostly Iraqi’s. This makes development difficult. On top of this, my experience as a musician has shown me that in such situations that music is the first victim of such upheaval which is disappointing and saddening for the country. If you take other countries with such situations, you see that the last thing to develop is the music. First there is the focus on the social and economical aspects, reconstruction and so on. This means in such wars and conflicts music and art lose a lot.
HF: This year Baghdad is the Cultural Capital of the Arab world, and as a result we have noticed a rise of cultural life in the city. But in Iraq you have two types of people: the optimists who believe things are getting better and have the desire to do something to improve the situation further, and the pessimists who do not participate and would rather stay home and think that all of what is happening is bad.
BL: How do you look back at 10 years of US occupation?
KMA: I cannot really answer this question as for the last ten years I have been living in Dubai. I have not seen Baghdad in ten years. This is why I compose my music to Baghdad. My work is homage to Baghdad.
BL: What is your opinion on the present political, social and economical situation in Iraq?
AM: It is difficult to ask an artist about politics. Music and politics are two complete different things. Artists in general do not have much respect for politics. As an artist you have to be first of all human. For politicians this is much less important.
It is hard to say what is going on and where it is leading to. Many academics and researchers are unable to tell you this. Who am I to know? As an artist I am always looking for peace and I try to bring all Iraqi’s together. This is something which is neither expected nor respected by the politicians. Of one thing I am sure, I am convinced that the Iraqi people will stay together. There will be no division between North and South whatsoever. Here I gamble on the people not the politicians. I believe in the Iraqi people even though the situation is difficult right now.
HF: The newest concept in Iraq these last ten years has been democracy. People have to deal with it and manage it. Some people understand democracy as being an outlaw state because they are free. It takes time to understand democracy. Even in countries which have had democracy for much longer often struggle with this concept.
Little by little, people in Iraq are starting to understand what democracy is. For example there is less fear, in particular less fear of the political system. People feel free to go out to demonstrations, to make public their opinions and demands. It doesn’t mean they will get what they are asking for, but at least they are asking for it. This is a step forward as in the beginning people thought that the freedom of democracy meant that they could do whatever they wanted. Now after 10 years, it is becoming more embedded as a concept, and the definition of democracy has evolved to mean that ‘I have my rights but there is also a common understanding which should be respected’.
KMA: Let me tell you an anecdote about democracy. A man drinks a whole bottle of alcohol and goes to sleep in the middle of the road. Cars pass in all directions next to his body. A man asks him: ‘What are you doing here?’ The man lying on the road replies: ‘I can do whatever I want. This is democracy’.
BL: The Americans decided to leave Iraq. Do you believe that the Iraqi’s will manage to take charge of the country?
AM: The decision of the US to leave Iraq was good, because sooner or later they had to leave. In the last few years we have started to build a state. It is important to start building our own project.
BL: How are you trying to contribute to the situation in Iraq and Iraqi people?
AM: I am very lucky to be able to contribute from here in Europe. I do that through music. I present here the music and the culture of my country. People here understand that great music means a great country. When I speak of the oud, an instrument 5000 years old, people are interested in the country of this instrument and its past.
BL: And Khaled, how about you, knowing that you haven’t been in Iraq for ten years now?
KMA: My soul is in Baghdad. My roots are in Baghdad. Sometimes I dream that I go there and stay there. I’m Iraqi. Everything I do is for Iraq. I compose Iraqi music; I teach and play Iraqi music.
HF: In each concert when I play I am introduced as ‘the Iraqi, Hassan Faleh’. My family is in Iraq and I go there at least once every six months. Many musicians like me left Iraq because the musical facilities are not there, but all of us are trying to contribute in whatever way we can to move forward. There are many musicians and other people who are helping to rebuild Iraq. Even though the situation is difficult, Iraq has not lost its culture as it is part of its roots. For example, this year in the context of Baghdad, the Cultural Capital of the Arab world, together with Khaled we are going to play with Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. We will be playing one of his compositions.
BL: So, you are returning to your city?
KMA: Yes, finally!
Interview / Bleri Lleshi
Artists / Ahmed Mukhtar oud; Khaled Mohamed Ali oud and Hassan Faleh qanun
Concert Saturday 02/02 at Bozar in Brussels 20.00 – 22.00, Halle M