Baghdad’s Roaring Twenties

A new CD takes listeners back to the streets of a forever lost, fabulous-sounding Iraq

| November-December 2008

Yeheskel Kojaman’s Baghdad is a city of dusty roads, alley markets, minarets, and palm trees. Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, and a few European coffee drinkers lounge in cafés where you can pay—in Indian rupees—to pick and eat fresh salad or have a fish pulled from the Tigris and grilled in front of you. The streets, nightclubs, and houses are full of music. “The singer Hdhairy Abou Aziz has a radio program every Friday from 12 noon till one,” says Kojaman. “For this hour, all movement in Iraq stops. Everybody is in the coffee shop or the house, listening to Abou Aziz.”

Kojaman, an 87-year-old Jewish Iraqi musicologist, is today one of the last few people who can remember 1920s and 1930s Baghdad and the extraordinary music played there. But Abou Aziz and others are resurrected on the album Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted—Baghdad (1925–1929), from the Honest Jon’s label. The compilation is drawn from nearly 1,000 recordings on fragile 78 rpm records rediscovered by chance at a vast EMI archive in Middlesex, England.

“I was looking for some recordings from Sierra Leone, and in the space next to them were these raw, powerful records from Iraq,” says Mark Ainley of Honest Jon’s.

The 78s captured a scene as varied as the city they were recorded in. Old-fashioned rifi (country) songs with a sparse percussion backing sat next to Kurdish violin improvisations. The lavishly instrumented “Egyptian” sound of the big-city nightclubs gave way to Jewish hymns and Muslim devotional songs. Many of the tracks on Give Me Love mix two or more traditions: Abou Aziz’s lovelorn rifi lament “Fahasboukom Hatha” (“Enough Is Enough”) has a full “Egyptian” backing band of oud (lute), violin, qanun (zither), and percussion; Salim Daoud’s Hebrew hymn for the Festival of Tabernacles, “Abney Eqdah” (“Red Precious Stones”), begins with an Arabic call of “Allah!”

“Until 1950, all the musicians in Baghdad were Jewish,” recalls Kojaman, whose family was well known in Iraq’s ancient, 130,000-strong Jewish community. “Muslims could be singers—because they were used to reading and singing the Quran—but they would not let their children play instruments. In the rif, the countryside, things were different.”

In both country and city, however, it was rare and shameful for women of any religion to sing in public. Nightclub singers such as Give Me Love’s Sultana Youssef were banat—prostitutes chosen first for their looks and skill with an unruly champagne-drinking clientele, and only then allowed on stage. They paid a high price, and some of them never saw their families again.

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