Wednesday, April 10, 2013

When illiterate Jews dominated Iraqi music

 Menashi Somekh talks to Eli Timan about Iraqi-Jewish musicians 

Before their mass exodus, Jews dominated music in Iraq - not because Muslims were less able, but because a puritannical 19th century Ottoman wali had forbidden the latter to play music. Jewish musicians were the foremost exponents of the maqam, Middle Eastern musical scales especially typical of Iraq.

Fearful that their musical tradition would be lost, the Iraqi authorities would not allow two Jewish musicians to travel to Israel in 1950 until they had passed on their skills on the Joza and Santur to two Muslim musicians.

Sadly, nothing remains of the official Iraqi broadcast archive: it was tossed into the Tigris river during the 1958 military coup.

In this fascinating 28-minute sound clip above (English subtitles are provided), Eli Timan, a student documenting Judeo-Arabic culture and language, interviews in Jerusalem Menashi Somekh, a veteran journalist with the Israel Arabic broadcasting service and expert on Iraqi-Jewish music.

From being an all-male, all-night home entertainment at haflat, or parties, the Jewish Chalghi band burst on to the international scene in the 1930s. Somekh explains how the humble, poor and illiterate Chalghi players ('an embarrassment') had to undergo a makeover to appeal to an international audience. They modernised their instruments, adding Violin and even Cello to  santur, dumbuk (drum), oud and kamana. The Iraqi-Jewish delegation to the 1932 Cairo Music Congress were made to discard their traditional small turbans, dirty long robes and sandals and donned dinner jacket and bowties. They carried off First Prize.

In a hilarious excerpt some 16 minutes into the interview, Somekh describes how the arts correspondent of Al-Ahram, speaking highbrow Arabic, attempted to ask Yusuf Pataw, one of the band members, who spoke only Judeo-Arabic, the state of the maqam art in Iraq. " Art is in the doldrums!" Pataw replied, misunderstanding him." We only play at weddings. As the evening wears on, everyone gets drunk on arak, the knives come out, we go on our way and hide in the toilets!"

The instrumentalists of this Chalghi band were all Jews

The al-Kuwaity brothers are back

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