Tuning in to Iraq

A new permanent exhibition in Or Yehuda displays the instruments and chronicles the history of Iraqi music.

History of Iraqi music exhibition 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
History of Iraqi music exhibition 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Besides having a significant numerical presence in what is now called Iraq for more than 2,500 years, the Iraqi Jewish community of the first half of the 20th century accounted for much of the so-called classical Arabic music scene there and, in fact, in much of the rest of the Arab world. The Al- Kuweiti brothers, for example, were among the brightest stars in the Iraqi entertainment firmament and were the darlings of such fellow luminaries as legendary Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum and compatriot singer and composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab.
With that in mind, establishing a permanent exhibition of musical instruments used in Iraq prior to the mass aliya of Iraqi Jewry in the later 1940s and early 1950s seems only natural. Financial considerations notwithstanding, yesterday evening a permanent display of instruments, such as ouds, qanouns and various drums, was officially opened at the Babylon Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda. One of the principal driving forces behind the initiative was renowned 74-year-old Iraqi-born sculptor Oded Halahmy, who divides his time between Jaffa and New York.
Halahmy hails from a well-to-do Baghdad family that came to Israel in 1951. He has fond memories of his childhood environs, where he first tried his hand at the craft of sculpting.
“Iraq was, and is, a land flowing with milk and honey,” he says.
The use of the present tense is not a matter of nostalgia-infused selfdeception or wishful thinking. Unlike almost all his fellow Iraqi-born Jews, Halahmy has had the privilege of being able to visit the country of his birth several times since the Americans stepped in there.
“I have been to Baghdad quite a few times in all sorts of capacities, but I am not ready to talk about exactly what I did while I was there,” he says, although revealing that he has a literary date coming up in the Iraqi capital.
“I have been invited to go to the National Library in Baghdad to read from my book of poetry, which came out in three languages – Arabic, English and Hebrew,” he says.
The tome in question, called Art Home Lands, was inspired by the three cities he has called home over the years – Baghdad, Jerusalem and New York. Halahmy has also published books on sculpture and Iraqi cuisine.
In addition to the material and culinary riches of his early years – he conducted much of the research for his cookbook in Baghdad, including rediscovering the secrets behind his mother’s gastronomic creations – Halahmy happily recalls some of the musical experiences he had back then.
“My parents loved music, and the exhibition in Or Yehuda is dedicated to their memory,” says the sculptor.
“Our radio and the record player brought all of us in the family together to listen to music. It’s not like today, when parents give their child a television and a computer, and he goes off to spend time with them on his own. We used to listen to music, like the songs performed by Umm Kulthum, and that was part of our family time together in the evenings.”
There was also live music on offer in the Halahmy household.
“We lived in a very big house, and all sorts of festive occasions and weddings took place there,” Halahmy explains.
Percussion and voice were particularly important components of the musical entertainment.
“There were always dakata, who were women who played drums and sang, and improvised songs on the spot about, for example, the hosts or the bride and groom. I remember the dakata who played at my brother’s bar mitzva. Everyone drinks arak, and the dakata play and sing. That’s why there are percussion instruments in the collection in Or Yehuda,” he says.
The exhibits were lovingly collected by Halahmy over the years.
“I have visited numerous exhibitions of ethnic musical instruments around the world, and I also learned how the instruments were made and the types of wood used for them – that is key to the sound of the instruments. I invested a lot of money in buying the instruments for the exhibition – I won’t say how much – and they are all authentic instruments that were once played in Iraq, mostly by musicians who have since died,” he says.
In addition to the instruments, the exhibition includes explanations about the history of music in Iraq, in English and Hebrew, as well as photographs of famous musicians of the time.
The exhibition’s launch program included a musical spot that featured a band led by world-famous Israeli oud player and violinist Yair Dalal, whose parents came from Baghdad.
Dalal and his fellow instrumentalists accompanied vocal performances of poems and songs that were popular in the good old days back in Iraq.
For more information about the exhibition and about the Babylon Jewry Heritage Center: (03) 533-9278 and www.babylonjewry.org.il