Tuning in on Baghdad

Regine Basha hopes her Web site will help keep the memory of Jewish Iraqi musicians alive.

Yair Dalal 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yair Dalal 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a modest home in Ramat Gan, a small group of elderly musicians have gathered to play. Abraham Salman, a blind kanoun player, works his fingers masterfully over the large zither-like instrument in his lap. Naim Rejwan strums at an ornate oud, while Baghdadi singer Abdu Sa'ada - known as the "Golden Voice" of Iraqi radio - intones Inta Omri by the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum. Each week the group gathers to recreate the music of their youth in Iraq, where they were once the country's most prominent musicians. Though their numbers are thinning, the work of these artists is being preserved on the Internet by Regine Basha, a Brooklyn-based curator and second-generation Iraqi Jew. "It was just one of those things that no one talks about anymore. It seemed as though not only did people not know that there were Jews in Iraq very recently, but they also didn't know that they had this important contribution to the cultural makeup of the country," Basha said of her inspiration to create the Web site, tuningbaghdad.net. Tuning Baghdad gathers original footage of gatherings such as the one in Ramat Gan, as well as old Super 8 home videos dug out of dusty boxes. The site also contains numerous audio clips and links to YouTube videos and other on-line materials that flesh out the once-vibrant world of Iraqi Jewish music. "That was partially the impetus for the Web site, so you could go deeper and understand how this was all connected, how the footage is really only tapping into the tip of an iceberg of a community that was so integrated and so much a part of the culture," Basha said. Though that world is receding with its aging participants, Basha's project provides a window into one of the 20th century's more remarkable cultural phenomena. It is a little-known fact that in the first half of the 20th century, most Iraqi musicians were Jews. At a 1932 Arabic music conference in Cairo, all of the Iraqi instrumentalists were Jewish. When the Iraqi Radio Orchestra was founded in 1936, all of its members were Jewish - except one. According to Yeheskel Kojaman, a London-based ethnomusicologist and an expert on Iraqi musical history, the phenomenon arose from Jewish educational institutions that offered the country's best musical instruction. The most important of these was Dar Mua'assat Al Imian, or the Jewish School for the Blind, which trained dozens of Iraq's best instrumentalists. Today, Abraham Salman is one of the last surviving students of that school. WHEN THE vast majority of Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel in 1950 and 1951, the musicians went with them. Almost overnight, Iraq lost its musicians, and its musicians lost their audience. Later, Saddam Hussein suppressed the music itself because of its Jewish associations or discredited its Jewish origins. "What's interesting is that because they left, many of these musicians have managed to maintain and preserve a certain kind of music that no longer got played in Iraq and that was a very important part of Iraqi culture. They took it with them. I don't know who was able to play that kind of music any more in later years," Basha said. Though many of these musicians wound up playing in an Arabic music ensemble on Israeli radio, they would never recover their one-time fame. "The Jewish musicians were musicians for seven million, eight million, and they came to Israel to be musicians for 120,000," said Kojaman in an interview on Basha's site. Today, the music is mostly performed in small domestic settings, or at larger communal gatherings known as chaghli. Basha, 40, was born in Israel but grew up in Montreal and Los Angeles. Her father, Sol Basha, an amateur violinist who had been taught by a blind musician in Baghdad, would take her to gatherings where he and other musicians would entertain large groups of like-minded Iraqi Jews. As they played, the audience would gather around shouting out words of encouragement. Often, the party would last all night, with the children drifting off to sleep in an adjacent room. In the early hours of the morning, a traditional breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, grilled eggplant and tea would be served. Today, such gatherings are more rare, though in Israel they still survive. With fewer and fewer of the original Iraqi musicians still alive, however, communities looking to continue the tradition have turned to outside performers. In some cases, Basha said, they will even hire Palestinian performers who are familiar with the traditional repertoire. While Basha doesn't expect that these musical traditions will last much longer, she acknowledges the potential for a revival. Some second-generation Iraqi musicians, such as Israeli oud player Yair Dalal, have had success on the world music circuit. "Within Middle Eastern cultures, some of the music still is played. The popular music that these people are playing will continue to be played by other Middle Easterners. Who knows, maybe there will be some kind of revival in Israel. Maybe," Basha said. For her part, she hopes that her Web site might in some way help keep the memory of the music and its once-famous practitioners alive. "I think my Web site is a forum to see who is still interested," Basha said. "Maybe I'll find out that there are more people out there playing it or discovering it again. You never know. With music, anything is possible because it's not a dead medium. It's always there, and there's always someone who's going to like it."