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Yair Dalal pays tribute to Jewish Iraqi songstress Salima Mourad at Jerusalem International Oud Festival

YAIR DALLAL: If there hadn’t been Salima Mourad, there would not have been Iraqi folklore in Iraq in the first half of the 20th century, period. (photo credit: EYAL TAL)
YAIR DALLAL: If there hadn’t been Salima Mourad, there would not have been Iraqi folklore in Iraq in the first half of the 20th century, period.
(photo credit: EYAL TAL)
Over the past 19 years the Jerusalem International Oud Festival has staged a broad slew of acts from across all kinds of ethnic tracts. Naturally, the majority have tended toward Arabic material, and traditionally the festival itinerary includes tributes to some of the greats of the genre, such as peerless Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and Syrian-Egyptian singer-composer and oud player Farid al-Atrash.
There will, duly, be a salute to both of them at this year’s festival, which takes place under the auspices of Confederation House November 8-17. The King of the Oud and Queen of the Nile concert is scheduled for the Jerusalem Theater (November 15, 9 p.m.), with seasoned violinist-oud player and educator Taiseer Elias at the helm.
But this time round, oud festival artistic director and Confederation House CEO Effie Benaya has also opted for another tribute show, of a rarer variety. For the first time it is the late Jewish Iraqi songstress Salima Mourad who gets the programming nod.
The November 10 (Jerusalem Theater, 9 p.m.) slot will be spearheaded by veteran violinist-oud player and sometime vocalist Yair Dalal, who has gain international renown over his 30-year-plus career to date.
Dalal, who conceived the show and also serves as artistic director, will be joined onstage by a hefty lineup of cohorts, including oud and qanun player and vocalist Elad Gabai, percussionist Herzl Sagi, four vocalists – including Lubna Salameh and Rachel Yehezkel – and the 16-piece Hiba Orchestra, Gabai’s brainchild. It is a qualitatively and quantitatively impressive gathering for an homage which, it must be said, has been a long time coming.
Dalal who, like Gabai, has Iraqi blood coursing through his veins, had been sitting on the project for a long time.
“My ‘love affair’ with Salima began many years ago,” says the 63-year-old musician. “It started from home. I heard her songs back then, you know, songs written by people like [sibling Jewish Iraqi composers] Salah and Daoud al-Kuwaiti, and [qanun] player Yosef Za’arur. I have been waiting a long time to do a tribute to her. I’m really happy that Effie [Benaya] agreed to it.”
Dalal does not mince his words when ranking Mourad’s contribution to the musical evolution of Iraq, and to the Arab world in general. “If there hadn’t been Salima Mourad, there would not have been Iraqi folklore in Iraq in the first half of the 20th century, period.”
DURING HER long career Mourad thrilled audiences in Arab countries and beyond.
“People flocked to her concerts,” Dalal notes. “She was as revered and, I think, as great as Umm Kulthum. She performed in the West, too, including in London, and the king of Iraq was a big fan of hers.” Faisal II, who was deposed and executed in the 1958 coup d’état, was delighted that Mourad opted to stay on in Iraq after the establishment of the State of Israel, unlike practically all the other leading Jewish musicians in Iraq, such as the al-Kuwaiti brothers.
While, despite the adulation of Iraqis across the board, the al-Kuwaitis were initially seen as traitors, Mourad’s popularity never waned. “She stayed behind, as a Jew, but the Iraqis still adored her. She still drew massive audiences.”
However, all that came to an abrupt stop following the death of Mourad’s Muslim husband, Nazem al-Ghazali, a famed vocalist in his own right.
“Salima was considered the greatest there until 1963,” explains Dalal. “Then her husband died suddenly from heart failure.” Al-Ghazali was just 42 years old, and Mourad’s junior by a full 21 years. “Salima became very depressed, and she shut herself away in her home. She never sang in public again. Mourad died in 1974, at the age of 73.
Not only were al-Ghazali and Mourad a couple in real life, they also performed onstage together.
“Nazem al-Ghazali was Iraq’s greatest-ever singer,” says Dalal. “Salima discovered him as a young singer, and she gave him a lot of the songs that had been written for her.”
It was a brilliant success story, on all fronts. “They performed in London and Paris together. Salima Mourad was the voice of Baghdad, just like Umm Kulthum was the voice of Egypt. There were other great singers in Iraq, like Zohoor Hussain and Affifa Iskandar, but she was the greatest.” The Iraqi establishment was of the same opinion, with prime minister Nuri Pasha al-Said dubbing Mourad “pasha,” an honorary title similar to a British peerage.
Dalal says that Mourad was at the forefront of a fundamental shakeup of the Iraqi musical scene. “She performed the songs written by Salah and Daoud al-Kuwaiti. They, in fact, took Iraqi music out of its ancient tradition. They created new Iraqi folklore.”
Dalal says it was a stitch in time. “The Iraqis were stuck in outmoded folklore which had been around before the 20th century – all sorts of maqam [musical mode]-based songs, Bedouin songs and that sort of thing. There was nothing new. Then the al-Kuwaitis came along and shook everything up.” It proved to be a popular move. “The Iraqis loved the new music.” The siblings created a substantial nucleus of music which serves the Arab world to this day. “We are not talking about 50 songs. The al-Kuwaitis wrote maybe 800 or 1,000 songs. Together with Salima they created something new in Iraq. Every single week they released, and performed, a new song.”
Those works found their way into homes across Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, via the airwaves, and with a right royal seal approval. “The king issued a decree to establish an orchestra for Baghdad Radio, and he asked the al-Kuwaitis to take care of it. They played on the radio all the time, together with Salima Mourad, too. Everyone in the orchestra was Jewish.”
Thus, when Jews fled Iraq, largely making aliyah, in the wake of the waves of violence that broke out against the Jews in the aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel and the ensuing Arab-Israeli hostilities, Iraq was left musically bereft. It was basically left to Mourad to keep the scene going. “The departure of the Jews devastated the music industry in Iraq, and Salima resurrected it. Her staying on meant there was someone of great stature to play and write for. Salima had to continue performing, and if Salima had to keep on singing, the musicians had to carry on playing. It was as simple as that.”
But Mourad was not left totally hanging. “Musicians in Iraq had to write new songs for her, but the al-Kuwaiti brothers also managed to send her new works form Israel.” That must have been a tricky business. “They sent them through Turkey and via all sorts of secrets routes.”
Despite the brothers abandoning the Iraqi musical ship, Dalal says they maintained their place of honor in Baghdad. “They were never looked upon as traitors. People just loved their music.”
DALAL IS looking to bring Mourad’s work to wider public notice, without meddling with the source material.
“We are endeavoring to stick close to the original versions. I don’t want to do what Dudu did,” he notes, referencing rock-oriented guitarist-vocalist Dudu Tassa. Tassa, the grandson of Daoud al-Kuwaiti, has released several albums over the past decade or so, including his singular contemporary take on some of his grandfather’s and great-uncle’s material, featuring songs originally performed by Mourad. “I have tweaked things here and there, but I haven’t changed the music much, and we are using more or less the same instrumentation. The source is so wonderful, why change it?”
After such a lengthy gestation period, Dalal is delighted to finally get around to introducing the Israeli public to Mourad’s gems and is hoping to keep the tribute bandwagon rolling a while longer. “We want to bring the past into the present. I want to take this show to Ramat Gan and Or Yehuda and Beersheba. It is an honor to play this music.”
For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000, *6226 and, (02) 624-5206 ext. 4 and