Dudu Tassa’s roots revisited

For his latest album, the Israeli singer-songwriter immerses himself in the Arabic music of his late grandfather and great-uncle, who were well-known musicians in Iraq.

Dudu Tasa (photo credit: DUDI HASSON)
Dudu Tasa
(photo credit: DUDI HASSON)
There are those who shy away from the technological advances of the 21st century. But even they must be cognizant of the benefits afforded by the wonders of humankind’s inventions.
Dudu Tassa certainly has no problems with making the most of sophisticated equipment and has exploited the advantages of virtual reality to the hilt in putting together his new album, Allah Shawaiti.
It is the rock musician’s second project based on the music of his illustrious granddad Daoud al-Kuwaiti, and equally venerated great-uncle Sallah al-Kuwaiti, two of the most acclaimed musicians ever to come out of Iraq. Sadly Daoud died just three months before Tassa was born – hence he was given his name – but the 38-year-old guitarist-vocalist has found a way to make music with his forebears, as well as with a glittering roll call of some of Iraq’s finest. The results of that initiative will be on very live display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on Saturday (9:30 p.m.).
Allah Shawaiti follows on the heels of Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis, which came out in 2011. It was Tassa’s first serious attempt at mining his family’s rich musical legacy, and at giving it a modern makeover.
By all accounts the album was quite an operation.
The credits at the end of the liner notes feature several long lists of musicians from three different eras. With the requisite technological means at his disposal, Tassa managed to incorporate recordings of the al-Kuwaiti brothers and some of their contemporaries made in Iraq between the 1920s and the 1950s, when most made aliya. In chronological order, the second batch of recordings dates from the 1950s and 1960s, and features the likes of ney (flute) player Albert Elias, who died last year at the age of 87, and now-81-year-old qanun player Victor Aida who found national fame, in the 1990s, for his role in the Bat Yam New York TV series. The recordings were mostly made on reel to reel tapes and carefully safeguarded at Tassa’s parents’ home for many years.
Tassa certainly pulled out all the stops to ensure that his grandfather and great-uncle were given their due respect, and he recruited an A-lister bunch of current musicians with the necessary instrumental skills, training and cultural baggage. The latter include internationally renowned violinist and oud player Yair Dalal, seasoned qanun player Elad Gabai, ney player Rabbi David Menachem and percussionist Erez Monk.
Tassa also roped in some stellar vocal firepower for the outing, including Ninet Tayeb and Mira Awad. Tayeb will put in a guest appearance in Tel Aviv on Saturday.
Using his great-uncle’s compositions Tassa ingeniously fused the various parts of the temporal and sonic strata into a single intriguing result. The 38-year-old says the exercise engaged him both on a technical and an emotional level.
“I assembled all this different musical material, and used computers and all kinds of technology to make digitized versions of the older music, and this enabled me to join my grandfather, even though I never knew him. To, as it were, sing with him is very moving, both in the recording studio and also on stage – we put his voice on samplers. It is a great joy for me.”
However, unfortunately, no one has yet come up with some technology that allows us to really commune with the departed and Tassa is painfully aware that he cannot simply spend some time with his granddad, sitting at some café by the banks of the River Tigris that runs through Baghdad, chewing the fat.
“It’s very sad for me that I never met and got to know him,” he says. “I’d really like to know what he would have thought of this album. I would have liked to get to know his mentality and character. I was told that he was very sensitive. But I think I did the best I could to get close to him, through this music and these recordings.”
Tassa says he has no pretenses of being a bona fide Iraqi musician. He was born in Tel Aviv and does not speak or really understand the Iraqi dialect of Arabic.
He received professional diction training before making the two al-Kuwaiti-based albums, as did Tayeb – it must be said that both put in highly credible and convincing phonetic performances.
His vocal abilities shone bright and clear from an early age. An enterprising impresario soon got in on the act, and the 13-year-old Tassa was coaxed into recording some Turkish and other eastern-style numbers for an album cheesily called Dudu Tassa Loves the Songs. Happily Tassa survived the experience in one emotional piece and went on to explore other musical areas.
“At school I got into jazz and rock and that sort of thing, and I did nine units on jazz for my bagrut [matriculation] examinations,” he recalls, adding that his artistic ethos and own personality gradually came into sharper focus. “Later it all came together – my grandfather’s influence, the eastern side and also the rock and jazz bits in there.”
When the older and far more mature Tassa eventually felt he had something of his own to say he released the self-explanatorily entitled Yoter Barur (Clearer) album in 2000. In the interim, the restless artist has put out a whopping nine further albums and he says there is much more where that came from.
“I think I’ll put the al-Kuwaiti stuff to one side for now. I don’t think I’ll be another album with their material for a while. But I am always working on something.
I always feel the need to move on.”
For this Saturday’s show Tassa will have the able to support of several of the musicians who helped him make Allah Shawaiti a tangible and polished audible reality, including bassist Nir Maimon, qanun player Ariel Qassis, violinist Nitzan Canetty and drummer Barak Kram.
For tickets and more information: www.tamuseum.org.il or (03) 607-7020.