Dudu Tassa and The Kuwaitys

On his new hit Arabic language album, rocker grandson Dudu Tassa is rejuvenating the Kuwaity brothers' music here.

dud tassa_521 (photo credit: (Noam Yosef))
dud tassa_521
(photo credit: (Noam Yosef))
Israeli musicians of Iraqi descent have long been in a curious position. While some of their counterparts from other Sephardi communities have gained mass recognition, albeit generally by adapting their roots music to more contemporary and Westernized energies and intent, it is hard to think of a single rock or pop star with hit numbers based on traditional Iraqi works. But Dudu Tassa may be about to change all that.
The 34-year-old rock singer-guitarist has an impressively burgeoning discography behind him. The then wunderkind’s debut release, Ohev et Hashirim (Loving the Songs), came out in 1990 when Tassa was just 13. His sophomore effort, Yoter Barur (Clearer), was issued a whole decade later, but since then, he has kept the hardhitting rock albums flowing fast and furious.
Now Tassa’s maternal Iraqi roots have come through loud and clear, on his latest CD, his eighth to date, Dudu Tassa and The Kuwaitys. Despite the fact that all 11 tracks are in Iraqi Arabic, the release is doing nicely in record stores and, amazingly, one number – “Wen Ya Galub” – even made it to the Galgalatz playlist. It is an unprecedented achievement for an Arabic-language song.
“I am sure that I got the musical genetics, the musical sensitivity, from my Iraqi grandfather.” And we’re not talking just any old Iraqi family heritage here. Tassa’s mother is the daughter of Daoud al-Kuwaity and niece of Saleh al–Kuwaity.
As the name suggests Daoud and Saleh were born in Kuwait, but from an Iraqi family that temporarily relocated to the then emirate. Their work subsequently took the brothers to Basra in Iraq, and then to Baghdad. For anyone not conversant with the history of Jewish musicians in the pre-Israel Arab world, it is hard to envisage the megastar status enjoyed by Jewish artists in many Arab countries, and none more so than the Kuwaity brothers. From the 1920s until their aliya in 1951, Daoud and Saleh played to jam-packed concert halls in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and even in pre-state Palestine. When, in 1936, King Faisal of Iraq wanted to establish a state radio station, it was to his favorite musicians, violinist-singer Saleh and oud player-singer Daoud al-Kuwaity that he turned. The Kuwaitys put together a sextet and the nascent Iraqi national radio station’s official musical ensemble was up and running.
“Five of the six players were Jewish,” observes Shlomo Elkiviti, 54, Saleh’s son, who has invested a lot of time and effort over the years in researching his father’s and uncle’s work, and has written a book about his father’s musical exploits in the Arab world which will be launched on March 31 at the Iraqi Jewish heritage center in Or Yehuda. “You have to understand they were really famous. They were the king’s favorite musicians.”
Besides their work for the state radio station the Kuwaitys also performed for the king’s private radio station, and they frequently toured the Arab world.
Tassa, naturally, knows a lot about the maternal side of the family history, although he didn’t get much first hand. “My grandfather died a few months before I was born, and I am named after him – Daoud is David, which is Dudu. This CD is a way of communicating with him and Saleh, and hopefully introducing a new generation to their wonderful music.”
IT WASN’T love at first listen for Tassa, as was the case for almost all Israeli-born children of olim from Iraq, and for some of the third generation too. Veteran exponent of Iraqi and other Arabic music, violinist-oud player Yair Dalal, for example, who plays on Dudu Tassa and The Kuwaitys, both of whose parents come from Iraq, grew up with the pop and rock music of the 1960s and ’70s and only rediscovered his cultural roots when he was in his 30s.
Like Dalal, Tassa didn’t exactly go for his grandfather’s music when he was a youngster. “All that painfully sad Arabic music wasn’t my cup of tea at all when I was a kid,” he says. “It was all about depression and gloom and doom. It wasn’t the kind of music you listened to with your school friends.”
Tassa’s first musical love were the songs of Eastern or Mediterranean singers, the likes of Zohar Argov and Yishai Levy, when the socalled “cassette singers” wave began in the early ’80s. In his teens he began to get into some of the pillars of the local music community, like Shalom Hanoch and Arik Einstein, as well as American and British pop and rock. “The cassette singers all fed off Arabic music, but they underwent a sort of transformation.”
But, the “cassette singers” were almost all of Yemenite or Moroccan descent, no Iraqis. “The Iraqi musicians didn’t go through that transition into Mediterranean music,” muses Tassa. “They stayed true to their roots music. Maybe it’s because the Jewish Iraqi musicians were held in such high regard back there.”
There were some social and other issues to be negotiated before Tassa could allow himself to open up to his grandfather’s music. “Even my mother, the daughter of Daoud al-Kuwaity, only listened to Arabic music with the volume turned down low. Back then there was a social stigma attached to Arabic music, and anything to do with Arabic culture.”
Things have changed a lot since then. “I think there is more openness and acceptance these days,” observes Tassa, although he adds that there is still some way to go. “I don’t think we artists do enough to change things here. Let’s face it, we live in the Middle East, in a country with so many musical and cultural influences – rock, pop, classical and all the ethnic stuff – and we are surrounded by Arabic culture and we have taken something from everything. But, in Israel we didn’t utilize this synergy of East and West to the full. I think it’s a winning combination.”
Tassa has certainly used that confluence, of rock and Arabic coloring and nuances, to great effect in all his albums up to Dudu Tassa and The Kuwaitys, with the Yemenite trills learned at his paternal grandfather’s synagogue and hard-edged diction adding bite to his rock vocals, and now the Arabic-Iraqi side of his familial DNA has come to the fore.
Tassa credits Dalal with helping to get the word about Arabic music out there. “Yair has gone the full Monty. He gave up rock music altogether and embraced his roots music. When he plays violin, I hear Saleh. I met the two genres somewhere in the middle. I am a product of my generation, not Yair’s and certainly not my grandfather’s. I was born and raised in Israel.”
ONE WONDERS what Daoud would have made of Tassa’s new album, with its contemporary instrumentation and rhythms. Granddad Kuwaity died in 1977 and never laid a finger on an electric guitar, drum machine or computer.
“It probably would have been a bit hard for him to digest my new CD,” Tassa confesses, “particularly because there was a lot of silence in their playing; they had patience and time. Every piece they played was 20 minutes long or even longer. They listened to each other’s playing and were relaxed.”
That Tassa brings a different energy level to his music is abundantly clear, even on Dudu Tassa and The Kuwaitys. “I never have time for anything. I’m always rushing around and, for me, it’s all about the here and now. I’m sure that would have bothered my grandfather. For them it was all shwayeh, shwayeh (slowly, slowly). For me it’s all there’s no tomorrow.”
Still, Tassa gets a morsel or two of “the old days” at periodic family gatherings. “After the meal my father gets darbukas and other instruments out and a hafla starts up, real slow. But I don’t hang around very long. I’m a bit frenetic.”
Once he got into the idea of the new CD, Tassa became completely enveloped in the world of his famous grandfather and great-uncle, but it was something of a struggle to get him to the starting point. “I worked very hard with him,” says his uncle Shlomo. “I had to drag him into it kicking and screaming.”
Elkiviti had a weighty vested interest in getting his nephew to embrace his father’s and uncle’s music and, in a sense, Dudu Tassa and The Kuwaitys offers him some sort of closure.
“My father didn’t allow me or my siblings to study music,” says Elkiviti. “When he and Daoud came on aliya, they had a steep fall from grace. They left behind a life of riches and fame, and came to Israel where almost no one knew who they were, or was interested in their music. They had to open up a tiny household goods store in the Hatikva neighborhood [in Tel Aviv] because they had families to feed, but they never got the recognition they deserved as artists. That was a very bitter pill for them to swallow, and they didn’t want their kids to go through the same thing.”
Besides helping his non-Arabic speaking nephew to get his accent and diction right for the new CD, Elkiviti has compensated for his forced abstention from playing music by gathering as much material as he can about the Kuwaity brothers and their enormous musical oeuvre. “They weren’t allowed to bring any of their music with them from Iraq, but we eventually managed to get loads of their songs out,” he says.
Five years ago Elkiviti put out a double CD set of the Kuwaitys’ songs on the Tel Aviv-based Magda label. “When I started on the project I started searching for their songs, and I only managed to find 10.”
But help was at hand from an unlikely source. “I have lots of friends in Iraq and Kuwait,” says Elkiviti. “We stay in touch and we meet up in London and other places. With their help I collected 700 songs by the brothers, most of which were written by my father.”
Despite the veritable avalanche of Kuwaity songs that eventually found their way here, it wasn’t so simple to unearth all the works, although the American invasion of Iraq certainly helped. “Saddam Hussein wasn’t happy about the fact that Jewish musicians were so famous and well-loved in Iraq,” explains Elkiviti. “So he issued an order to have Saleh’s and Daoud’s names expunged from all records. But he couldn’t get rid of their music because it was so popular and so many Iraqis knew the songs.”
The Kuwaitys, and especially Saleh, have had their honor restored in post-Saddam Iraq. “There have been three seminars on my father’s music at Baghdad University, and the music library at the university is named after him. And recently there was a program on Iraqi TV about the Kuwaitys’ music.”
It has been a gratifying development for Tassa and Shlomo Elkiviti. “There is a street named after Saleh and Daoud in Tel Aviv, and one in Or Yehuda,” says the latter. “I really want people, in Israel and, more so, in Iraq and Kuwait, to realize just how great they were. I am dying to go to Kuwait to see where Saleh and Daoud came from. Maybe, hopefully, one day.”
Still, he isn’t doing too badly with furthering the Iraqi Jewish musical preservation cause. He got that tribute CD out in 2006, he is launching the book about his father and he helped his nephew get his father’s lyrics right on the new CD.
FOR HIS PART, Tassa is delighted to doff his hat to his grandfather and great uncle, although he feels he could have done a bit more. “I am frustrated by the fact that I don’t know Arabic, other than a few words I’ve picked up from my mother. I also tried playing oud, but I just couldn’t manage it. I don’t have the talent for it. The lyrics [on the new CD] were all gibberish for me to begin with. The lyrics and music have to pass through the filter of understanding, so I asked what all the words meant.”
Jerusalemite singer Dafna Dori, whose Iraqi-born mother Suad is also a singer, translated all the Arabic texts into Hebrew. “Shlomo also helped, as did Prof. Yossi Yonah and [percussionist] Herzl Sagi, and Albert Elias, who played with my grandfather.”
Uncle Shlomo feels, language-deficiency notwithstanding, that Tassa did a good job. “Dudu didn’t really have to understand all the words. He got the sense and meaning through the music. That is his great talent.”
Ney (flute) player Elias, 83, plays on the new Tassa CD and is one of the few remaining active musicians from that generation. He, Sagi and kanoun player Victor Aida, best known for his role in the successful mid-’90s TV series Bat Yam New York, will be on hand to play at the book launch in Or Yehuda. Other Iraqi-born musicians, such as octogenarian violinistoud player Salim al-Nur, had daytime jobs after making aliya and made do with weekly jam sessions in a makeshift venue in Pardess Katz. Some, such as Elias, found their way into the IBA’s Arab Orchestra, although Arabic music broadcasts on the Voice of Israel were initially restricted to just 20 minutes a week.
Shlomo Elkiviti bemoans the stance of the Ashkenazi establishment in the young State of Israel toward Arabic culture, even though he understands some of the rationale behind it. “Arabic was the language of the enemy, so the state was not going to embrace that.”
Even so, he found some of the evidence from those early years hard to swallow. “In my book I quote [foreign minister] Abba Eban, who said about olim from Arabic countries that ‘we have to tell them their culture is not ours, their customs are not our customs, and they have to accept ours.’ The pioneers built the state, but I always compared the situation of Israel to opening a Gucci shop in the Cairo market; it doesn’t fit. We tried to be Gucci in the Middle East.”
Besides Dalal and Elias, Tassa enlisted the help of Arab musicians from east Jerusalem for the new CD, and a couple of megastars of the local pop and rock sectors – Yehudit Ravitz and Berry Sakharof.
“Barry’s from Turkey, so he connected well with the music, and Yehudit’s mother comes from Egypt. When I asked Yehudit if she wanted to be on the CD she was very enthusiastic about it. She did something with [Yemenite singer] Ahuva Ozeri a few years ago. She’s another second generation artist who is rediscovering her cultural roots. I really hope this CD moves things a bit in that regard. Maybe the CD will help to right a few wrongs and restore a little respect for that generation of great Jewish Iraqi musicians, like Saleh and my grandfather.”