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Baghdad, New Orleans...Crescent Cities

AAJ Staff By

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In Baghdad, you can't exactly go to some downtown dive and sit in with the cats. In fact, if one is not actively seeking such answers, there seems to be no evidence that jazz or any serious art music ever existed in Iraq. During the former Iraqi Regime, music, just as any art, was greatly persecuted. Iraq has always been a breeding ground for the greatest singers of the Arabic vernacular, and possibly in the world. However, due to the environment created by Sadam Hussein, even today all great Iraqi musicians live, for the most part, in Egypt, which has become a mecca of Middle Eastern art.

For the most part these musicians who have escaped, looking for a better way of life, are Arabic pop-artists. In many ways, Iraq has become, or is becoming, another American pop franchise. One on every corner, it's musical Starbucks.

There are really only two musical things currently happening in this country. Religious music still exists in the mosques. However, the reading of the Koran, which is actually sung, is according to most Muslims, merely reading. It sounds like music to my ears. The only other place you can find performed music is in weddings. In this environment, traditional instruments such as nay, oud, and various percussion instruments are used.

Throughout the history of Middle Eastern music, music has always had more room for innovation through its secular music. Aside from weddings, there is little room for secular music due to the inherent chaos of constant public danger. And rest assured, no one is in the wedding crowd, clinching a digital recorder for later transcription and analysis.

Considering Iraq's earliest history, how could music be in such a dismal state? There was a time when one could say much more for Iraqi art. After all, allegedly, the first musical instrument, the harp, was constructed in the Baghdad area during the time of the ancient Sumerians. In fact, "the first musical instrument, resides in a Baghdad museum, not far from where I am writing this article.

If you know anything at all about Middle Eastern singers, you must know that the embodiment of all things vocal was given to the late Egyptian singer, Um Kalthum. On more than one occasion, I have been told by my older Iraqi friends that there was a time in Baghdad when traffic would come to a screeching halt merely because Um Kalthum had come on the radio. Can you imagine cars stopping, work halting, and people crying all because of music? It's hard for me to imagine such a scene in NYC.

I personally cannot provide all the answers as to what happened to Iraqi music. I can however, see much similarity in the musical history of the town that staged much of my musical upbringing. New Orleans, like Baghdad was the beginning of something—jazz. It is, no matter what anyone might say, the fertile crescent of this now immense musical style. In fact, New Orleans was known as the "crescent city due to its shape. Similarly, it had two main styles of music: religious and secular—the latter form eventually becoming jazz.

Much like Iraq, the music of New Orleans moved out to find an appreciative audience. Instead of going to Egypt, musicians such as Louis Armstrong moved to Chicago and later New York. So what happened to innovative music in the city that invented jazz? If you go to New Orleans today you will find music on every corner. Your ears will ache from passing brass bands. However, unless you really know where to look all you will find is formula music made to amuse a sucker tourist from anywhere to drop a couple of bucks in the bucket.

No, the innovative musicians of our city do not move to New York because of an active insurgency or military occupation. In New Orleans, the active insurgency is composed of musicians willing to play "When the Saints Go Marching In seven times a day just to make a quick buck. Our military-like occupation is an army of tourists on every corner, wearing shorts and a fanny-pack. But, I guess you can't really blame them. The temptation of Bourbon St. and cheap plastic beads is really more of a reason for invasion than weapons of mass destruction.

While I am far from an ethno-musicologist, I can say a few things about the state of jazz in Iraq. One interesting fact is that all Iraqis, when referring to a drum kit — not traditional percussion—will use the simple term jazz. So far I have had no success in finding out why this term has been coined. However, I am assuming that some how Iraqis first became aware of the drum kit around the same time that jazz was largely popular.

But that's beside the point. What I'm talking about is a true foreign fighter in Iraq. When I say this, I am referring to myself and what little impact my musical personality has had on the people around me. I've had several students since I've been in country. Most recently I have taken on an eager jazz bass student. He is an American citizen just as I. However, he is Assyrian and originally Iraqi. Originally a drummer, Martin has been patient enough to teach me some things about Assyrian music. I have to say that the music I've encountered here is the most passionate and emotion filled music I know. For this reason, I feel blessed.

Well, I just have two-and-a-half months until I'm back in a real music scene and Iraq is a strange memory. It will be the kind of memory one could never forget. As a result, I believe that my experiences here will always be a part of my musical scene. Until then, you can check out my composition project at my web site, wativ.com.

Peace from Baghdad
Will

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