With the Umsiyat music festival kicking off at Umm Al Emarat Park in the capital on Monday, we speak to two of the headline acts
Farida Mohammed Ali and Lotfi Bouchnak on preserving the heritage of their homelands
It is one thing to be adept at a particular form of music, it is another when you are one of the few people safeguarding its tradition. Such is the case with Iraq’s Farida Mohammad Ali, who will perform at Abu Dhabi’s Umm Al Emarat Park on Monday. Hers is the first of three concerts making up the Umsiyat music festival.
“I do feel an added significance to what I do,” the 47 year old says from her home in the Netherlands. “This is not just performance for leisure’s sake. I hope that what I am doing is shedding light on a piece of our history, and at the same time inspire others maintain and preserve it.” A big casualty of Iraq’s turbulent history is the diminution of its famed musical tradition.
Dubbed the Iraqi Maqam, it is a musical universe complete with its own architecture of melodic modes, indigenous instruments, vocal and instrumental performances. With the country and its surrounding regions long viewed as one of the cradles of Islamic civilisation and a centre for Arabic culture, the Iraqi Maqam dates as far back as the Abbasid period (8th to 13th century) when Baghdad was the centre of the ancient Islamic caliphate.
Iraqi Maqam’s distinct and stirring melodies – which musicologists number at over 100 – served both the religious and cultural functions of society at the time. Linked to specific regions and tribes, the melodies were used for various purposes – from calling the prayer in mosques and the recitation of the Quran in religious gatherings, to forming rousing anthems at sporting events or catchy jingles sung by street vendors.
With the 13th-century Mongol invasion began a seven-century stretch that saw Iraq ruled by foreign powers, not to mention the repressive modern regime of the late dictator Saddam Hussein and the arrival of ISIL, the Iraqi art form has all but receded from public life. The only real exception being the yearning notes heard from the country’s minarets five times a day.
However, the last 15 years has seen a concentrated effort to revive these traditions. The first major step was taken in 2008, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), added the Iraqi Maqam on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
On an artistic level, several noted Iraqi singers have raised its profile among modern audience, the most popular of which is the Iraqi crooner and popstar Kathem Al-Saher, who peppers his gigs – including his latest New Year’s Eve bash at Abu Dhabi’s Marayah Island – with mawwaweel (vocal improvisations) taken from the Maqam.
But for those interested in a more purist approach, you cannot go past Ali’s Abu Dhabi show. She will be backed up by a band featuring her husband Mohammad Gomar (on the Arabic violin called the djooza), with whom she set up the Dutch-based Iraq Maqam Foundation. Her two-hour programme features a series of traditional folk tunes whose melodies come from the Iraqi Maqam.
While playfully dismissing her mantle as the “diva of the Iraqi Maqam”, citing her low-key nature, Ali’s deeply emotive performance style stems from a childhood dream of being an actress.
Born in Karbala, Ali initially had her sight firmly set on the big screen. As a result, she moved to Baghdad and clocked small acting roles in addition to performing as part of children’s choirs. It was there that she was spotted by the late great Iraqi oud player Munir Bashir, who convinced her and family to train her raw talent with the academic rigours of the Baghdad Conservatory.
Ali acknowledges her family’s blessing was no small thing. It not only went against societal pressures, but also an artistic one in that the performance of the Iraqi Maqam was viewed as the exclusive domain of men. “They thought that women were not up to it because it was too physical,” Ali explains.
“A lot of the notes are challenging and require a certain amount of breath control, but this idea that only men can do it, is faulty at best,” she adds. Those ignorant notions are hard to come by now, Ali states, as a lot of it is down to shifting priorities. Iraq’s terrible period of conflict over the last two decades created a generation of exiles longing to hear the sounds of home.
With tours of the North America and Australia completed over the past two years, Ali says there is a new and genuine appreciation for the Maqam. Absence not only makes the heart grow fonder, she says, but also more grateful.
“The communities abroad are really listening to the songs and understanding their significance and value to the culture,” she says. “One thing I stress though, is that these are not songs to make people feel sad. Yes, there is some loss, but the songs are reminder of better times and, God willing, they will return to Iraq.”
Ali will be joined in Abu Dhabi by a kindred spirit. Tunisia’s Lotfi Bouchnak, who will round off the series on Wednesday night – a day after a performance by Bollywood playback singer Javed Ali – will arrive in the capital with a programme showcasing his homeland’s folk tradition, called Malouf.
Dating back to the ninth century, the genre is thought to be linked to the Iraqi poet and composer Ziryab, who brought his blend of Andalusian music and Arabic poetry during a decade-long stay (813 to 822) in Ifriqiya – a land that comprised modern-day Tunisia and western and eastern Libya.
Performed in small orchestras – featuring violins, drums, sitars and flutes, with lyrics derived from qassidahs (classical Arabic poetry) – Malouf is viewed as the modern reminder of Muslim Andalusia’s rich culture.
It is in that nexus of art and culture, Bouchnak states, that Malouf and Arabic classical music in general is gaining new attention internationally. He recalls a recent show in a cultural heritage centre in Tokyo attended by large number of young Japanese music lovers.
“I first did a Q&A and played a little music in the afternoon session as a way to feel the pulse of the crowd. They kept asking all these great questions about the notes and maqams that I was shocked,” he says.
“I went back to the hotel and changed the whole set for the concert that night.”
While grateful to the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi for setting up such an event, Bouchnak says artists themselves also have a responsibility for representing their culture. “Everybody comes from somewhere,” he says.
“I come from a history that is not only Tunisian, but part of a greater Arabic heritage stretching centuries. If the artist conducts their career from such a vantage point, then that would go a long way in creating great art and help preserve the culture at the same time.