Classical Iraqi music, like much Arab classical music, is deeply passionate, poetic and has a complex internal structure based on “maqams,” interlocking scales (for those familiar with musical terminology, more like “modes“) that indicate a relationship of notes that creates a particular desired emotion or mood. In essence Iraqi maqamat (the plural of “maqams”) originated over a thousand years ago, but they came together in their modern form in the mid-1800s. Iraqi maqamat are slower than most others in the Arab world and are predominantly in minor keys.

Each melody in a maqam performs a particular role; learning a bit about them may help shed light on what may seem to be an impenetrable musical labyrinth. (Thanks to’s “About Maqam” page for this outline.)

— the muqaddima, a rhythmic instrumental piece that precedes the maqam
— the tahrir: the opening melody/main theme that appears throughout the maqam
— the qita’ and awsal: both secondary melodies that help provide structure for the composition
— the jelsa: a small melody that precedes the climax
— the meyana: the climax, usually one of the qita’ or awsal sung in a high register
— the qarar: descent into a lower register
— the teslim: a melody that concludes the maqam, leading to the pesteh, which is a light song that comes after a maqam.

In the 1920s and ’30s a disproportionate number of the musicians performing increasingly popular forms of classical Iraqi music in the nightclubs of Baghdad were Jewish. Oud players, percussionists, cellists who played Arabic classical music on Iraq radio…some were graduates of a prominent music school for blind Jewish children, others adopted the profession because being an instrumentalist was, essentially, the family business. While some Iraqi vocalists were Muslims or Christians, many prominent vocalists of the time were Jewish as well. The most famous Iraqi singer of in the ’30s and ’40s was the widely adored Salima Pasha, later known as Salima Murad, who often performed with her husband, vocalist, actor (non-Jewish vocalist and actor) Nazim Al-Ghazali. Both were well-known for their pestehs (see above). The Iraqi public’s loving respect for Salima Pasha was extraordinary because at the time being a female vocalist in Iraq was not the most respected profession–most female Iraqi vocalists originally worked houses of ill-repute. In the 1950s when almost every Iraqi Jewish musician emigrated to Israel, Salima Pasha chose to stay. She continued to sing to adoring crowds and passed away in Iraq in 1974.

More about the contribution of Jews to early 20th century Iraqi music:
Watch Salima Pasha with an extraordinary band, many members of which were graduates of the Jewish school for the blind | Listen to Pasha and Al-Ghazali perform together | The Journal of Babylonian Jewry’s “Jewish Role in Iraqi Music” | The path of Iraqi Jewish music: Iraq => Israel => …Canada? | preserving the Iraqi Jewish tradition on the web |
Being a musician in Iraq during the reign of Saddam was a tricky business; Saddam only allowed music that supported his rule.
Says expatriate Iraqi musician Rahim Al Haj, “In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War, we listened in Iraq only to war music. I once counted 669 songs about Sadam Hussein.” In the difficult years of sanctions after the 1991 Gulf War being making a living as a musician in Iraq became nearly impossible; most professional Iraqi musicians sought their careers abroad.

Unfortunately life for Iraq’s musicians since the fall of Saddam has become even more complicated. Since 2003 Iraqi religious extremists have organized attacks against Iraqi musicians and even those who sell music, claiming most forms of music, especially those with instrumentation are haraam/forbidden because they lead to wine drinking and other sins. The must-see film Heavy Metal in Baghdad documents the many struggles of the four members of what was perhaps Iraq’s first heavy metal band, Acrassicauda, as they tried to navigate the religious and political extremes of wartime Iraq.

In class we’re going to listen to:
— Rida El Abdallah: “Mara Mara”
Rida El Abdallah is one of Iraq’s most popular homegrown pop stars. His music blends classical Arabic maqamat with popular contemporary styles and his lyrics address social and political issues by exploring the dynamics of human relationships. Rida was born in Baghdad and began singing at an early age. He studied music at a conservatory in Baghdad and was on his way to becoming a composer, performer, oud player and even an artistic critic of the Saddam’s regime–his songs during the 1991 Gulf War urged citizens to put down their guns and play instruments in their place–when he graduated from the Academy of Arts, Music and Theater and was drafted for his eighteen month compulsory military service.

From this point Rida’s life takes a horrifying turn. His story is a rough one and not necessarily appropriate for kids (or, for that matter, for grownups), but you should absolutely read the biography on his website. In a nation that has endured trauma after trauma, Rida’s trials are sadly all too familiar to his fans. On the other hand, so is his determination to survive so he can continue to sing.

More information:
Rida Al Abdullah’s home page: the guy sure knows how to make an entrance. And how to pick a scarf. (Find his biography here, though be aware it’s not for kids.) | Watch Rida perform on a TV show in front of a live studio audience full of people having a grand time | Watch a confident and captivating Al Abdullah sing “Ya Rab Aleik El Awad”

— Kadim Al Saher: “Habibati”
Kadim Al Saher is one of the best-selling singers and composers in the Arab world, and also one of the most hyperbolically nicknamed: according to his Wikipedia page, Kadim is known not only as the “Caesar of Arabic Song”, but the “Elvis of the Middle East”, “Iraq’s Diplomatic Ambassador to the world”, and “Iraq’s Ambassador for Peace.” During the 1991 Gulf War Kadim relocated to Jordan where his music career blossomed. (Note Rida Al Abdullah’s very different path to Jordan as alluded to above.) Kadim was careful throughout his time in Iraq to not run afoul of the ruling regime by talking politics. He has since gone on to become internationally respected artist, a committed musical humanitarian, and, also according to Wikipedia, since “he is not settled yet in one country and moves mainly between Cairo, Dubai, Beirut and Paris” apparently a very frequent flyer.

More information:
Listen to almost every song Kadim has released at his page on (and marvel at the consistency of his choice of subject for his album covers) | Watch a dapper
Kadim woo a woman and conquer a dozen examples of computer-generated nature in this video for “Habibati”

Comments are closed.