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Faisal Laibi Sahi's painting

"Tunes of a Wonderful Era: On the Music of Saleh Al-Kuwaity" in Modern Iraq

By Emile Cohen

In Iraq the years 1920-1950 were a wonderful era for music. During the Ottoman Empire the Ottoman Sultan issued an edict that only the dhimmis were allowed to play music and hence all the musicians were Jewish except for the odd percussionist. In that era the Kuwaity brothers Saleh and Daoud excelled. Saleh played the violin and Daoud played the Oud but Saleh also composed songs. He was a prolific composer who shone in the 1930s and 1940s until his immigration to Israel in 1951.

The brothers were born in Kuwait, and hence the name; Saleh in 1908, and Daoud in 1910, and having recognised their gifts in music, their father commissioned a Kuwaiti musician to teach them and hone their abilities. They had a tremendous passion to learn music and in 1927 they travelled to Basra working with the famous Maqam singer Mohamed Al-Qubbanchi and then travelled throughout Iraq to absorb the diverse sounds and tunes of country folks and cities and learnt the traditional music of the Maqam. In 1929 they left to Baghdad to work in a nightclub featuring some famous singers of the time like the prestigious Jewish songstress Salima Murad. Salima recognised the genius of Saleh Al-Kuwaity and asked him to venture into composing music for her. He composed 5 songs for her in a short period of time which all became major hits. After that Saleh took up composing songs for all the artists of the time. Not only did he excel in the classical and popular music known at his time, but he created new styles of Maqam and developed the Iraqi song to a higher level which gained great popularity with the public. His contribution to Iraqi music led him to work with leading Egyptian artists Muhammad Abdel Wahab and Um Kulthum. Along with his brother Daoud, a brilliant Oud player, they enriched music in Iraq and they became the founders of the musical ensemble of Iraqi Radio. He became such a highly creative composer that he is reputed to have composed some 700 songs in a 20 year period.

In March 2014, a book was issued in Baghdad written by his son Shlomo in Israel, called Tunes of a Wonderful Era (Nagham Al Zamman Al Jameel) narrating the artistic history of Saleh Al-Kuwaity with comments and quotes by leading critics and musicians. They consider him the father of the modern Iraqi song and he is held in great esteem in both Iraq and Kuwait. It is strange that Iraq which is now dominated by sectarian and racial prejudices should choose to honour a Jewish musician as its foremost composer, which shows that music dissolves all prejudices. The book also contains 100 songs of Saleh’s compositions together with their musical notes. The book is exceptionally well produced in 270 page high quality paper and is considered a masterpiece that should be acquired by those who value the Iraqi musical culture.

"I found it particularly poignant that Shlomo, Saleh’s son, wrote: To my dear Iraq that my father, Saleh Al-Kuwaity and my family proudly belong. To the people of Iraq that my father loved, and they loved him in return, for whom he dedicated his music which they sang and still continue to sing his songs, to those who are eager to preserve the Iraqi musical heritage and production…. I gift this book."

I was tasked with managing the book launch in London which I arranged at the Iraqi Cultural Centre, an offshoot of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. I arranged for a short narration of the book and exposition of Saleh Al-Kuwaity musical accomplishments with the aid of a musical group which sang a number of his songs. The attendance was expected to be 70-80 but over 250 attended, and the audience responded with great gusto and enthusiasm. The public was 75% Iraqis and 25% Jewish. Shlomo attended the launch and was given standing ovations. It was so edifying to have such recognition to a Jewish musician for his Iraqi music and that the book launch was memorable and hugely successful.

Saleh and Daoud reluctantly immigrated to Israel in 1951 to join their families as part of the mass Jewish immigration from Iraq. As Saleh landed in a smartly dressed 3 piece suit he was sprayed with DDT. His life in Israel was one of humility compared with a life he left where he was so exalted. His music was the music of the enemy and his culture was meant to be eradicated. He ended up performing in few cafes and parties. He was afforded half an hour a week on the radio. He and his brother Daoud earned their income from a small shop in the market selling pots and pans… what a comedown!!! Daoud passed away in 1976 and Saleh in 1986.

It is often said that in Iraq the Iraqi Jews were treated as Jews rather than Iraqis. Paradoxically in Israel they were treated as Iraqis. For Saleh Al-Kuwaity, a much respected person in Iraq, exchanged his dhimmitude under the Iraqis for his dhimmitude under the Ashkenazim… and lost. Alas it is only now in Israel that his music is being remembered again. Iraqi musicians have great appeal especially when they sing Saleh’s songs and perpetuate his fame and nostalgia to the tunes of a wonderful era. This surge in demand amongst the Iraqis perhaps is a late expression of rebellion against the colonial Ashkenazi cultural oppression but, nevertheless, a step forward.

Emile Cohen was born in Basra Iraq in 1943. After competing his schooling in Baghdad in 1959, was sent to UK to study Engineering but when a change in regime took place in Iraq, he was denaturalised in 1964 before finalising his degree and stayed in UK, and finally joined by his family in 1970. The last few years he saw a yearning to his roots and started reading and researching the history of Iraqi Jews, traditions and accomplishments and became a social and political activist. He has been involved in organising Iraqi concerts and appeared on a number of broadcasts on Arab Jews on the BBC and Arabic stations. He can be reached at Emile.Cohen100@gmail.com