The Traditional Music of Iraq

By Ahmed Mukhtar

The traditional Arabic music was influenced to a great extent by the Egyptian musicians who were dominant throughout the 20th century except for the Iraqi music which had its own distinct flavour based on the structured discipline of the Maqam. In contrast the Egyptian music tended to drift into several Maqams in a single song. Also some of the Iraqi music beats were complex and non Iraqi musicians found it difficult to replicate.

At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century the leading centre of Iraq music was in the northern city of Mosul where the greatest musician of the time Mulla Uthman al-Mosuli lived. He was a poet and a composer who produced many songs that are considered as part of the Iraqi musical heritage.

In Baghdad the Maqam was the essence of Iraqi music and the singer was usually accompanied by the Chalghi Baghdadi which was composed of four musicians playing Joza, Santour, Tabla and Raqq.

The 1930s saw the emergence of a new style of music created by a new star Saleh al-Kuwaity who improvised the music of the Maqam and mixed it with urban music and coordinated it with a beat to produce a sound that enriched the Iraqi music. He was a prolific composer to whom the great majority of the songs of 1930-1950 are attributed. He composed many songs for every Iraqi singer of his time especially the female singers who revelled in the melody of his tunes. He was immensely popular with his music in Iraq and Kuwait, and he is considered to be the greatest Iraqi composer of what is now termed as the Traditional Music of Iraq though, at the time, his music was termed as the modern Iraqi music.

Today we are celebrating the genius of Saleh al-Kuwaity not as a musician only but as a great humanitarian who established the musical heritage of Iraq.

Saleh al-Kuwaity was born in 1908 in Kuwait from an Iraqi family and learnt to play music with his younger brother Daoud under the tutelage of the Kuwaiti musician khalid al- Bakir. They first came to Basra in 1927 and played with the great Maqam singer Mohammed al- Qubbanchi who admired their style and taught them a lot of the Maqams. In 1929 they came to live in Baghdad where Saleh was persuaded to compose music for the famous singer Salima Murad. He composed 5 songs for her each became a major hit and he never looked back. He composed for all the Iraqi singers thereafter and is reputed to have composed over 600 songs. Amongst his singers were Sadiqa al-Mullaya, Jalila al-Iraqia, Badriya Anwar, Munira al-Hawazwaz, Sultana Yusef, Narjis Shawqi, Salima Murad, Afifa Eskander, Zakia George, Hudhairy Abu Aziz, Nadhim al-Ghazali and many others.

His reputation exceeded him to other famous visiting musicians like Mohammed Abd al-Wahab who learned the Lami Maqam from him and Um Kalthum who performed one of his songs in 1932. Saleh established the musical band of the Iraqi Broadcasting Station when opened in 1936.

It is with regret that Iraq lost this musical talent when Saleh and Daoud left Iraq in 1951 for political reasons. Daoud passed away in 1976 and Saleh in 1986. Today we will hear some of Saleh’s music which we hope you will enjoy and feel the nostalgia for the good old times that we all suffer living in alienation from our beloved country.