Ilham al-Madfai: Triumph of the Baghdad Beatle

Pop stars don't come bigger than Ilham al-Madfai - not in Iraq, anyway. But that doesn't mean his years at the top have been easy. On the eve of his first UK gig, he tells Rose George about the perils of being Saddam's sons' favourite singer
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Certain things about Saddam Hussein's Baghdad stuck in the mind: smiling civility, bugged hotel rooms, a constant underlying menace, and lots of chicken. But not what most us would call music. True, there was dreadful stuff pumping out of Iraqi TV every evening, and nasty propaganda choruses, usually employing the words "Saddam", "great" and "leader", wheeled out for the visiting journalists. There were whirling Chechen dancers, too - 10-year-olds visiting out of solidarity, apparently - and fantastic polyphonic horns on decrepit trucks, and even the lambada in abundance, it being the warning tune of choice of SUV taxi-drivers when reversing.

But there was no Ilham al-Madfai, not that I can recall from the two propaganda trips I made in 2000 and 2001. No beguiling voice and flamenco guitar, no ancient qanoun, a harp-like instrument, blended with alto sax. No lyrical poetry, no traditional music. No Beatle of Baghdad, as one enterprising German newspaper called him.

The singer and guitarist Ilham al-Madfai - "born in the early Forties, you can say" (actually, he's 60) - is not surprised by this auditory absence. He may have been Iraq's biggest pop star, but that didn't mean that his music got much of an airing on official channels. Throughout three decades of singing, most of which coincided with the leadership of Saddam Hussein, his relationship with the Baathist regime was frosty at best, and dangerous at worst.

"My brother was sentenced to death," he says, in the studios of Sensible Music in north London, where he recorded his latest album, Baghdad. The brother was a government official who was arrested "for some reason". He served two years in jail, before Saddam came across another al-Madfai brother, and said, "How's your brother? Go and take him home". The next day, the president was on the phone wanting the newly released prisoner to work on a $400m house. Surely a palace, I say. "No, $400m, but still a house." For 35 years, the al-Madfais - and everyone else - lived a dangerous life. "Anything could happen at any time."

Plenty did. In 1961, Ilham was the first Iraqi to use modern instruments to play Arab music. He formed The Twisters, and played the guitar, alongside 3,000-year-old instruments such as the qanoun and the joza (the "coconut"). His influences were East and West - traditional Iraqi songs, Shadows, Elvis and The Beatles - and so was his music. Folkloric songs done with modern arrangements. "Oriental sobbing," as Ilham has described Iraqi music, with jazz and Andalusian rhythms.

Criticism was swift, against this 19-year-old upstart who dared to sully tradition with modern rubbish. The media was harsh, and so was his family, an aristocratic dynasty who had produced kings and pashas, and who now produced architects and engineers, but no singers. Family pressure sent Ilham to England to study architecture, which he dutifully did. But he also played at the notorious Baghdad Café in front of Donovan and Paul McCartney. With the odd interruption - such as 10 years working in construction in the Gulf - he has been playing his music ever since.

He is a jovial man, with something of the comic information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, about his dark brows and lack of moustache. He speaks elegant English, as educated Iraqis do, but has the odd star habit: singing along as his portrait is taken, and all through the interview, he doesn't stop chewing gum.

Sensible Music's flyers refer to Ilham as an Iraqi music legend. A studio producer listens to an R&B version of "Baghdad," which is admittedly groovy, and predicts that Ilham could be as appealing as The Buena Vista Social Club, that the UK market is ready for Arab-jazz crossover. Ilham nods genially. "I wouldn't be scared to stand up and sing in front of Frank Sinatra, you know, because my music is original."

Back in Iraq in the 1970s, he continued playing his original music through the happy oil years, when the hotels were filled with foreigners, when the alcohol flowed (Saddam banned its public consumption in 1995, when he decided that an Islamic state was less likely to revolt), when state money was poured into roads, schools and living standards. Iraq's children were among the best-educated in the Middle East. And the educated children loved Ilham - loved how he worked a Spanish guitar into Iraqi classics that were standard singalongs. Like flamenco-ing "Greensleeves", but classier.

His first cassette, released in the early 1970s, sold thousands, and he still sees it on sale, in Detroit. All this despite a cultural handicap. "I'm from Baghdad: most musicians in Iraq are from elsewhere. They have a different accent, their rhythms are fussier." But he recruited Iraq's finest poets to write his lyrics. He stood his guitar firmly on thousands of years of heritage. He tells me an Iraqi proverb: "Cairo prints, Beirut thinks, and Iraq reads." But Iraq also listens to music, even, on occasions, when it is by a Baghdadi.

In 1979, Saddam came to power, and Ilham left for the Gulf, where he lived for the next decade or so. His return, in 1991, was ill-timed. "We thought, as the war with Iran was just over, this would be the beginning of a new period of prosperity." Things seemed positive, until Saddam decided to add another province to his huge country, except that a lot of Kuwaitis were already living in it. And Ilham got his first experience of war. "I remember the cruise missiles coming past, and people saying, 'Oh, that was an anti-aircraft 57, or something. After 10 years of war with Iran, they knew everything." They were also made of stern stuff: while Ilham, his wife and son were packing pillows and mattresses into the car, and preparing to flee to his sister's country ranch, his neighbours were calmly strolling down the street, no matter what was falling from the sky.

For four years, the family was stuck. It was made almost impossible for Iraqis to leave the country, by a combination of pressure and exorbitant exit visas. So Ilham continued to make music, and kept his head relatively low. "I never joined the Baath party. I couldn't." It made life difficult: his teenage son Mohamed wasn't allowed school books (which were only supplied by the school), because he wasn't Baath.

This was one impediment, but not the greatest. "I was terrified that Mohamed would be infected by the regime, that he would start to go along with it." But still permission to leave was denied, maybe because he was too useful: Ilham's group was often invited to play in big private houses, which inevitably belonged to cronies of the regime, and of Saddam's two vile sons, Uday and Qusay. It was hard to refuse.

Uday and Qusay's patronage made big stars out of their favourites. "They created them, because they thought a big star would have lots of girl fans. They asked me once to play, and told me to bring 'the girls' to the hotel. I said: 'What girls?' They explained, and I said: 'You're talking to Ilham! I'm not a pimp.' That was very weird. It was the moment when I realised that I was standing in the middle of quicksand."

For a while, he managed to dodge summonses to play for Saddam's family by pretending to be out. "They knew I wouldn't perform for him, but they came to ask anyway. But I knew who they were - it was the people who wrote those dreadful propaganda lyrics, everyone knew them - and we didn't answer the door." There were other impediments. His musicians - Armenians and Assyrians and Arabs - kept disappearing, as they emigrated to Sweden, Holland and the US.

And life was always dangerous. Once, in 1991, he saw several school-buses full of Kuwaitis being driven past his family's house in Baghdad, which was near a "security zone". Ilham spotted that an Iraqi TV journalist he knew was with them; later, he asked him who had been in the buses. The man said, "Kuwaiti prisoners." Four months later, he was dead. Accident? "Who knows? Who can ever know?"

In 1994, Ilham's family was given permission to leave. They took the classic Iraqi escape route, over the desert to Jordan, where the Iraqi exile community was 300,000-strong. His musical career stalled immediately: "I was very popular in Iraq, but no one knew me over the border." He took a job singing in a restaurant, for $21 a night, and slowly built things up again. Since then, he has lived mostly in Aman, although he spent 18 months in the US in the late 1990s, and he now has Jordanian nationality. But Saddam's interference was harder to escape. "Every Iraqi who leaves has the same feeling. You always feel like someone is following you. Even when I was in San Diego, that's how I felt."

But not any more. "No!" he grins, with feeling. "Now we feel fresh. Now everything is different." He was firmly in favour of the recent war, "because we thought the moment had come, that we would finally get rid of Saddam". He and his family watched television endlessly, as all Iraqi exiles did, worrying about resistance in Baghdad, until the television showed tanks near a mosque that they recognised, and they knew it was all right. More or less. I ask him about the attacks on Western troops in recent months, about whether Iraq, like Afghanistan, might fall off the news agenda. "Iraq is not Afghanistan," he says firmly. "And the attacks - there are always people who made a good living out of Saddam. They went from the very top to the bottom."

Does he think that Saddam can ever come back? "I hope not."

Ilham lived through dangerous times, but he won't sing about them. "My songs are ground-level. They are about the earth, about the smell of the earth." Actually, his lyrics are mostly about women, I point out. Romantic, epic stuff. "Yes. Well, women and fruit!" (The first song on the CD is "El Tufah" - "The Apple".) But his music still hinges on world events. His platinum-selling Khuttar album came out in 1999. And then it took two years to make Baghdad, and not because of any musical differences. "There was too much going on in the Middle East. There was Yasser Arafat, besieged, there were troubles everywhere. And there was Iraq. I didn't feel that people were in the right frame of mind to listen." To appreciate his music, he says, the audience has to be relaxed. And not fresh off the boat. "Iraqis who've just arrived in a new country need time to settle down, to earn money." Surely they'd appreciate the nostalgia that his music provided? "Yes, but not the $40 ticket!"

So, concerts are timed according to ambience and wallet. And warfare. In early March - "on the ninth day of the war," he specifies, like someone who was counting - the group played at the House of Culture in Berlin. "Baghdad" was the last song, and the applause seemed to go on for ever. "It was about 15 minutes, actually," says Ilham's son Mohamed, now his very efficient business manager. "But the incredible thing was that it wasn't all Iraqis. There were lots of Germans there." Given the timing, and the bombing, Ilham must have been a convenient poster-boy for peace, though he was firmly pro-war. "Yes," replies Ilham. "But that's OK."

He will go back to Iraq, but not to live. There are plans for a concert in Halabja. Like his concert this Saturday, it will be in aid of Iraqi children. But it won't happen for a while. "As I said, people need to be relaxed. Now, they can't even leave their house after 6pm; they're not going to feel safe going to a concert." So, his return to Iraq will be virtual, courtesy of the US-sponsored Towards Freedom TV channel, which will transmit Saturday's concert via satellite to any Iraqi who has the combined luxuries of a TV and an electricity supply. It will, he hopes, help rouse Iraqis a little bit further from their long nightmare. "After so much, our minds went flat. But now they're getting better." With a little help from the Beatle of Baghdad, and some women and fruit.

Ilham al-Madfai plays at the Union Chapel, London N1, on Saturday (0871 220 0260;