Ahmed Mukhtar: Sound of Baghdad

One week, it's a song for Saddam's mother's birthday; the next, a battle hymn. The émigré oud-master Ahmed Mukhtar tells Michael Church how Great Uncle calls the tunes in Iraq

Monday 10 March 2003 01:00
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We're told that Saddam Hussein is an avid reader of novels; it now emerges that he's just as keen on music. "Don't quote me on this," one Iraqi musician tells me conspiratorially, "but Saddam once asked Munir Bashir for oud lessons and got Baghdad's best oud-maker to build him an instrument inlaid with gold." Indeed, stories abound of Saddam's love for his country's traditional music, with its intricate melodic lines backed by lute, flute, fiddle and drum.

But, according to the émigré oud-master Ahmed Mukhtar, that love is heavily conditional. "Iraqi musicians have been suffering for decades from this so-called affection, because they've been systematically forced to compose and perform songs for Saddam and his sons. I know one prominent composer – for obvious reasons, I can't name him – who writes songs without words, so that when Saddam's demand comes, he will have a song ready for the occasion. One week, it will be a song for Saddam's mother's birthday; another time, it will be for the birthday of one of his sons. Each of Saddam's historic battles requires a song to be specially written to celebrate it. All Iraq's composers have songs in the drawer, ready for the moment when they are needed. People have forgotten what it feels like to write from the heart."

This casts a sad light on that poignant moment in Andy Kershaw's recent World Routes report, when one of Iraq's top singers delivered a throbbingly passionate – and freshly-composed – song about his willingness to die for the Great Uncle.

Releasing a new record this month – Rhythms of Baghdad – Mukhtar is happy to speak out. "Most Iraqi musicians live in fear, even abroad, because of the danger of reprisals against their families. I have a duty to say what they have suffered."

Ever since Saddam consolidated his power in 1979, he says, music has been shackled to his demands. "One of the first things he did was to drive the excellent musicians who had thrived under the communists into exile. You had to either perform and compose for him, or be a total outsider. And you had to write happy music: if your music was sad, you were judged to be undermining the regime. One poet I knew wrote lyrics that were critical of Iraqi life, and he was taken away by the secret service, was tortured, and died."

Sattar Al-Saadi, whose percussion supports Mukhtar's oud on Rhythms of Baghdad, is equally emphatic. "In Iraq, as a musician, you cannot say no. You have to constantly prove to the government that you are not guilty of sedition – every week, every day. You say yes to everything they do and say. But if you are an artist, you will create with more intensity if you are suffering. So Iraqi music is still good."

Al-Saadi, who now teaches Iraqi percussion at the Amsterdam Conservatoire, refuses to talk about his road to freedom (with the aid of Turkish people-smugglers), but Mukhtar's story is instructive. As a music student during the Iran-Iraq war, Mukhtar was allowed to postpone his military service.

"Then they tried to put me into the home guard, but as Saddam himself had decreed that artists should have the right to choose, I chose not to. For that I must thank him! On the other hand, he expected musicians to play for the troops, to do music for the battle. That was to be our contribution." The end of the war in 1988 let him off that particular hook, but within a year he was once more required for army service, and was saved by the intervention of his teacher, the great Munir Bashir.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Mukhtar was working in Jordan, and was immediately ordered home. "But I couldn't go back – I fled to Syria. When we heard that America had attacked Saddam, I and a group of my friends – artists, musicians, poets – decided that it would be safe to go back to Iraq. But in northern Iraq we ran into a division of Saddam's army, so we fled to the nearest border, which happened to be that with Iran. There, I was put straight into prison, because, at that time in Iran, music was forbidden. My imprisonment lasted six months, and was not a good experience: in a castle in the middle of the desert, just for Iraqis – for communists and musicians like me."

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Then, as relations between Iraq and Iran began to improve, he was ordered back to Baghdad. "I said I would prefer to go to Syria. They refused to let me. So I said OK, just let me out anyway." He made his way to Syria and started a concert career, but when Syria in turn began cosying up to Saddam, he realised that it was time to move once more. He escaped with a fake passport to asylum in London, which is where he now earns his living by passing on his country's musical skills.

Those skills go way back. The musical bow from which the oud is descended was a favourite instrument of the Babylonians, and it figures in the Bible. In medieval times, Baghdad was the hub of the musical universe: it was from there that Arab-Islamic performance styles spread west to Spain. Mukhtar plays in the style he learnt from Munir Bashir, which is itself derived from modes handed down through the centuries, and which is beautifully exemplified in Bashir's The Art of the Oud.

The other oud record now available in the shops sheds a queasily different light on the Saddam question. There's no quarrelling with the musical excellence displayed by Naseer Shamma on Le luth de Bagdad, but this musician is an Iraqi loyalist who has openly dedicated his work to his political master, and who enjoys great privilege as a result. Should that affect how we listen to his music?

Perhaps the wisest thing is to join Andy Kershaw, whose reports we can still hear on the internet, and who accepted the contradictions of the situation. While Kershaw's Kurdish musicians sang in furtive secrecy – Saddam had identified them as a focus for dissent and liquidated their leaders – the religious Sufis were explicitly chanting for Saddam's victory. But if the bombs begin to fall in a fortnight or so, I shall be thinking of the Baghdad radio presenter who spoke movingly of his own recent experience of being under bombardment, and who insisted that if the same thing were to happen again, he would just keep on broadcasting. As he spoke, there was a tremor in his voice.

World Routes: www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/world/kershawiraq.shtml

Ahmed Mukhtar's 'Rhythms of Baghdad' is on ARC (EUCD1781). Naseer Shamma's 'Le luth de Bagdad' is on Institut Du Monde Arabe (distributed by Harmonia Mundi; IMA321009). Munir Bashir's 'The Art of the Oud' is on Ocora (C580068)

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