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Fables of the Reconstruction

Iraq’s Rapidly Disappearing Street Music Is Captured On A New Compilation

Okan Arabacioglu

By Sam Hopkins | Posted 11/23/2005

The drums have stopped beating in many places in Iraq. The sounds of ouds and darboukas are silent against the occasional whistle of rockets. People and their instruments are locked inside the cultural iceberg that forms during wartime, waiting for the thaw. Surely, though, some strains of melody are still audible through the din.

Choubi Choubi: Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq, released this October on Seattle’s Sublime Frequencies label, catalogs the sound and feeling of a few Arab musical styles found uniquely in Iraq and scattered Iraqi communities throughout the world. The project’s compiler, Mark Gergis, is himself part Iraqi, his father a member of the Chaldean Assyrian minority. Gergis’ exploration of his own musical heritage provides a valuable historical document. As Gergis asks in his liner notes, “When Iraqis do have the chance to start gluing their musical instruments back together piece by piece, what will the orchestra sound like?”

In keeping with many Sublime Frequencies releases, Choubi Choubi lists few track or artist names. The disc is culled primarily from tapes without labels that Gergis discovered during his 2000 stay in Syria and recordings he purchased in Detroit’s Iraqi community. The music pulsates with an intensity amplified by the United States’ current commitment to Iraq, two cultures inextricably linked and mutually ignorant.

Socialist Nationalism, otherwise known in Arab countries as Ba’athism, spawned some of the only confirmed song titles on Choubi Choubi. “During the Saddam period, it was normal for most singers to dedicate a song or two to the president or the party,” Gergis writes via e-mail. Ja’afar Hassan opens the CD with “They Taught Me,” the first of three “Socialist Folk-Rock” songs. Under the Ba’athist system, music was encouraged as a means of promoting secularism. Hassan’s music reflects the drive to modernity that leaders such as Saddam Hussein, Bashar Assad, Muammar Qaddafi, and Gamal Abdel Nasser espoused in the 1960s and ’70s, but other than the electric guitar and some 4/4 timing, it is pure Mesopotamia.

Aside from Ja’afar Hassan’s Ba’athist grooves, Choubi Choubi is composed of songs recorded between the 1980s and 2002. Notably, none of the music here was purchased in Iraq, displaying the vitality of Iraqi culture and its dissemination despite the war with Iran, the first Gulf War, and a decade of U.N.-imposed economic restrictions. Bezikh, basta, hecha, mawal, and choubi—the styles featured on the disc—are largely unknown outside of Iraq and its diaspora, in stark contrast to Egyptian and North African styles that have gained wide appreciation and release in the Arab world and elsewhere. The Iraqi music “could come as a surprise, even to those who have paid attention to Middle Eastern music in the past,” Gergis writes.

There is the bewildering and intriguing sound of the khishba, also called the zanbour, a drum that sounds like a machine gun. Given contemporary associations with Iraq, the first thought is that the percussive effect may well be a recorded firearm, but the liner notes and careful listening clarify the battery involved. The tone is, nevertheless, intense and martial. Like the driving urban dance styles of the West, choubi pulsates in the offbeat, keeping the rhythm low to the floor. Melancholy vocal strains typical of Arab music glide atop the oud (a lute), synthesized and acoustic drums, and keyboards that form the basis of the sparse tune.

The inside cover of the CD features a veiled woman, a common sight in Muslim society. Gergis says this woman has not covered her face out of piety. “She could have been a runaway or prostitute who sang in the nightclubs,” he writes. “It would be difficult for her to show her face in public if everyone knew she came from that background.” As in many cultures, music is not esteemed in Iraq unless classical in nature. Choubi, on the other hand, is the sound of the streets and Bedouin encampments.

Indeed, some of the songs even sound like rap. Improvised call-and-response vocals are the basis of the uncredited last track. Without so much as a keyboard for a melodic line, a woman delivers strident verses over a drum-machine snare and hand-drum flourishes. The gritty sound and voice-over beats pattern is deeply evocative of hip-hop’s early days, as a male chorus responds to the leader with a Baghdadi equivalent of “Yes, yes y’all.”

If U.S. troops weren’t currently embroiled throughout Iraq’s urban kasbahs and rural outposts, we might get to hear some of the sounds of Choubi Choubi in situ. Saddam patronized the arts as a means of cultural and political progress toward his own goals—he referred to singers as the Iraqi army’s Eighth Division. Street-level choubi singers who displayed their loyalty were still underdogs with no real hope of achieving government sponsorship. Perhaps in another country or era, Western record companies could have incorporated it into their “world music” marketing plans.

Iraqi music will not likely appear alongside North African and Egyptian styles in Barnes and Noble any time soon, though. War and reconstruction have already displaced, destroyed, or changed many of the styles heard on Choubi Choubi. The removal of Ba’athist power has left not only a political but also a cultural vacuum in Iraq. “Iraqis are either in survival mode or fight mode,” Gergis note. “And neither is very conducive to a healthy music community.” Just the same, music can act as a bridge over distances that politics may not span. Hopefully, soon a climate of at least tentative calm may permit the drums to beat freely again; until then, Choubi Choubi partially fills our own chasm of understanding.

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