Monday, December 29, 2008

saleh al-kuwaity's 100th anniversary

The Al-Kuwaity brothers in Iraq days with singing legend Muhammad al-Qubanji © Shlomo al-Kuwaity

Saleh al-Kuwaity’s 100th birthday celebrated in London
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 29 December 2008

Saleh al-Kuwaity, one of the greatest figures in 20th century Iraqi and Arab music, was born in 1908 to a family of Iraqi Jews in Kuwait, to where his father had migrated from Basra in the late 19th century. Saleh and his brother Daoud became famous musicians in Iraq, but their musical careers were disrupted when they left for Israel in 1951.

“When their plane took off into the Baghdad skies, it signaled for Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity the end of their rise and the beginning of their decline” says Saleh’s son Shlomo.
However, the songs of Saleh al-Kuwaity remained popular in Iraq, Kuwait and beyond. This was shown when two years ago Shlomo and other family members managed to produce the 18-track double CD “Daoud & Saleh al-Kuwaity: Their Star Shall Never Fade.”

“The album had a limited release, and was sent, among others to some prominent Arab figures around the world and in Kuwait and Iraq in particular” says Shlomo. “We were very surprised at the positive responses from the Kuwait, Saudi, Lebanese and Iraqi press, and also from a whole host of online websites which specialize in Arabic music.”

Now a special day has been held at the Brunei Gallery of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Saleh, who died in 1986.

The climax of the day was a packed-out concert during which some of the current generation of Iraqi musicians living in exile performed Saleh al-Kuwaity’s music to a wildly appreciative audience.

A main organizer of the event, the London-based Iraqi oud master Ahmed Mukhtar, said in his welcoming speech: “We commemorate Saleh al-Kuwaity as a person of artistic value not as Iraqi or Kuwaiti, but as of great human value. He managed with his rich compositions to establish some very valuable music in the area, and in particular for the Iraqi people: all the Iraqis tend to sing his songs and are still attached to his classical compositions.”

Mukhtar paid tribute to “the genius of Saleh al-Kuwaity” and the way in which “he created new styles of Iraqi maqam music and freed the maqam from its restrictions and mixed some of it with urban music.”

The concert began with Mukhtar performing variations on several of Saleh al-Kuwaity’s songs. The singer Ismail Fadhel, who lives in Australia, then delivered in rousing style a succession of al-Kuwaity songs. The Iraqi instrumentalists in the ensemble were London-based violinist Taher Barakat and, from the Netherlands, qanoun player Jamil al-Assadi and percussionist Ali Khafaji. The concert was a joyous occasion, with the audience clapping and singing along to songs laden with memories.

During the concert Mukhtar presented a 100th anniversary award to Shlomo al-Kuwaity, who later described the celebration for his father as “incredibly exciting. I was totally surprised and touched to see that he is still present in people’s hearts.”

He added: “For our family and for me, of course it was a great honor. But most important for us is restoring his place in the history of Arab music. We think he deserves it. The response of the audience was overwhelming and I felt at home. I must thank the organizers and SOAS for this event, and hope that a door has been opened without differences of religion and without politics. Just for the Arts!”

The centenary day began with a talk by Shlomo on the extraordinary musical journey of his father Saleh and uncle Daoud. As boys, their musical gifts were revealed after an uncle returned from a business trip to India with a violin for Saleh and an oud for Daoud, two years Saleh’s junior. (The brothers would remain faithful to these instruments throughout their lives.) Their father arranged for them to have lessons with the Kuwaiti musician Khaled al-Baker. They learnt the elements of Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Yemeni and Hijazi music and song, and became famed for their performances at gatherings of dignitaries.

The brothers recorded for the Baidofone company, which in those days would travel to Kuwait. After Baidophone stopped visiting Kuwait in 1928, Kuwaiti artists traveled to Basra to make recordings. A club owner asked Saleh and Daoud to stay in the city and work at his club as musicians. This was when they started to perform with the legendary maqam singer, Muhammad al-Qubbanji.

In 1930 the brothers moved to Baghdad and began to work as musicians in the Malha el-Hilil club accompanying the famous Jewish singer Selima Murad, married to fellow singing star Nazem al-Ghazli. She asked Saleh to write songs for her: the first was “Qalbak Sakhr Jalmoud”(“Your Heart is Rock Hard”).

Over the next two decades Saleh al-Kuwaity was the pre-eminent song writer in Iraq, composing songs for singers including Zakiya George, Munira al-Hawazwaz. Afifa Iskander and Zohour Hussein.

When the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum was touring Iraq in 1931, Saleh taught her “Qalbak Sakhr Jalmoud”. Another towering Egyptian performer, the singer and composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab made trips to Iraq in the early 1930s. He was very interested in Iraqi and Kuwaiti music, and would sit with Saleh after performances so the two could learn from each other.

In 1936 the al-Kuwaity brothers were asked to found an orchestra for the new Iraqi broadcasting service. They were also favorites of King Ghazi, who had a personal radio station in his palace. The king gave Saleh a personally inscribed watch, which is still in the possession of the al-Kuwaity family – and is still working.

Many of the instrumentalists in Iraq were Jewish. According to Shlomo, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said, himself a keen amateur musician, switched on the radio one day in 1945 and found there was no music. “When he contacted the radio, he was told that it was Yom Kippur and the Jews did not work. And so it was decided to set up another orchestra with non-Jewish musicians under the direction of Jamil Bashir.”

The tumultuous politics of the region shattered the position of the Jewish community in Iraq. Most of its members emigrated, and in 1951 the al-Kuwaiti brothers left Iraq for Israel. This was despite the Emir of Kuwait’s sending messengers the day of their departure asking them to move to Kuwait, where he guaranteed they would be treated with great respect.

Like many Iraqi Jews, the al-Kuwaity brothers initially faced a difficult time in Israel. Saleh set up a store for household items in the market of Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood. “The store was not a great success,” Shlomo recalls, “but it did serve as a kind of office and address for people who wanted them to perform.” Eventually the brothers had their own radio program on the Arabic service of the Kol Israel official radio station, and this enabled them to reconnect with their lost listeners in the Arab world.

[picture of Saleh al-Kuwaity © Shlomo al-Kuawity]
At the 100th anniversary celebration, the Iraqi author, artist and columnist Khalid Kishtainy recalled Baghdad at the time when the al-Kuwaity brothers were in their heyday. He spoke of Saleh’s well-know love affair with the Muslim Syrian singer who adopted the Christian name of Zakiya George, thinking this would make it more acceptable for her to sing in public.

In a film screened at the event, Ahmed Mukhtar interviewed Yeheskel Kojaman, a London-based Iraqi-Jewish expert in Iraqi music and author of the book “The Maqam Music Tradition of Iraq”, He also interviewed, over the phone, Baher al-Rajab musician son of the Iraqi-Jewish musician Hashim al-Rajab.

In the film it was stated that a committee was formed in Iraq in 1973 to “remove the impurities in the Iraqi heritage.” Many names vanished, including those of the al-Kuwaity brothers, although their music was still widely listened to.

The day also included the screening of a program broadcast by the US-sponsored satellite TV channel Al-Hurra. In the program three experts on Iraqi music, including the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra Abdul Razzak al-Azzawi, discuss Saleh al-Kuwaity’s importance and identify him as the definitive Iraqi composer of the 1930s and 1940s.

Shlomo notes that at the 8th conference of Baghdad University’s Faculty of Fine Arts this year, Ibrahim al-Jazrawi presented a paper entitled “Saleh al-Kuwaity and his work in Iraqi music and poetry”. Al-Jazrawi proposed the establishment of a library to preserve all material related to Saleh.

Following the success of the double CD, and with fresh material surfacing from sources in countries from the Netherlands and England to Iraq and Kuwait, the family is now working on a publication on the lives and work of Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity. Like the double CD, this seems destined to become a treasured collector’s item.

1 comment:

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