New Zealanders are very well familiar with TV programmes like NZ Idol, American Idol, and similar other programmes.
They watch with great interest and fervour, young people contesting to grab the title. But, they are not familiar with a similar TV programme in Beirut, Lebanon in the heart of the Arab world called Star Academy. A school where budding talents from different Arab countries perform in front of a live audience and aim to excel hoping to be the winners of that show and the next big stars in the music world. Does music bring people together?
Whilst violence, bloodshed and sectarian killings overtake Iraq and shatters the very fabric of Iraqi society, a lovely voice of a beautiful 25-year-old young Iraqi, miraculously reached out from that programme to soothe their wounds. Her name is Shadha Hassoon. She was able to bring out a union of unprecedented nature of all Iraqis regardless of ethnicity, religion or sect. She beat finalists from Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia to lift the Arab-Idol crown. There were scenes of celebrations in Iraq as their countrywoman; singer won the Arab version of American Idol.
Wearing a turquoise evening dress, Hassoun wrapped herself with the white, red and black flag of Iraq and broke into tears as fans swarmed the stage. Back home crowds on the streets chanted, waved and flung confetti in the air after watching the final on al-Sharqiyah satellite channel. Millions voted for her by e-mails and text-messages defying the long wait for electricity and phone line hours to work out their computers, TVs and phones.
This incident takes me back to another life story told by Mr. Yeheskel Kojaman, the Iraqi Jewish expert in the art of (Maqam).The story that brought a Moslem and a Jew together.
The traditional Iraqi music and recital of (Maqam) is an almost exclusive art of Iraq. It follows a strict set of rules followed by a Pasta, a song mainly sung in popular dialect. The Pasta gives the audience a time to get out of the sombre Maqam to the light music of the Pasta where they can accompany the singer, clap and sometimes even dance. The Maqams were composed before the twentieth century by some well-known composers and by some other anonymous ones. They usually are performed by a solo singer accompanied by an instrumental ensemble known as Baghdad Chalghi. It consists of a Santur (struck dulcimer), Joza (a four-string spike fiddle: body constructed from a coconut shell) and two percussion instruments, the Daff (frame drum, with metal discs and Dumbuk (goblet-shaped drum). It is traditionally performed at special social meetings and celebrations and sometimes performed in the most respected teashops of the old cities of Baghdad, Mosul and Basrah.
This exclusive art was mainly performed by Iraqi Jewish musicians who excelled in playing the old instruments used by the Chalghy (a group of 4 musicians who play behind the Maqam reciter and back him as chorus). Iraqi Jewish musicians were the pioneers in this field whilst Moslem Iraqis excelled in reciting the (Maqam).
The story is that of a wonderful bond that brought together the famous Maqam singer Haj Ahmad Zeidan (a Moslem) and the Jewish Joza player Naceem Bassoun.
Haj Ahmed Zeidan was a Mu’azzin (who raises the call for prayers –Adhaan- from a mosque’s minaret five times a day). His beautiful enchanting voice when he calls for prayers or when he recites the holy Qur’aan in one of Baghdad’s mosques uses to bring crowds of devotees to listen.
By the mosque door, there was always a man standing there listening to the recitals and the – Adhaan- but never join in prayers. Haj Zaidan noticed him, went to the man and asked him why was he waiting for the Adhaan but never joined.
The man answered in his Jewish Arabic dialect “I can not pray with you. I am Jewish”. Haj Zaidan asked him why was he there then. “Are we some show to you?” he asked angrily. Naceem answered that he stands by the door of the mosque to listen to his Adhaan and his recitals of the holy Qur’aan to learn more of the Maqam.
Haj Zeidan asked him who he is. Naceem told him his name and that he is a musician in a Chalghi and that they usually perform in social functions like weddings, circumcision ceremonies and other festive occasions.
Their conversation led them to a nearby teashop where they sat to enjoy tea and discuss the Maqam, its different styles of recitation and its accompanying music and instruments.
This first encounter was the beginning of a great friendship between the Jewish Joza player Naceem Bassoun and the Moslem Mu’azzin Haj Zeidan.
Their meetings were becoming regular. The teashop became the place where they sit and discuss Maqam.
The Moslem Mu’azzin became a regular goer to Chalghis to listen to the music played and to the singing of famous singers of Al’Ibrahimi, the Sabba, the Ceekah and the Lami trends of Maqam recital. The Jewish Joza player kept his place near the mosque’s doors to listen to his friend’s Qur’aan recital and Adhaan.
In few months Haj Zeidan joined the Chalghi as a professional singer of the Maqam. Because of his beautiful voice and excellent performance, he became one of the best. He gave up his duties in the mosque to turn completely to the world of song and music. In few years he became one of the masters in this art.
To this brotherly partnership we owe one great development in our traditional Iraqi music of the Maqam.
Another proof that art can easily bonds, reconciles, and in fact changes human souls. History shows that it can do. The challenge is whether the past will inform the future.
Photo courtesy AFP