Iraqi artists recently decried what they called the “dictatorial, arbitrary and marginalization practices of the department’s director,” Hassan Shukri. The Musical Arts Department was once perceived positively, led by the renowned artist and prominent lute player Munir Bashir. However, since 2003, the department has suffered failures that have had a severe impact on the Iraqi music scene.
Iraqi music, like most musical traditions, has gone through several phases under different rulers and in different eras. In the 1960s and 1970s sentimental and emotional songs were prevalent, but these themes were absent during the 1980s and 1990s, when wars and conflict prevailed. With the wars, the country’s artists went into exile. Today, Iraq has a chaotic music scene, with youth trends and government ignorance of its duty towards the music industry.
For the first time, the Iraqi song entered the Arab Spring through a sit-in staged recently by musicians, authors and artists in Al-Mutanabi Street in Baghdad known for its vibrant culture, under the title “Iraqi Musical Uprising.”
The demonstration demanded the dismissal of the director of the Musical Arts Department because of what they termed the dictatorial approach taken by the department and the corresponding marginalization of several artists. The musicians also highlighted his corruption over nine years—his entire term in office.
The Musical Arts Department falls under the purview of the Ministry of Culture, which has tried to contain the crisis that erupted between musicians and their department, and promised to resolve the disagreements.
Musician Sami Nasim, director of the Munir Bashir Lute Band, told Asharq al-Awsat that “Iraqi music has been in great decline since 2003 because of the incompetent people who held posts in such a vital and important sector. All major art festivals that were organized for Iraqi music helped damage the rights of prominent Iraqi artists, as such festivals were huge failures and department employees were forced to attend them.”
Nasim added that “the only achievement of the department in charge of arts in Baghdad was to make most major artists leave the country, after having devastated their talent and marginalized them. However, some of them achieved significant successes through participating in Arab and international festivals.”
For his part, composer Surour Majed said: “We are trying to send a message to the relevant authorities to change the director of the Musical Arts Department” because he is an “oppressor who does not represent us.” The director is said to have “worked against numerous artists, expelled good cadres and kept the incompetent ones. He also worked against up-and-coming youths bands who were striving to prove themselves.”
The president of the Iraqi Artists’ Union, Sabah Al-Mandalawi, said the standard of Iraqi music “has been in sharp decline. Despite the attempts to improve it through better lyrics and music, when compared to songs of the 1970s it is big disappointment. That period saw more concern shown by singers and composers in terms of their selection of music and lyrics for the Iraqi and Arab audiences.”
He added that “the lack of supervision and the lack of support from the Iraqi government departments to Iraqi music have contributed to this decline—not to mention the satellite channels, which screen only commercial songs.”
Speaking of the Iraqi musicians’ protest, he said: “This is a positive sign; [we are] practicing freedoms. I am for it as long as the constitution supports it. I am hopeful that all disagreements are solved in a cordial manner and by means of mutual understanding, and through the formation of a joint committee to resolve these problems.”
He emphasized that “there are numerous issues related to Iraqi artists that need to be raised. This includes enacting a law to increase the low pensions of retired artists; many of them served [the Iraqi music industry] for 50 years. There is also a demand to provide health insurance for artists, aid youth projects, make job opportunities available for youth, and offer housing and other services to Iraqi artists.”
The 1970s was seen as a golden era for Iraqi music, when it formed an identity and became an example to emulate. It was successful in every way: it had talented voices, catchy tunes and heartfelt lyrics. This was manifested in the music of of Fadhel Awad, Hussein Ne’mah, Qahtan Al-Attar, Yasser Khedr, and others.
And, perhaps, if the musicians’ recent protest does not fall on deaf ears, Iraq will enjoy another such golden age for its music scene very soon.