BAGHDAD, (AFP) – Performing before a half-empty room at Baghdad’s Alwiyah Club, Taha Gharib is conscious that the music he has passionately played for decades – traditional Iraqi maqam – is dying.
Victim of the country’s growing modernity and years-long violence, the poetic form of music that came to symbolise the newly-born Iraq that emerged after the fall of the Ottoman Empire is now played by fewer and fewer groups.
“Iraqi maqam risks disappearing with our generation,” laments Gharib, who leads one of just five remaining maqam troupes in Iraq.
“People don’t respect maqam anymore because today they prefer singers who just make noise,” the 46-year-old says after his performance in Alwiyah, a rare oasis of cultural freedom in Baghdad, which remains plagued by violence.
Maqam ensembles typically include musicians playing a joza, an eastern lute, a tabla, and a santur, a trapezoidal box with 24 strings, though there are frequently more instruments involved, as a singer recites often centuries-old lyrics.
Gharib’s quartet, for example, also includes a musician playing an oud, another type of lute.
Dating as far back as the end of the Abbasid era, which ran from the 8th to the 13th centuries, maqam became ingrained in Iraq’s cultural identity in the decades following the country’s modern founding in 1921.
“In the 20th century, maqam was a pillar of cultural life in Baghdad,” notes Iraqi ethnomusicologist Scheherazade Hassan. While those who performed were typically those who had studied maqam for years, she says, it retained a wide audience.
She adds that maqam “historically fulfilled the purposes of a cultural ideal to foster respect for ethnic and social diversity … it is an expression of collective identity.”
But two factors were predominant in its decline: firstly, the rise of an Iraqi middle class who began to call for a wider variety of music, including Arabic pop.
And secondly, high levels of violence in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to leave the country, and maqam artists were no exception.
Another consequence of the violence was that many of the places where maqam was played closed their doors, and communal bloodshed made it difficult for performers of various sects to play in certain parts of Iraq.
As if to drive home the point of maqam’s decline, as Gharib and his quartet play to a crowd of around 100 diners, Arabic pop music blares from adjacent rooms where two weddings are underway.
Maqam today is treated almost like an artefact in a museum, a remnant of a bygone era.
“The ministry of culture calls on us from time to time to perform at recitals outside of Iraq, at the request of foreign countries,” Gharib says, noting that he has had to take a job as a civil servant in the industry ministry because maqam no longer brings in enough income.
The slow death of form of music is evident also at the very institution that is meant to safeguard it in Iraq, the House of Maqam.
Given the decrepit building that houses it in central Baghdad to the high average age of those who come to listen to maqam players ply their trade, the typically sorrowful rhythm of maqam seems a fitting backdrop to its decline.
On this particular day, a musician performs for around a dozen listeners, singing of lost love:
“The flames of love make me cry/Others toast to love, but all I have is pain/I don’t want to suffer any more, but I am drowning/I cry like a lost dove/Lost by day and by night.”
While maqam techniques long used to be passed along as musicians rubbed shoulders at ubiquitous Baghdad cafes, this is no longer the case.
Instead, Mowaffaq al-Beyati, the head of the House of Maqam, advocates the creation of a school that teaches it to Iraqi youth.
“Maqam is one of the most difficult things to learn, and to sing, and this is especially true for young people today because they do not get any opportunity to hear it,” he says.
In Beyati’s favour is UNESCO’s addition in 2008 of maqam to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, meaning Iraq can apply for funds to establish just such a school.
UNESCO, when contacted by AFP, said that no such application had yet been made, however.
At present, the only place interested students can learn maqam is at Baghdad’s Institute of Musical Studies on the banks of the Tigris.
“Maqam is part of our identity, our roots – we cannot forget that,” notes Sattar Naji, the director of IMS, where one quarter of the curriculum focuses on maqam.
“The public will tire of you if all you play is commercial music, but they will remain faithful if you have mastered maqam,” says Naji, who in addition to heading IMS, also plays oud in Gharib’s ensemble.
Naji says he is hopeful of a future revival of maqam, when his country puts the constant violence behind it, and recalls the Iraqi proverb that notes, “A happy soul sings.”