Music of Iraq

Music of Iraq

The music of Iraq or Iraqi music, (Arabic,موسيقى عراقية, also known as the Music of Mesopotamia) encompasses the music of a number of ethnic groups and musical genres. Ethnically, it includes Arabic music, Assyrian music, Turcoman, Armenian, Roma and Kurdish music among others. Apart from the traditional music of these peoples, Iraqi music includes contemporary music styles such as Pop Music, Rock Music, Soul Music, and Urban Music.

Iraq is recognized mainly for three instruments named Oud, Santur and Joza. The most renowned Oudists are Ahmed Mukhtar, Naseer Shamma, Rahim Alhaj, Sahar Taha and the ethnic Assyrian Munir Bashir.


Classical Iraqi Music

Musical theater group in Baghdad, 1920s.

Iraqi classical music necessitates some discussion of the social environment, as well as references to the poetry. Poetry is always rendered clearly. Poetry is the art of the Iraqis, and sung poetry is the finest of all. In Baghdad from 760-1260, writers spurned musical notation.[1] The music is melodically modal, and moves in a stepwise motion with repeated notes. Use of the lower end of a melodic range is characteristic, as is the use of silence; one listens through the silence. Following a cadence, the singer moves up to the next range of pitches. An arch shape is discernible, and the work ends in the original mode.

Singers of the Baghdad Court were praised for their excellence in composition, their knowledge of history and songs, and their ornaments and innovations. There was support for female singers and orators, such as the beautiful Arib, a skilled poetess, calligrapher, lutenist, composer, and backgammon player who wrote more than 1,000 songs. The common instrument (comparable in popularity to the piano or violin in the west) is the oud. Classical Iraqi music is identifiable by the genre/canon, and by how it is performed.

Historically, music would have been played for gatherings of men. With the advent of the sound recording industry, things have changed somewhat. Today one invites musicians to perform at weddings; by the first quarter of the century, concerts were being staged at concert venues.


Traditional flute player from Iraqi folk troupe

Across the Arab world, maqam refers to specific melodic modes. When a musician performs maqam performances, the performer improvises, based on rules. There are a number of different maqams, each with or self own mood and characteristics. There are between fifty and seventy maqams, many of which have sub-styles, and is closely related to Syrian music, but is less melodious and more melismatic. Other characteristics of Iraqi music include a slow tempo, rhythmically free ornamentation or melodic lines, and predominantly minor modes. Instruments include qanun, riqq, santur, darbuka, naqqara, ney, djose and oud. Baghdad's tchalgi ensembes typically include the djoze and ney, and may also utilize an oud.

Maqama texts are often derived from classical Arabic poetry, such as by Mohammad Mehdi Al-Jawahiri, al-Mutanabbi and Abu Nuwas, or Persian poets like Hafez and Omar Khayyám. Some performers used traditional sources translated into the dialect of Baghdad, and still others use Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Hebrew, Turkmen, Aramaic or Persian language lyrics.


The roots of modern Iraqi maqam can be traced as far back as the Abbassid era, when a large empire was controlled from Baghdad. The music has also gained influences from Persian music. The modern form, however, descends directly from the 19th century Turkmen composer Rahmat Allah Shiltegh (1798–1872).

The pesteh, a kind of light song which concludes a maqam performance, has been popularized in the later 20th century, growing more prominent along with the rise of recorded music and broadcast radio. Among the most popular pesteh performers are the husband and wife Selima Murad and Nazim Al-Ghazali.

The most popular modern singers of maqam are Rachid Al-Qundarchi (1887–1945), Youssouf Omar (1918–1987), Nazem Al-Ghazali (1920–1963), Salim Shibbeth (born 1908), Hassan Chewke (1912–1962), Najim Al-Sheikhli (1893–1938), Mohammed Al-Qubanchi (1900–1989), Hamid Al Saadi (1959-) and Farida Mohammad Ali (1963- ).

Modern era

Iraqi Hip Hop dancers in Iraq 2007
The Iraqi National Orchestra which was officially founded in 1959,performing a concert in Iraq ,July 2007.

Early in the 20th century, many of the most prominent musicians in Iraq were Jewish.,[2] such as Filfel Gourgy. These included all the instrumentalists who attended the famous 1932 Arabic music congress in Cairo, which the Muslim vocalist Mohammed Al-Quebbantchi also attended. In 1936, Iraq Radio was established with an ensemble made up entirely of Jews, with the exception of the percussion player. The nightclubs of Baghdad also featured almost entirely Jewish musicians. At these nightclubs, ensembles consisted of oud, qanun and two percussionists, while the same format with a ney and cello were used on the radio.[2]

One of the reasons for the predominance of Jewish instrumentalists in early 20th century Iraqi music was a prominent school for blind Jewish children, which was founded in the late 1920s. Many of the students became musicians, eventually forming the Arabic Music Ensemble Qol Yisraeli (Israel Radio).

Singers, on the other hand, were Muslim, Jewish and Christian. The most famous singer of the 1930s–1940s was perhaps the Jew Salima Pasha (later Salima Murad).[2][3] The respect and adoration for Pasha were unusual at the time, since public performance by women was considered shameful and most female singers were recruited from brothels.[2]

Numerous instrumentalists and singers of the middle and late twentieth century were trained at the Baghdad Conservatory.

For much of the 20th century, Egypt was the center for Arab popular music, with only a few stars from other countries finding international success. The most famous early composer from Iraq was Ezra Aharon, an oud player, while the most prominent instrumentalist was Daoud Al-Kuwaiti. Duwad and his brother Saleh formed the official ensemble for the Iraqi radio station and were responsible for introducing the cello and ney into the traditional ensemble.[2]

In recent years the Iraqi school of oud players has become very prominent, with players such as Salman Shukur and Munir Bashir developing a very refined and delicate style of playing combining older Arabic elements with more recent Anatolian influences.

Pop music

Pop music in Iraq xxxmore often than not means musical motifs and lyrics dating back centuries but performed with a mix of traditional and modern instruments. Kadim Al Sahir, for example, may be nicknamed "the Elvis of the Middle East," but he sings in classical Arabic. Popular musician Ilham al-Madfai features the electric guitar and saxophone, but uses the instruments to reinterpret age-old folk songs.[1]

Until the fall of Saddam Hussein, the most popular radio station was the Voice of Youth, which used to play the popular music of Iraq to continue the culture of the country. The station also played a mix of rock, hip hop and pop music from artists such as Eminem to R.E.M., and both disc jockeys and callers spoke exclusively in English [2], all of which had to be imported via Jordan due to international economic sanctions. The Corrs and Westlife are especially popular. Iraq has also produced a major pan-Arab pop star-in-exile in Kazem al Saher, whose songs include "Ladghat E-Hayya", which was banned by Saddam Hussein for its racy lyrical content.

Other modern Iraqi singers include Ali Al Essawi whose song "makhtooba" became huge hit in the Arab world and made him famous throughout the region. Major artists include Shatha Hassoun, Rahma Mezher, Majid Al Muhandis, Hussam Al Rassam, Rida Al Abdullah and Iraq's very own boyband Unknown to No One, as well as Acrassicauda (Iraq's first heavy metal band). There are also ethnic Assyrian singers such as Klodia Hanna, Ashur Bet Sargis and Linda George There are also a number of Kurdish, Turcoman, Yazidi, Roma and Armenian musicians such as Seta Hagopian.

Effect of 2003 Iraq War

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and fall of Saddam Hussein, some militant extremists have been attacking musicians, especially those in the port city of Basra, where Shia extremists are believed to be responsible.[4] Basra's sea shanties are well-known throughout Iraq. Music shops in the Summar district have been the target of grenade bombings. Religious leaders have closed some of the concert halls and clubs in the city.


  1. ^ Classical Music in Iraq Virginia Danielson, Harvard University
  2. ^ a b c d e Kojaman,, retrieved 2007-09-09 
  3. ^ Manasseh, Sara (February 2004), "An Iraqi samai of Salim Al-Nur" (– Scholar search), Newsletter (London: Arts and Humanities Research Board Research Centre for Cross-Cultural Music and Dance Performance) (3): 7, archived from the original on December 2, 2005,, retrieved 2007-09-09 [dead link].
  4. ^ Traditional Iraqi music under threat, Qatar:, February 22, 2004,, retrieved 2007-09-09 .

Further reading

  • Badley, Bill and Zein al Jundi. "Europe Meets Asia". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 391–395. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

External links


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