Ethnically speaking, Iraqi music incorporates the traditions of Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen, and Assyrian music. Poetry has long played an important part of Iraqi music, no matter what ethnic background or region a person was from. Because many songs were essentially sung poetry, many singers utilized a lower, more comfortable and conversational range for the melody line. Melodies happened to follow more of a step pattern rather than jump around.
The style of music most associated with Iraqi classical music is maqam. Maqam is more specifically a set of melodic modes where the musician applies a set of improvisational rules to create new modal variations. To me, this seems very similar to how ragas work in Indian classical music. There are many different types of maqam, designed to evoke different emotions and characteristics.
Iraq is known for three instruments: the oud (a short-necked, pear-shaped stringed instrument), the joza (also known as the rebab; a type of bowed string instrument that looks like an electric violin), and the Iraqi santur (a Mesopotamian hammered dulcimer). There are also a variety of flutes and percussion instruments as well. Studying the oud is quite commendable in Iraq, and there are many classically trained oud players in Iraq. Today, modern instruments are often used along with classical Middle Eastern instruments.
The Iraqi National Symphonic Orchestra is the premier orchestra in Iraq and is located in Baghdad. They primarily play European music as well as music composed by Iraqi composers and music using traditional instruments. This orchestra has undergone several periods of hardships with many periods of time where they had to practice underground along with times when they had no funding or even a place to practice. But I recently came across this interview with Karim Wasfi, the conductor of this orchestra, that speaks volumes to the power of music.
Dance traditions in Iraq are tied to its music and have been a part of its culture for thousands of years. The hacha’a dance is very similar to belly dancing except with less hip movement and slightly more movement in the hands and neck. This dance is a solo dance for women, and a drummer dances circles the woman. It's also designed for women with long hair since they swing their hair around in the dance. The dabka is a Kurdish dance where the dancers form a line and move their shoulders in rhythm while rhythmically stomping the ground.
There are quite a few pop bands from Iraq. One star widely known throughout the Arab world is Kadim Al Sahir. He mixes traditional sounds with a quasi-dance beat. I kind of like some of the music I heard. I can understand why he’s popular. There are a lot of musicians in this style, and I found the differences in their sounds are moderately subtle. Ilham Al Madfai’s style sometimes reminds me of various Mediterranean styles. Ali Al Essawi makes use of various string instruments with traditional singing styles, but I can tell there might be some Western influence in some of the riffs. Shatha Hassoun is a female singer who falls in the same category. Majid Al Muhandis also falls into this category, but I’ve noticed he pulls in a lot of Arab percussion into his music.
Iraq even has its own boy band called Unknown To No One. They sing in both English and Arabic. (You can also briefly see an old man playing the joza.) This particular video is pretty moving. I suppose I’m fairly sensitive to the effects of how living in a war zone has on the children.
And surprisingly, Iraq also has a metal band called Acrassicauda. I’m not the hugest metal fan, but I have opened up to it more in the past year or so. I was fairly impressed with what I heard. So, without further ado, here’s probably your first listen of Iraqi metal music.
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