The Last Jews of Baghdad

No one is left. There simply are no more Jews in Baghdad. But once there was a thriving Jewish population in the Iraqi capital, perhaps as many as a third of its population, and they had a vital, vibrant musical tradition dating back, some say, to Babylonia and the days when that fabled city was the global center of Jewish life.

Iraqi Jews may have been forced to abandon their homes in that country, but they never abandoned the culture they created there. Yair Dalal, one of the world’s great oud players, is still a bearer of the musical traditions of Baghdad and when he performs on Saturday, Nov. 4, as part of a four-day conference “Back to Babylon: 2600 Years of Jewish Life in Iraq,” he will be passing that culture along for another generation, much as he does when he teaches one of the many workshops that fill his working calendar.

That is only fair since, as he readily acknowledges, his own knowledge of that music came from studying the Jewish-Iraqi musicians who came before him. “I was strongly influenced by the Judeo-Arab music … that I was exposed to from a very early age in my neighborhood and at my parents’ house and, of course, at the synagogue,” he says.

When most of the Jews were expelled from Iraq in the 1950s they brought their culture with them, especially their music, and Dalal, who was born in Israel in 1955, listened carefully to the many master musicians who made the journey to the Jewish state. “I used to go visit and listen to them,” he recalls. “I still do and I have learned a great deal from them.”

But Dalal is not merely a vessel for preserving tradition. His music blends many other influences besides the Iraqi/Babylonian traditions. Francesco Spagnolo, a prominent ethnomusicologist and the executive director of the American Sephardi Federation, places Dalal’s unique musical hybrid into a larger context.

“Dalal’s music is a very important piece in the panoply of Israeli music as it develops into the 21st century,” Spagnolo wrote in an e-mail last week. “In his work, Dalal has been successful both in preserving the Iraqi tradition he was born into, and in interweaving it with an array of Jewish and non-Jewish influences.”

That musical tapestry makes Dalal a fine example of how Israeli music has evolved since the early days of the Jewish state. “[T]his trajectory really represents a main path in Israeli music after the initial creative impetus of the early generations of pioneers: looking back at the roots, learning from the ‘fathers’ (and the mothers), and integrating traditional sounds into a new repertoire, a repertoire that can speak to wide audiences,” Spagnolo wrote.

Asked about the synthesis of other musical traditions within his music, Dalal speaks in terms of emotions and passions. “It’s all about people and keeping my mind and soul open, and I use my large musical knowledge to connect with different styles of music,” he says.

Spagnolo, approaching Dalal’s music from a more analytical point of view, wrote, “Dalal’s case is . . . unique, in the sense that the music he preserves and offers to his audience is the music that the early generations of pioneers (mainly of Ashkenazi origins) did not acknowledge at first in their cultural equation: the great musical traditions of the Jews from the Islamic world. Iraqi-Jewish music, in particular, is an essential component of these traditions.

“Without the ‘Arabic’ sounds of the Iraqi Jewish musicians who immigrated to Israel since the early 1950s, Israeli music today would not include its Middle Eastern components, which are instead evident in the popular scene (musiqah mizrahit), in the world music scene, as well as in the realm of art music. Dalal is not only an heir to their musicianship because he is of Iraqi descent: he has studied with them, and preserves their attitudes to music in his art.”

Although he is a highly educated musician and clearly not a mere “natural” who goes by instinct alone, Dalal invariably focuses on the expressive capacities of his music. When he talks about the Babylonian tradition, he refers to its “deep roots that contain sacred music and secular music, special and unique scales and rhythms that aim to express emotions, thoughts and moods.”

Seen from that perspective, it should come as no surprise that Dalal is a prominent peace activist as well. One of the workshops he leads regularly is titled “Music as a Means for Social Change: Know Your Neighbor’s Culture.”

“I just believe in global peace, and that music has the power to bring people together by sharing [their] humanity [through] the common language that is music,” he says. Ironically, Dalal has never visited the city whose musical heritage he so richly conveys. He would like to see Baghdad someday in the future, but for now he can only watch with dismay the destruction being visited on his parents’ country.

Asked about the Iraq war, he is somber. “I feel strongly about the Iraqi people, that they are good people and deserve to live in peace,” he says. “I feel close to them, because we share the same tradition.”

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