« New Havdalah CD released | Main | Review of latest Budowitz album in Songlines Magazine »

"Their star will never fade" Daoud and Saleh Al-Kuwaity

Eva Broman writes to the Jewish-Music mailing list:

In connection to the posts concerning the CD "The Diwan of The Jews from Central Yemen", I'd like to recommend another CD ("Their star will never fade") which features two very important Jewish-Iraqi musicians, Daoud and Saleh Al-Kuwaity. This is classical Arab music, composed and beautifully performed by the Al-Kuwaity brothers. I ordered my copy from israel-music.com, but I'm sure Hatikvah has it as well. Daoud's grandson, Dudu Tassa, is more of a modern rock musician, though I think that he has recorded some traditional Iraqi songs as well, like this one:

Eva continues: Here is an article from Haaretz June 5, 2006: (I have not had success finding the article on the Haaretz website now. ari)

From the King's Palace to a 'Ghetto' of Oriental Music

By: Erez Schweitzer

While Baghdad's international airport has been the scene of many unusual events, this may have been one of the strangest in its history. In 1951, a limousine burst onto the runway and blocked the path of a departing plane—not in an attempt to stop a secret shipment of weapons, fleeing spies or smuggled gold, but rather for diplomats to deliver a personal message to one of the passengers, Jewish musician Salah al Kuwaiti. Mubarak al Sabah, the ruler of neighboring Kuwait, begged him to change his mind about immigrating to Israel. According to the message, his departure would not only be a severe blow to the Kuwaiti and Iraqi culture, but it would also render the sheikh's life far less enjoyable.

"My father was determined, and they allowed the plane to take off," recounts Al Kuwaiti's son, Shlomo al Kuwaiti, who recently produced the double album "Their Star Will Never Fade," which includes his father and uncle Daoud's best works; the Al Kuwaiti brothers were among the most important and successful musicians in Iraq during the first half of the 20th century. The album, which was issued by Magda (Haozen Hashlishit - the "Third Ear") and distributed in Israel and abroad, sheds light not only on their marvelous story, but on the way in which they were erased from the cultural history of Iraq - at the behest of Saddam Hussein - and Israel, where the establishment ignored music that the immigrants had brought with them from the Arab countries.

Brothers Salah and Daoud al Kuwaiti were born in Kuwait to a family of Iraqi origin. When Salah was 10 years old and his brother was eight, they received a violin and an oud from their uncle, who had returned from a business trip to India, and began studying music. Their talent was soon discovered, and they quickly became the prodigies of Kuwaiti music. Salah began to compose, Daoud excelled in playing, and the two began to perform at events hosted by Kuwaiti high society. The first song that they wrote and performed there, "I Swear I Loved Your Beauty," is still played today on radio stations in the Persian Gulf.

"The lightning success brought the family back to Iraq, where the music market was much larger," says Shlomo al Kuwaiti. "At first the brothers returned to Basra, where they performed and recorded with great success, and later they went on to Baghdad, the major musical capital of the period, and there they became real stars. In essence, as a composer, my father founded modern Iraqi music. After years of a frozen tradition, he introduced Western elements into it, and developed the new music on the basis of the traditional makamas (a traditional form of Arabic poetry). The songs he wrote were performed by the greatest Iraqi singers, including Salima Murad and Sultana Yusuf, and were played all over the Arab world and the Persian Gulf.

"Even Umm Kulthum," continues Al Kuwaiti, "asked my father to write a song for her. That was an extraordinary event in her career. She insisted on singing only the works of Egyptian composers, but the song that he wrote for her, 'Your Heart is a Rock,' became a regular part of her repertoire. Mohammed Abdel Wahab also worked with my father. He had come to Iraq to perform, and asked to meet with him. There was immediate chemistry between them, and night after night they sat after the performances, played together and taught each other makamas from the traditions of the two countries. After the signing of the peace agreement with Egypt, in spite of the boycott imposed on Israel by artists and intellectuals, Abdel Wahab persisted and found a way to send a message of friendship to my father."

Salah and Daoud al Kuwaiti never hid the fact that they were Jewish. Although the official attitude toward Jews in Iraq was hostile, they became favorites of King Razi and were even asked to establish an orchestra for Iraqi national radio, which broadcast from the king's palace. "In effect, the Jews dominated Iraqi music. Out of 250 leading instrumentalists in Baghdad in the 1940s, only three were Muslims. There was a historical reason for this. The Ottoman government in Iraq in the 19th century was fanatic, and did not allow the Muslims to play music, claiming that it was contemptible work. The Jews then entered the vacuum that was created; they were the ones with the patience required to learn the complex Arab music. Even during the time of my father and his brother, the attitude toward the Jews was ambivalent. Officially they were discriminated against, but in everyday life they didn't feel it. In any event, thanks to music, the Al Kuwaiti brothers became favorites of the royal family. Mubarak al Sabah of Kuwait even invited them to perform at his wedding. Actually, my father named one of his sons, my brother, Sabah, after him."

This glorious career was cut short by the brothers' decision to immigrate to Israel during the major wave of aliyah (immigration) in the early 1950s. From the moment they left Iraq, attitudes toward them changed, as they did toward the Jews altogether. "The process of erasing them from Iraqi history was gradual," says Shlomo al Kuwaiti. "During the first years, local artists, Muslims, began to appropriate some of their songs. Slowly but surely, their names disappeared from the radio programs, although the songs themselves were still played. The process came to a climax after Saddam Hussein came to power. In 1972 he established a committee in the broadcasting authority, and one of its orders was to erase the names of the Al Kuwaiti brothers from every official publication and from the curricula in the academy of music. From then on, the songs that they wrote were labeled 'of folk origin.' Incidentally, the director of the broadcasting authority during that period was Mohammed al Sahaf , who was the Iraqi minister of information during the period of the second American invasion of Iraq, and is remembered for his grotesque television appearances."

The Kuwaiti brothers were not treated properly in Israel, either. After undergoing a difficult absorption process, they performed on the Voice of Israel radio broadcasts in Arabic, but felt they were being forcefully pushed into a marginal ghetto of Oriental music, which the establishment treated with hostility. "They had a weekly program on the Voice of Israel in Arabic, the broadcast of a live performance that was very popular both among native Iraqis in Israel and in the neighboring countries," says Shlomo al Kuwaiti, "but they lived with an unpleasant sense of humiliation. In Iraq they had left behind a fortune, and were at home in the king's palace, and here they were treated with suspicion and arrogance.

"If that wasn't bad enough, it hurt them to hear their songs on Arab radio stations without any mention of their names, at best, and with their songs accredited to another artist, at worst. They loved Iraq, and the way they were demonized there hurt them greatly. I think that the combination of the two factors—rejection from the outside and rejection from the inside—was what led my father to forbid us, his children, to study music. He really insisted on that. I tell Dudu that he's lucky his grandfather is no longer alive, otherwise he wouldn't have allowed him to become a musician."

Dudu is singer Dudu Tasa, Daoud's grandson. Tasa performed the songs of the Al Kuwaiti brothers on the soundtrack of the film "Sof Haolam Smola" ("Turn Left at the End of the World") and exposed their works to a broad Israeli public.

The Al Kuwaiti brothers' name has only been restored in Iraq now, after their deaths (Daoud died in 1976, Salah in 1986.) The downfall of Saddam Hussein somewhat changed the cultural climate in Iraq, and researchers and media people are now trying to restore its musical heritage. About half a year ago, a television series about 20th century Iraqi music was broadcast, and the Al Kuwaiti brothers enjoyed broad coverage in it, as befits their contribution. As a result, their name began to appear again on their songs, which are basic and valued assets to Arab music. On another occasion, they won the title of "audience favorites" among the composers in their country.

Moreover, the restoration of their name has aroused a public debate in Kuwait and Iraq, with each of the countries trying to claim ownership of their legacy. "After the album was issued about two months ago," says Shlomo al Kuwaiti, "the debate began once again in the two countries. Although the CD is not being distributed in either of them, I sent it to journalists and scholars, who are arousing renewed interest in the Al Kuwaiti legacy. Interestingly, Kuwait is arguing that even though they worked mainly in Iraq, the establishment should recognize their work as part of the national heritage. In Lebanon an article was published that proves that many of the songs that are considered Arab masterpieces, and have been adopted by the Muslim world, are actually the work of Jews. In this context, it should be pointed out that my father was always opposed to mixing politics and art, although he took advantage of his status in Iraq in order to help the Jewish community in its ties with the government."

In Israel too, says Al Kuwaiti, the attitude toward the Judeo-Arab musical legacy is beginning to change: "After years of alienation, the members of the second and third generations of Iraqi immigrants are searching for a connection to their heritage and want to hear and study our music. And in general, people in Israel are more open today to listen to traditional music from various sources, perhaps because of the popularity of what is described as world music. Thanks to it, the serious Mizrahi music (of North African or Middle Eastern origin), not what is called 'Mediterranean songs,' is being increasingly accepted by the audience, although the establishment is not always a partner to the process."

An opportunity to amend the injustice will present itself in 2008, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Salah al Kuwaiti, which will be marked in Israel by a concert and the publication of a book of research. Similar events will be held in Iraq and Kuwait as well.