A lost world

Songs from 1920s Baghdad bring us a diverse city where the streets and nightclubs were full of music

Yeheskel Kojaman's Baghdad is a city of dust roads, alley markets, minarets and palm trees. Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and a few European coffee drinkers lounge in cafes where you can pay - in Indian rupees - to pick and eat fresh salad or have a fish pulled from the Tigris and grilled in front of you. The streets, nightclubs and houses are full of music. "The singer Hdhairy Abou Aziz has a radio programme every Friday from 12 noon till one," says Kojaman. "For this hour, all movement in Iraq stops. Everybody is in the coffee shop or the house, listening to Abou Aziz."

Kojaman, an 87-year-old Jewish Iraqi musicologist, is today one of the last few people who can remember 1920s and 1930s Baghdad and the extraordinary music played there. But Abou Aziz, and others, are resurrected on Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted - Baghdad (1925-1929), from the excellent and eclectic Honest Jon's label. The compilation is drawn from 900 fragile 78rpm "sides" - tracks lasting between three and five minutes - rediscovered by chance at the vast EMI archive in Hayes, Middlesex.

"I was looking for some recordings from Sierra Leone, and in the space next to them were these raw, powerful records from Iraq," says Mark Ainley of Honest Jon's.

The 78s captured a scene as varied as the city they were recorded in. Old-fashioned rifi (country) songs with a sparse percussion backing sat next to Kurdish violin improvisations. The lavishly instrumented "Egyptian" sound of the big-city nightclubs gave way to Jewish hymns and Muslim devotional songs. Many of the tracks on Give Me Love mix two or more traditions: Abou Aziz's lovelorn rifi lament "Fahasboukom Hatha" ("Enough Is Enough") has a full "Egyptian" backing band of oud (lute), violin, qanun (zither) and percussion; the blind oud master Salim Daoud's Hebrew hymn for the Festival of Tabernacles, "Abney Eqdah" ("Red Precious Stones"), begins with an Arabic call of "Allah!".

"Until 1950, all the musicians in Baghdad were Jewish," recalls Kojaman, whose family was well-known in Iraq's ancient, 130,000-strong Jewish community. "Muslims could be singers - because they were used to reading and singing the Quran - but they would not let their children play instruments. In the rif, the countryside, things were different."

In both country and city, however, it was rare and shameful for women of any religion to sing in public. Nightclub singers such as Give Me Love's Sultana Youssef were "benat", "girls" - prostitutes chosen first for their looks and skill with an unruly champagne-drinking clientele, and only then allowed on stage. They paid a high price. "Sultana loved her family," says Kojaman. "Her nephew used to go and see her, but the rest of them never contacted her again." The only women to escape censure were the revered Egyptian classical singer Umm Khultoum, who visited Baghdad in the early 1930s, and the Muslim religious singer Siddiqa el-Mullaya, who appeared at private celebrations for weddings and circumcisions.

Though their audience was Iraqi, the musicians were recorded and distributed by Europeans keen to exploit markets in the newly created, British-occupied state. When gramophones arrived in Iraq in the mid-1920s, they created an immediate sensation. Agents from the Gramophone Company - soon to become EMI - travelled the country investigating sales potential. Conducted amid colonial certainties ("The mind of the Orient is unfathomable," wrote one agent), accusations of sabotage and competition with European rivals, the fledgling business of selling music became a Great Game in miniature. An agent called "Mr Jean" disguised himself as a Muslim to visit the Shia holy city of Karbala, reporting back that the townspeople were "of the Priest class with green and white turbans . . . of appearance very fanatical. Playing of Gramophones in Public is strictly forbidden", but that "in private I can say that the majority of the houses have Gramophones and various instruments of music".

Profits boomed, then slowed with the introduction of national radio in 1936, and were wiped out by succeeding years of war and upheaval. Anti-Semitism was on the rise, and the musicians suffered. Kojaman was arrested in 1948 for membership of a Jewish communist league and sentenced to 20 years in prison; his wife and his mother got five years, followed by deportation to Israel.

By 1950, almost all of Baghdad's Jews had been threatened and intimidated into leaving for Israel - although the authorities detained two of the musicians until each of them had taught two Muslims to play their traditional instruments, the santour (dulcimer) and joza (coconut-shell violin). The city was changed for ever.

In 1961, Kojaman was accidentally released. Pursued by police, he fled for the southern seaport of Basra, from where he bribed smugglers to float him to the Iranian coast in a primitive tin boat. Zionists in Tehran paid his passage to Israel. "I arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport on 12 January 1962, and 250 of my friends and family - and two Mossad officers - were waiting to welcome me," he says. Walking in the Iraqi market outside Tel Aviv, he saw the famous musician Daoud el-Kowaity selling kitchenware from a tiny shop that he ran with his violinist brother, Saleh. Deprived of their audiences, Baghdad's exiled master musicians scraped a living as shoemakers, telephone operators or basket weavers.

"Jewish musicians once entertained the whole of Iraq," says Kojaman. "In Israel, they played to a few people, and fewer as time went on. Iraqi music became a foreign music." He became their champion, recording their past glories in his book The Maqam Music Tradition of Iraq.

The music rescued from oblivion by Kojaman and Honest Jon's has the compelling eeriness and directness of early blues recordings. "I beg you in the name of the Prophet, give me love," sings Mulla Abdussaheb to a spare, loping beat on the opening track, "Ya Yumma Weya Baba" ("Oh, Mother! Oh, Father!"). Give Me Love offers a glimpse of a lost world, and a reminder that Baghdad was not always so unhappily divided.

"Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted - Baghdad (1925-1929)" is out now on Honest Jon's Records

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism