BAGHDAD (Reuters) - With as many as 15 concerts scheduled in an evening it used to be hard to decide which to attend, and pockets of Baghdad came alive with the beat of drums and twang of Iraqi ouds.
But that was a long time ago.
Many of Iraq’s most talented musicians fled during the rule of Saddam Hussein, fearing persecution for their political views and suffering from a lack of funding and exposure if they refused to glorify the leader in their art.
Others left after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, escaping violence as war broke out. Concert venues were shuttered. Some musicians were threatened by the Iraqi arm of al Qaeda.
Now, gingerly, some musicians are making plans to come back, hoping to revive Iraq’s rich musical tradition on home soil.
“It does not seem strange now. They call me, they send me messages, they ask me what I have seen,” renowned oud player Naseer Shamma said after a concert in Baghdad, his second in the country after nearly two decades in exile.
“And I say yes, now it is time to work, to help the Iraqi people. Of course every Iraqi musician needs to be here.”
A legend among lovers of the region’s traditional instruments, Shamma has played the lute-like oud since the age of 11.
He fled Iraq in 1993 for Tunis after he spoke out about human rights violations and a lack of democracy under Saddam and ended up in jail. The 49-year-old now lives in Cairo.
Security measures at his concert, in an opulent hotel in the capital’s highly fortified “Green Zone”, showed how far Iraq still has to go to revive its live music scene.
A well-heeled audience of government officials, musicians and journalists dressed in suits and silks had to pass through several check points to reach the venue, and endure a search with sniffer dogs.
Armed security guards lined the walls of the darkened concert hall, some of them discreetly tapping their feet as the music gathered pace.
Shamma’s trilling oud led the band, which includes violins, an accordion, a flute, brass and percussion, in a languid, romantic song. As the tempo sped up in longer, jaunty pieces led by drums, many in the seated 300-member mixed audience clapped in time.
Shamma said events such as the two-hour concert, organised by Iraq’s journalist union, were slowly bringing live music back to Iraq, even if the setting was not ideal.
Earlier this year he played at a similar concert for a meeting of Arab leaders in Baghdad.
“But I love to play at popular places, not so much like here with lots of security outside. I want my friends to come and young people. I prefer smaller venues, it is more intimate, the feeling is deeper,” he said, dressed in an untucked white shirt and dark trousers.
He hopes to play such a concert in Iraq during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which starts around July 19. He also plans to open an oud school by the end of this year in an old house in Baghdad.
For fellow band member Hamid al-Badri, a saxophonist, even a concert in a luxury hotel was a relief.
“I left Iraq 10 years ago because al Qaeda tried to kill me because I am an artist. For them, musicians were haram (forbidden),” said Badri, dressed completely in black.
“Now Iraq is different, this is beautiful. This is the first time for me to play here since I left.”
Several nights later Tunisian revolutionary singer Emel Mathlouthi performed at a social club in the capital to an audience of diplomats, Iraqi officials, students and teachers at a concert organised by the French Institute.
Tariq Safa al-Din, the Alwiyah club’s president, said it was one of the largest concerts of this kind at the venue in the past decade. Small groups perform Iraqi folk music every week in the garden of the club, founded in 1924.
“This is for the past two years. Before that, you know what it was like in Iraq, nobody used to come to the club,” he said.
Mathlouthi’s performance was just the beginning of a new era for live music in Baghdad, he said.
A mournful violin backed Mathlouthi’s powerful voice as she sang in Tunisian Arabic. Flashing lights accompanied the drum and bass beats as the music gathered force, and the seated audience members swayed and bobbed their heads.
Pulsing traditional rhythms and clanging hand cymbals closed the concert, but not before a handful of women leapt up and danced in the aisle, kicking and crossing their feet in a Kurdish-style traditional dance as the audience clapped. A handful of small children tottered from seat to seat.
“The lyrics of the songs, against fear, against dictatorship, the call for freedom and a decent life - we miss such songs here in Baghdad,” said Iraqi Sabrine Kadohim, who jumped on stage afterward to speak to the singer.
“Iraqis, Baghdadis ... we are in need of such music, with an upbeat rhythm.”
Living in Iraq still carries many risks despite an easing in post-war sectarian violence which killed tens of thousands in 2006-7.
Last month at least 237 people were killed and 603 wounded in attacks, mainly bombings, according to a Reuters count, making June one of the bloodiest months in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew at the end of last year.
Some Iraqi musicians, like 18-year-old trumpeter Frand Nashat, can only dream about the bohemian musical atmosphere of the old Baghdad lovingly described by his elder peers.
“We have got used to it because we never played freely. When I first played in a concert, it was very secure, a lot of security personnel, so this feels like normal to me,” he said.
Dressed in a Beethoven T-shirt picked up on a recent tour to Germany with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, Nashat said it was still difficult to transport musical instruments around the city, especially through security check points.
“A lot of people ask - what is it? It is like a strange box. It was hard back in the day but it is kind of safer now. It’s good playing music in Iraq, it is very soothing.”
Nashat, who also plays with senior musicians in the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and also plays jazz alone and with small groups of friends, says most concerts take place in secure hotels and halls in Baghdad or in the safer city of Arbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and business is booming.
“We once had a concert so full that people had to sit on the stairs,” he said.
The easing of violence has not yet had an effect on the business of 70-year-old oud maker Farak Mohammad Hussein, however. Hussein, who has been playing and making ouds for five decades, spends up to four months making each intricate inlaid wooden instrument by hand.
“Now I sell very, very, very few ouds. Maybe one a month,” he said. Before the 2003 invasion, the number was more like three or four.
“When the Americans came to Iraq there were no more parties, no singing. Now only a few students and teachers buy ouds,” he said from his tiny workshop stuffed with tools, and dozens of curling photos of Iraqi musicians.
Hussein points out a black-and-white photo of himself from 1959, sitting stiffly in a black suit and tie, clutching the instrument. For him, this was Baghdad’s musical heyday.
He talks of a time when musicians and singers would gather and play at his much larger workshop. They would buy ouds from him and his three brothers, all instrument makers who since fled the country.
“The oud is Iraqi civilisation,” he says. “God willing, in the future safety will fully return. Iraq can scent its freedom now.”
Additional reporting by Raheem Salman and Saif Tawfiq; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall