Arts & Culture

The Sounds of Jewish Iraq

Heard out of context, the music collected on this intriguing record might seem easy to place. Americans are among the world’s least worldly people, slow to learn and fast to conclude that they already know what they need to know. … Read More

By / December 1, 2008

Heard out of context, the music collected on this intriguing record might seem easy to place. Americans are among the world’s least worldly people, slow to learn and fast to conclude that they already know what they need to know. But even a NASCAR enthusiast from rural Georgia could probably identify this sound without much hesitation. The United States has been in the Middle East too long and too deeply for the culture of that region to remain anonymous. News reports and narrative films are scored to conjure up impressions of its geography with remarkable efficiency. Location shots may be done in Twentynine Palms instead of Palestine or Pakistan, to save money, time or lives, but our ears convince us that what we’re seeing is authentic. Like Southeast Asia before it, the Middle East has been transformed from a blank on the map to one that it is all too easy to flesh out with the details of stereotype. Yet it’s precisely the belief that we understand, more or less, where the songs are coming from that underscores the problems that this sort of cultural artifact poses. Listening for what we expect to find makes us deaf to what we need to learn. Perhaps if the music here is easy to place, it’s because our conception of the region is insufficiently nuanced. Like the real estate developer who decides to plop a grid of tract homes down on land that is far less flat or featureless than his plan indicates, our ability to locate the music on Give Me Love (Honest Jon’s, 2008) is the product of a failure to perceive where it might prove out of place. The plucked notes of Salim Daoud’s “Abuthiyya” may stimulate a craving for lamb or eggplant dishes, the beat in Badria Anwar’s “Lega Taresh Habibi” the urge to see a belly dancer perform, but those impulses derive more from the fantasy of a generic Middle East, the product of what Edward Said famously termed "Orientalism" than from the realities of any particular locale. The record’s striking cover responds to our capacity for self-delusion. An awkward-looking person, wearing improbably dark glasses, plays the violin like someone shut off from the outside world. Were the image sharper, its provenance and purpose might be clear. But its high contrast and poor resolution distance it from the photograph it reproduces. The evidence of half-toning indicates that it derives from a newspaper clipping, thereby making it a copy of an imperfect copy. With its clotted blacks set off by an antiseptic blue, it looks like one of the more subdued panels in a series of Andy Warhol silk screens. Consumers familiar with the graphic design made popular by punk could easily take this picture for one of the savagely decontextualized images favored in that genre, the sort that appeared on 45 RPM record sleeves for bands that sought to brutally eviscerate tradition. The large-font title on the cover reinforces the impression. The forceful injunction to “give me love” resonates oddly with the image. Is that a wry smile on the violinist’s face? Could he be using the violin as an instrument of seduction? Or is the insistence more sinister, his expression the index of a subtle sadism? Were it not for the fine print beneath the title, questions of this sort might overwhelm prospective listeners. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine a person sufficiently intrigued by the cover’s ambiguity to purchase the record in the hopes of answering them. This helps to explain the length of the subtitle. Presumably, the title conveys a lack. The “brokenhearted” demand love because they do not have it. If they insist, it is from a position of weakness not strength. More importantly, they do so from a specific place and time. These are not new songs. And they are not songs from a generic “Middle East”. No, they come from a city with a rich cultural heritage, during a period when it was poised uneasily on the cusp of modernity. Baghdad in the 1920s was, in a sense, out of place. In the wake of World War I, as the British and French divided up the defeated Ottoman Empire, Baghdad became the capital of a country as arbitrarily imposed on the landscape as any ground-leveling subdivision. The British had rewarded the man who led the Arab rebellion against the Sultanate, a story made famous and partially false by the writings of T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), by installing him as the king of the new state, even though he hailed from nearly a thousand miles away in Mecca. As the recent misadventures of American foreign policy have reminded us, this move went hand in hand with a decision to give the area’s Sunni minority a disproportionate amount of power relative to its Shi’ite majority. During the time specified in the record’s title, however, the monarchy’s autonomy was circumscribed by the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, a situation not unlike the one that prevails in Iraq today, where the nation’s government still acts, to a large degree, at the pleasure of the United States. In other words, the historical context from which these “songs of the brokenhearted” derive is highly significant, though of the sort that most listeners will only be able to comprehend by doing some research. That’s typically what the liner notes for a collection of this sort are for. Though extensive, however, the ones included in Give Me Love are narrower in scope. Like the record’s cover, they are also disorienting. Although notes about the music itself and translations of the songs are included, the first thing a listener confronts when looking at the CD booklet is a long text, commencing without title or byline, that begins, “I was born in 1921 in Baghdad. I lived in the area only inhabited by Jews, though we had no limitation on going anywhere.” The end of this meandering autobiographical piece reveals it to be the result of an interview with Yeheskel Kojaman, credited– together with Mark Ainley, who put the whole collection together – as the co-author of the notes on the music that follow. Yet that information does nothing to mitigate the reader’s sense of being immersed in another world, one where the singers in nightclubs were women “chosen from amongst prostitutes;” where coffee shops had become not only the spot for men to play games and chat, but where they gathered to listen to music played over loudspeakers; and where professional instrumentalists were exclusively Jewish. While the piece doesn’t romanticize this period unduly, it does remind us that there was a time, before the Middle East was called the “Middle East,” when tolerance of different religious and cultural traditions was one of the region’s defining traits. Kojaman’s narrative charts the decline of this relative freedom, as resistance to British power gave rise to political movements founded on an exclusionary nationalism. After a coup d’etat briefly put a pro-German regime in place, the situation for Baghdad’s Jews worsened greatly. Some turned to Zionism. Others, like Kojaman, joined the Communist movement, a decision that led to nearly a decade of imprisonment and, upon his release, flight into Israel. The fact that Kojaman’s story precedes the booklet’s more conventional liner notes and that he devotes considerable time to matters only cursorily related to Baghdad’s music scene speaks volumes about the intentions behind Give Me Love. This is not a collection for completists. Nor is it directed at experts on world music. Rather, it represents an attempt to rethink the way we place music. The disorientation the compilation inspires is not an end in itself, but the means to inspire listeners to pay closer attention to particulars. “Abuthiya,” for example, is not just the title of the song by Salim Daoud included here, but for a kind of song also represented by “Wehak El Kab Walkossein” and “Malek Ana.” The track listings make this much clear, but no more, inspiring listeners to discern what these songs have in common. Similarly, the presence of songs with origins in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Kurdish lands, as well as a Hebrew hymn, “Abney Eqdah,” raises questions about the relationship between local and regional identity. Give Me Love wants to give listeners enough detail to destabilize their assumptions without taking measures to reorient them. At least, that’s what the record’s approach towards geography implies. Things get more complicated when we consider the way that Give Me Love inspires us to reflect on media. The CD booklet features more images like the one on the record’s cover, presenting photographs in a way that foregrounds their imperfection. Regardless of how poor the source material may have been, these pictures could at least have been restored to the point where the half-tone grid’s effect was diminished and where some of the details lost within it were made visible again. Instead of going this route, however, Will Bankhead’s design concept accentuates the distance between the “then” these photographs capture and the “now” in which faces of the dead stare out at us. Whereas the blue background of the cover image gives it a curiously modern aspect, like a photocopied handbill, the yellowish tint of these images in the booklet gives them an antique appearance. It’s a strategy that echoes the work of artists who have sought to represent the “unrepresentable” tragedy of the Holocaust by rendering loss visible. Unfortunately, it’s also a strategy consistently deployed by purveyors of exoticism intent on summoning nostalgia for the “Good Old Days” of colonialism. This move would not be noteworthy if Give Me Love as a whole indulged in this form of distancing. Yet that is not the case. Because both Kojaman’s story and the notes on the music are written simply, without the adjective-laden passages that typically characterize invitations to nostalgia, a tension permeates the booklet. More importantly, the songs on the record are presented as cleanly as possible. Indeed, because they feature a small number of musicians and derive from idioms in which bass sounds were unusual, they sound much younger than they are. Part of the reason why the songs seem so easy to place is that they do not sound displaced. Even though they come from phonographic records that were bound to contain flaws, it’s easy to forget, listening to the record, that these songs were captured long before the era of high-fidelity reproduction. Indeed, someone listening to the music without knowing its source would be sorely pressed to identify it as dating from the 1920s. The fact that the CD comes in a separate sleeve decorated with the labels from two His Master’s Voice recordings, with track listings in Arabic and English, confirms that the record’s packaging is meant to provoke listeners to relate to the music in a specific way. The idea, clearly, is to remind them that the music they are about to hear is from a long time ago, even if it does not sound that way. It seems like an effective approach, too, for those listeners who still listen to CDs. Unfortunately, though, even dedicated music lovers are likely to leave their discs on the shelf these days. We live at a time when much of the culture we consume either comes without a cover or with one that we are invited to customize. The resulting confusion affects everything from people who get their internet content through a news reader to Bit Torrent users who get their movies without having to pay for packaging. But it’s in the music industry where this trend first materialized and where it has had the most far-reaching consequences. Although new technology like the iPhone has inspired attempts to revive interest in album art, the fact remains that there are millions of young people in their teens and twenties whose primary experience of music has come from downloading individual songs, decontextualized and sometimes even mistitled. For many of them, CDs are what their parents buy at the local Starbucks, an overpriced commodity destined for the dustbin of history. Indeed, this transformation has been so sweeping that hipper youth are gravitating towards the quaint technology of the phonograph record as a way to rebel against the status quo. But that fetishization, while salutary from the perspective of vinyl fans, hasn’t yet restored cover art to functionality. There’s a significant difference between collecting something for its format and collecting something for its own sake. While the size and shape of LP covers is praised and specific albums are lauded for their gatefold packaging, most music these days is sold in a form where cover art is an afterthought, if it’s even sold at all. Ultimately, that’s what makes Give Me Love such a curious undertaking. Deprived of the cover and liner notes, it comes off as a rather generic distillation of various musical styles that Western consumers identify with the Middle East and, in too many cases, as the Middle East. There’s nothing wrong with the music, all of which is good. But the record doesn’t give us the tools, as a single-artist collection might, to begin thinking about it deeply. Even the blind musician Salim Daoud, whose visage graces the cover, is only represented by three tracks. The songs here serve primarily as samples of something larger, a soundtrack for the effort to imagine the context that produced them. What makes this album special, in other words, is not something that the music itself can be counted on to convey. Without the long and highly specific title, without the liner notes, and without the complex visual information of the packaging, Give Me Love might well be regarded simply as a collection to get diners in the mood. The irony in this, as the liner notes make clear, is that the songs collected here, whether of religious or secular origin, whether traditional or modern, were recorded and sold in part because there was a burgeoning market for background music in the 1920s. Although wealthier individuals had phonographs in their homes, record dealers counted on the proprietors of cafés for much of their business. Before radio broadcasting came to the region, this was the way people became acquainted with new music. Unlike in a concert setting, though, where music is the main focus, phonographs were not the principal attraction in cafés. They lured new customers, surely, and inspired old ones to stick around. But they did not testify to increasing interest in music per se so much as the realization that it could make the pressures of existence easier to bear. It is an attitude towards music familiar in our own age. In fact, it is probably safe to say that the dream of seamlessly integrating music into everyday life has prevailed over the dream of being transported by music into another life. We so badly want songs that go together, without forcing us out of our mental groove, that we are willing to consign the task of sorting them to robots like Apple’s new “Genius” program for iTunes. Disorientation is not something we seek through music now, but a condition we want music, our music to soothe. While the decline of record-album packaging is first and foremost the result of the technological changes that have made copying music as easy as listening to music, it also corresponds to our desire to strip music of its otherness. Freed of the reminders that it comes from somewhere else, a song is more easily incorporated into the sense of self. From this perspective, the function of music is to confirm identity, not challenge it. One of the more striking developments of the filesharing era, though, is that this attitude towards music has increased even as its appeal in the marketplace has slackened. Maybe there’s something about the act of purchasing goods that lingers in the consciousness long afterwards, reinforcing the distinction between what is ours through nature and what is only ours through labor. By contrast, the sort of possession that results from downloading or copying music that one has no intention of paying for appears more pure, paradoxically, free of the taint of commodity fetishism. If we claim a song as ours without having invested hard-earned cash, that move then seems autonomously motivated rather than compensatory. Could it be that Give Me Love disorients listeners simply because it doesn’t make much sense when heard through an iPod? It’s a strange notion, surely. But the fact that the record’s packaging draws attention to itself while also destabilizing our understanding of the music it frames implies, at the very least, that its compilers were keen to have us ponder Give Me Love as a specific cultural artifact. As the CD sleeve persistently reminds us, this collection does not document traditional music, but what happens when tradition is transformed by technology. That’s why there are songs from places with a different heritage than Baghdad. And it’s also why the fact that many of them are Arab songs performed by Jewish musicians is so important. Walter Benjamin’s astonishingly prescient analysis of mechanical reproduction, itself a product of the same era as the music collected here, insists that the loss we experience in forsaking authenticity is the price of admission to a world in which what matters is not where we have been but what we wish to become. The problem, as subsequent cultural history has made clear, is that most of us spend our time and money trying to just be who we are. There’s a rich discussion for another day in that topic, as well as many others that this fascinating record broaches. For now, it is sufficient to note that the performers documented on this record made a living by being who they weren’t.