A former Iraqi soldier and prisoner who brought one of the world’s oldest stringed instruments back into the spotlight is set to end his exile and take his haunting songs back home.
Naseer Shamma is something of a global ambassador for the oud — a pear-shaped, six-stringed wood instrument hailing from ancient Mesopotamia — but has avoided reaping the fruits of fame in his turmoil-hit homeland.
Ten years since the fall of Saddam, however, Shamma has decided to return and end an exile borne out of oppression.
“We need to help, to do something important for Iraqi people and Iraqi culture,” the 49-year-old native of Kut told AFP while on a visit to the Philippines for a concert.
Shamma first became entranced with the lute-like instrument when he was a child, later studying with oud master Munir Bashir and at the Baghdad Academy of Music in the late 1980s.
He went on to gain fame across the Arab world as both musician and composer, shocking purists by daring to go beyond tradition to make the instrument — the oldest recorded depiction of which is 5,000 years old — more contemporary, combining it with classical or jazz influences.
Ouds from Baghdad were once renowned for their quality and were exported all over the region, but war and unrest have taken their toll on both musicians and oud-makers.
Conscripted into the army under Saddam’s regime, Shamma served as a soldier during the first US-led war on Iraq in 1991, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
“There was no real fighting. You just saw missiles coming in and you could not do anything. We never saw an enemy soldier,” he recalled.
Shamma also was jailed for several months in 1993 over “politics,” he said, declining to elaborate.
He left Iraq and moved to Tunisia for five years where he taught music, and then to Egypt, establishing schools called the Arab Oud House to teach people how to play what he calls the “grandfather” of stringed instruments.
His expertise extended to following an ancient manuscript to build his own version of a 9th century eight-stringed oud.
He also devised a one-handed method of playing the instrument, inspired by soldiers who lost limbs during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
“At first, it was impossible. But after three or four months of working, it finally happened,” he said. “If you have an open mind, you can do what you want.”
Even after the fall of Saddam in 2003, the Iraqi musician refused to go home and did not return to his native land until last year when he performed three concerts.
“Life has changed completely, the people have changed too.”
He said he feared cultural values were being eroded. “There is a new kind of people. They have power, they have money and life is confused,” he said,
“I felt this is not my country, this is not my people.”
Almost since the moment the last US troops withdrew in December 2011, the country has been locked in a wave of disputes between political, ethnic and religious factions, with no significant laws passed since polls in March 2010.
Though levels of violence are down from their peak from 2005 to 2008, attacks remain common, particularly with Sunni militants targeting officials, security forces and Shiite Muslims in a bid to destabilise the government and push the country back towards sectarian war.
But Shamma said he aimed to counter such emerging extremism with culture and art, spurred on by the fact that the The Arab League has designated Baghdad as the “Arab Capital of Culture” in 2013.
“There are thousands (of potential students) in Iraq. They contact me by Facebook and on the Internet. They ask me when I will be in Baghdad because they need to learn.
“At my last concert in Baghdad, I had very nice feeling with the audience,” he said. “Now, I can say… there are good moments coming.”