Hussein Abdullah clutches his oud, long the symbol of Iraqi music, and sighs. “Iraqis do not care for their musical heritage,” he laments. “On TV, all you see are singers who have no voice.”
While his contemporaries may have chosen to play the drums or guitar, or belt out modern lyrics, the 25-year-old has instead opted for the oud, part of an attempted revival of Iraqi traditional music, long in decline.
The contrast is evident in the upmarket neighbourhood of Jadriyah in central Baghdad — in the evenings, when restaurants are packed and the streets are filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic, revellers are more likely to hear the melodies of Egyptian singer Amr Diab than the Iraqi oud.
Hussein is one of a growing number of students at Baghdad’s Musical Studies Institute, a bastion of the country’s traditional music and a breeding ground for budding talents.
At the vanguard of that effort is Sattar Naji, the institute’s director who meets with every prospective student hoping to, one day, break into the elite of Iraqi traditional music.
“It is better now,” Naji told AFP, recalling that after the US-led invasion of 2003, “we did not even have 30 students.”
“Today, we are working with more than 150.”
Among the hopefuls who want to join that group is Mohammed Ali Mohammed, an 18-year-old with slick black hair.
As part of an entrance exam, Naji, who works with three teachers at the institute, asked the teenager to reproduce a beat he made by humming and clapping his hands.
Though awkward at first, Mohammed quickly caught on, and after 10 minutes, Naji consulted with his colleagues.
“Not bad,” he said. “We’ll take him — he will get better over time.”
Despite his talent, Mohammed lacked Hussein’s passion, admitting afterwards that he would have preferred to have auditioned for Iraqi Star, a television talent show that is the local equivalent of American Idol or the X-Factor.
“But I had to go to school, so I could not try out,” he said.
The young man is nevertheless in line for four years of intensive teaching — teachers will work with him on his singing and playing the oud, but also on performing with the qanoon, an Arab take on the sitar, and the violin.
Though he will be accomplished in the art, it is unclear whether he will find an audience.
“Sadly, us, the Iraqis, we have lost our traditions,” lamented Mustafa Zair, an oud teacher and renowned concert musician.
From 2005 to 2008, Iraq was blighted by a brutal sectarian war in which tens of thousands died, and many chose to stay in their homes after dark rather than take their chances with the rampant violence.
At the time, music, even in its traditional Iraqi form, was often targeted by insurgents.
“From 2005 to 2007, when I was studying at the Musical Studies Institute,” recalled Murad, a flautist in a traditional music orchestra, “I was afraid to carry my instruments in public.”
“I was even scared to tell my neighbours that I was studying music.”
Though still violent — 246 people were killed in Iraq in January — security is markedly improved from its darkest days, and musicians have experienced greater freedom.
But they increasingly find themselves constrained by a new challenge: a lack of resources and listeners.
One victim of those challenges has been maqam, a slow form of music that was developed at around the time of the foundation of modern Iraq. It accomplished little in recent years but satisfy connoisseurs, and has all but disappeared.
And now, many are trying to ensure the oud does not meet a similar fate.
The Iraqi government had “other priorities aside from encouraging music,” Hassan Shakarji, the head of musical affairs at the culture ministry, told AFP.
“But we can not fight violence just with weapons.”
“Culture is the basis of everything — music, literature, poetry all have great influence.”
Perhaps a greater threat than the lack of government support has been the success of pop music in Iraq.
“Satellite channels are destroying our heritage,” said institute director Naji. “They play frivolous music with semi-naked girls — the songs speak only to baser instincts, they do not evoke passion.”
Hussein, the young oud student, has refused to give up, however.
With three friends, he has founded a traditional music group — he plays the oud, Mohammed is on the piano, Ahmed sings and Ghassan plays the violin.
The four draw their inspiration from what has long infused traditional Iraqi songs — slow and haunting melodies, where depth and introspection take precedence over a catchy tune.
“We want to play for free in public places,” Mohammed declared, before adding forlornly: “We asked Zawraa Park (in central Baghdad) for permission to play outdoors, but we were told to go to the culture ministry.”
“Restaurants in Abu Nawas (the main street that snakes along the banks of the Tigris river) will not give us the electricity to connect our instruments,” the pianist added.
Trying to force a smile, he concluded: “It is very frustrating.”