With the U.S. having such a large stake in the history and future of Iraq—especially as Mosul was recently freed from ISIS rule—it’s a choice time to explore the Middle Eastern county’s music. Its vitality means survival for its creators, an escape from war and rival religious factions. These five artists and bands stand out in the undercurrent of Iraqi song.
When getting hit by a SCUD missile is part of your regular rehearsal schedule, you know you’re dealing with some genuine bravery. Hardworking Acrassicauda were the subject of Heavy Metal in Baghdad, a 2007 Vice documentary, which led to their international recognition. The members spoke of playing for freedom, something that was scarce during Saddam Hussein’s presidency and throughout the aughts after his ouster. Acrassicauda’s sound, much like Slipknot and Slayer, touched a nerve in the desert scene. They reconvened in New York City and released Gilgamesh in 2015. (Lead image by Yosimar Gomez.)
A lover of all things David Lynch, Farouk Adil finds inspiration in the unsettling. His electronica opuses could be the backdrop for the latest Twin Peaks episode, or that of the Iraqi battlefields. After dabbling in acoustic looping on Pixies covers, he found his calling among the Aphex Twins of the world. His Bandcamp page showcases a mesmerizing mix of trance and spooky cinematic vibes.
Despite threats of being stoned to death, pop provocateur Helan Abdulla has literally put herself on the frontlines against ISIS to promote ceasefires. She champions the Peshmurga, the Kurdish army in the region that faces opposition from terror groups and other Iraqis. She now calls Los Angeles her home, but her return to her native land to shoot the video for “Revolution” sparked cheers and jeers from various forces. She cites Britney Spears and Rihanna among her influences, but she’s a step ahead when it comes to putting her voice to power. (Thanks to NPR for the recommendation!)
This symphonic group, established by Zuhal Sultan when she was a teen, is a prime example of the hardship Iraqi musicians face. Whether they were persecuted by their own society, by ISIS or by the Western world, they trudged on through 2015 to make their dreams come true of performing at international venues. It was after being denied visas to the U.S. in 2014 that the tenacious group of artists ranging in age from 14 to 29 disbanded. But Sultan continues her quest to inspire with the Key of RefuG, which assists war-zone children in battling PTSD with the power of music.
Loolwa Khazzoom’s family fled Iraq in the 1950s because they were part of a beseiged Sephardic Jewish sect. Upon resettling in Tel Aviv, they carried on a social custom of getting right into their PJs after work, hence the name of this unique Seattle band. Their style blends Hebrew and Iraqi prayers with punk rock a la X-Ray Spex. Khazzoom has made a name for herself as an “irreverent motivational speaker,” so her bouncy attitude mixed with antiestablishment lyricism is awesome to behold.
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