Music of Iraq

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The music of Iraq or Iraqi music, (Arabic : موسيقى عراقية), also known as the Music of Mesopotamia encompasses the music of a number of ethnic groups and musical genres. Ethnically, it includes Arabic music, Assyrian, Kurdish and the music of Turkmen, among others. Apart from the traditional music of these peoples, Iraqi music includes contemporary music styles such as pop, rock, soul and urban contemporary.

Arabic music music of the Arab world

Arabic music is the music of the Arab World with all its different music styles and genres. Arabic countries have many styles of music and also many dialects; each country has its own traditional music.

Kurdish music

Kurdish music refers to music performed in Kurdish language.

Pop music is a genre of popular music that originated in its modern form in the United States and United Kingdom during the mid-1950s. The terms "popular music" and "pop music" are often used interchangeably, although the former describes all music that is popular and includes many diverse styles. "Pop" and "rock" were roughly synonymous terms until the late 1960s, when they became increasingly differentiated from each other.


Iraq is recognized mainly for three instruments, the Oud, Iraqi Santur and Joza. The most renowned Oudists are Ahmed Mukhtar, Naseer Shamma, Rahim AlHaj, Sahar Taha and Munir Bashir.

Oud pear-shaped stringed instrument

The oud is a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument with 11 or 13 strings grouped in 5 or 6 courses, commonly used predominantly in Western Asia and North Africa: in Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Kurdistan, Yemen, Arabia, Iran, Greece, Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and other ethnic music like Jewish music, North African Chaabi, Classical, and Spanish Andalusian.


The rebab is a type of a bowed string instrument so named no later than the 8th century and spread via Islamic trading routes over much of North Africa, the Middle East, parts of Europe, and the Far East. The bowed variety often has a spike at the bottom to rest on the ground, and is thus called a spike fiddle in certain areas, but plucked versions like the kabuli rebab also exist.

Ahmed Mukhtar Arabic,أحمد مختار is an Iraqi musician who is internationally renowned for his playing of the oud. He was born in Baghdad and is a graduate of the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad.

Classical Iraqi Music

Musical theater group in Baghdad, 1920s. ComedianpartyBaghdad.jpg
Musical theater group in Baghdad, 1920s.

Iraqi classical music necessitates some discussion of the social environment, as well as references to the poetry. Poetry is always rendered clearly. Poetry is the art of the Iraqis, and sung poetry is the finest of all. In Baghdad from 760-1260, writers spurned musical notation. [1] The music is melodically modal, and moves in a stepwise motion with repeated notes. Use of the lower end of a melodic range is characteristic, as is the use of silence; one listens through the silence. Following a cadence, the singer moves up to the next range of pitches. An arch shape is discernible, and the work ends in the original mode.

Baghdad Capital of Iraq

Baghdad is the capital of Iraq. The population of Baghdad, as of 2016, is approximately 8,765,000, making it the largest city in Iraq, the second largest city in the Arab world, and the second largest city in Western Asia.

Singers of the Baghdad Court were praised for their excellence in composition, their knowledge of history and songs, and their ornaments and innovations. There was support for female singers and orators, such as Arib, a skilled poet, calligrapher, lutenist, composer, and backgammon player who wrote more than one thousand songs. The common instrument (comparable in popularity to the piano or violin in the west) is the oud. Classical Iraqi music is identifiable by the genre/canon, and by how it is performed.

Historically, music would have been played for gatherings of men. With the advent of the sound recording industry, things have changed somewhat. Today one invites musicians to perform at weddings; by the first quarter of the century, concerts were being staged at concert venues.


Traditional flute player from Iraqi folk troupe Iraqi-fluteplayer.jpg
Traditional flute player from Iraqi folk troupe

Across the Arab world, maqam refers to specific melodic modes. When a musician performs maqam performances, the performer improvises, based on rules. There are a number of different maqams, each with its own mood and characteristics. There are between fifty and seventy maqams, many of which have sub-styles. Other characteristics of Iraqi music include a slow tempo, rhythmically free ornamentation or melodic lines, and predominantly minor modes. Instruments include qanun, riq, santur, darbuka, naqareh, ney, djose and oud. Baghdad's Chalgi ensembles typically include the djoze and ney, and may also utilize an oud.

Arabic maqam is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, which is mainly melodic. The word maqam in Arabic means place, location or position. The Arabic maqam is a melody type. It is "a technique of improvisation" that defines the pitches, patterns, and development of a piece of music and which is "unique to Arabian art music". There are seventy two heptatonic tone rows or scales of maqamat. These are constructed from major, neutral, and minor seconds. Each maqam is built on a scale, and carries a tradition that defines its habitual phrases, important notes, melodic development and modulation. Both compositions and improvisations in traditional Arabic music are based on the maqam system. Maqamat can be realized with either vocal or instrumental music, and do not include a rhythmic component.

In the theory of Western music, a mode is a type of musical scale coupled with a set of characteristic melodic behaviors. Musical modes have been a part of western musical thought since the Middle Ages, and were inspired by the theory of ancient Greek music. The name mode derives from the Latin word modus, "measure, standard, manner, way, size, limit of quantity, method".

Qanun (instrument) traditional Middle Eastern stringed instrument

The qanun, kanun, ganoun or kanoon is a string instrument played either solo, or more often as part of an ensemble, in much of the Middle East, Maghreb, West Africa, Central Asia, and southeastern regions of Europe. The name derives from the Arabic word qanun, meaning "rule, law, norm, principle", which is borrowed from the ancient Greek word and musical instrument κανών (rule), which in Latin was called canon. Traditional and Classical musics executed on the qanun are based on Maqamat or Makamlar. As the historical relative of santur from the same geography, qanun is thought to trace its origins back to Assyria, where an ancestral homologue might have been used in Mesopotamian royal courts and religious ceremonies. The instrument today is a type of large zither with a thin trapezoidal soundboard that is famous for its unique melodramatic sound.

"Lil 'Ashiqi fi-l Hawa Dala'il" by Ahmed Abdul Qadir al-Musili (1877-1941).

Maqama texts are often derived from classical Arabic poetry, such as by Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, al-Mutanabbi and Abu Nuwas, or Persian poets like Hafez and Omar Khayyám. Some performers used traditional sources translated into the dialect of Baghdad, and still others use Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Hebrew, Turkmen, Aramaic or Persian language lyrics.

<i>Maqama</i> Arabic prosimetric literary genre

Maqāmah are an (originally) Arabic prosimetric literary genre which alternates the Arabic rhymed prose known as Saj‘ with intervals of poetry in which rhetorical extravagance is conspicuous.

Arabic poetry form of poetry

Arabic poetry is the earliest form of Arabic literature. Present knowledge of poetry in Arabic dates from the 6th century, but oral poetry is believed to predate that.

Muhammad Mahdi Al-Jawahiri was an Iraqi poet. Considered by many as one of the best and greatest Arabian poets in the 20th century, he was also nicknamed The Greatest Arabian Poet


The roots of modern Iraqi maqam can be traced as far back as the Abbassid Caliphate, when that large empire was controlled from Baghdad.

The pesteh, a kind of light song which concludes a maqam performance, has been popularized in the later 20th century, growing more prominent along with the rise of recorded music and broadcast radio. Among the most popular pesteh performers are the husband and wife Salima Pasha and Nazem Al-Ghazali.

Pesteh village in South Khorasan, Iran

Pesteh is a village in Qaleh Zari Rural District, Jolgeh-e Mazhan District, Khusf County, South Khorasan Province, Iran. At the 2006 census, its population was 10, in 4 families.

Salima Mourad or Salima Murad was a well-known Iraqi Jewish singer and was well known and highly respected in the Arab world. She was given the nickname "Pasha" by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said.

The most popular modern singers of maqam are Rachid Al-Qundarchi (1887–1945), Youssouf Omar (1918–1987), Nazem Al-Ghazali (1920–1963), Salim Shibbeth (born 1908), Hassan Chewke (1912–1962), Najim Al-Sheikhli (1893–1938), Mohammed Al-Qubanchi (1900–1989), Hamid Al Saadi (1959-) and Farida Mohammad Ali (1963- ).

Modern era

Munir Bashir, an acclaimed oud singer. MBashir.jpg
Munir Bashir, an acclaimed oud singer.
Omar Bashir, a modern day oud singer. Omar bashir.jpeg
Omar Bashir, a modern day oud singer.

For much of the 20th century, Egypt was the center for Arab popular music, with only a few stars from other countries finding international success. Singers were Muslims, Jews and Christians.

Iraqi instrumentalists attended the famous 1932 Arabic music congress in Cairo, which the Muslim vocalist Muhammed al-Qubanchi also attended. In 1936, Iraq Radio was established by two of Iraq's most prominent performers and composers, Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity with an ensemble, with the exception of the percussion player. The nightclubs of Baghdad also featured almost entirely Jewish musicians. At these nightclubs, ensembles consisted of oud, qanun and two percussionists while the same format with ney and cello were used on the radio. [2]

One of the reasons for the predominance of Jewish instrumentalists in early 20th century Iraqi music was a prominent school for blind Jewish children, which was founded in the late 1920s by the great qanunji ("qanun player") Joseph Hawthorne (Yusef Za'arur) (Hebrew : דנדהי ללוואלד-יוסף זערור Arabic : يوسف زعرور). Many of the students became musicians, eventually forming the Arabic music ensemble "Israel Radio" (Hebrew : קול ישראליQol Yisraeli ).

The most famous singer of the 1930s1940s was perhaps Salima Pasha. [2] [3] During the 1920s, two brothers began to gain prominence in the field of music in Iraq; the Kuwaiti brothers - Salih, a violin player, and Dawud, an oud player. Almost at the same time, the name of a woman singer, Salima Pasha began to achieve fame. The brothers, Salih and Dawud el-Kuwaiti began to perform and to compose new songs for Pasha. Salih became the most prominent musician in Iraq, and Pasha became the most famous singer.

Following the opening of the Iraqi Broadcast Station in 1936. Salih was asked to form the official music ensemble for the radio station. It was due to him, that two instruments, the cello and nay (flute), were introduced for the first time into the instrumental music ensemble. The respect and adoration for Pasha were unusual at the time, since public performance by women was considered shameful and most female singers were recruited from brothels. [2]

Numerous instrumentalists and singers of the middle and late twentieth century were trained at the Baghdad Conservatory.

In recent years the Iraqi school of oud players has become very prominent, with players such as Salman Shukur and Munir Bashir developing a very refined and delicate style of playing combining older Arabic elements with more recent Anatolian influences.

Pop music

Pop music in Iraq more often than not means musical motifs and lyrics dating back centuries but performed with a mix of traditional and modern instruments. Kadim Al Sahir, for example, may be nicknamed "the Elvis of the Middle East," but he sings in classical Arabic. Popular musician Ilham al-Madfai features the electric guitar and saxophone, but uses the instruments to reinterpret age-old folk songs. [4]

Until the fall of Saddam Hussein, the most popular radio station was the Voice of Youth, which used to play the popular music of Iraq to continue the culture of the country. The station also played a mix of rock, hip hop and pop music from artists as far-ranging as Eminem to R.E.M., [5] all of which had to be imported via Jordan due to international economic sanctions, and both disc jockeys and callers spoke exclusively in English. Irish bands The Corrs and Westlife were especially popular. Iraq also produced a major pan-Arab pop star in exile in Kadim Al Sahir, whose songs include Ladghat-e Hayya, which was banned by Hussein for its racy lyrical content.

Other modern Iraqi singers include Ali Al Essawi, whose song Makhtuba became huge hit in the Arab world and made him famous throughout the region. Major artists include Shatha Hassoun, Rahma Mezher, Majid al-Muhandis, Hussam Al-Rassam, Rida Al Abdullah and Iraq's very own boy band Unknown to No One, as well as Acrassicauda, Iraq's first heavy metal band. There are also ethnic Assyrian singers such as Klodia Hanna, Ashur Bet Sargis and Linda George as well as a number of Kurdish, Turkmen, Yazidi, Dom and Armenian musicians such as Seta Hagopian.

Effect of 2003 Iraq War

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and fall of Saddam Hussein, some militant extremists have been attacking musicians, especially those in the port city of Basra, where the Wahabis are believed to be responsible.Basra's sea shanties are well known throughout Iraq. Music shops in the Summar district have been the target of grenade bombings. Extremist religious leaders have closed some of the concert halls and clubs in the city.

Related Research Articles

Music of Egypt

Music has been an integral part of Egyptian culture since antiquity. The Bible documents the instruments played by the ancient Hebrews, all of which are correlated in Egyptian archaeology. Egyptian music probably had a significant impact on the development of ancient Greek music, and via the Greeks was important to early European music well into the Middle Ages. The modern music of Egypt is considered as a core of Arabic music and Oriental music as it has been a source for or a main influence on other regional styles. The tonal structure of Oriental Arabic music is defined by the maqamat, loosely similar to Western modes, while the rhythm of Arabic music is governed by the iqa'at, standard rhythmic modes formed by combinations of accented and unaccented beats and rests.

Persian traditional music or Iranian traditional music, also known as Persian classical music or Iranian classical music, refers to the classical music of Iran. It consists of characteristics developed through the country's classical, medieval, and contemporary eras.

Music of Syria

The music of Syria may refer to musical traditions and practices in modern-day Syria, merging the habits of people who settled in Syria throughout its history. Syria was long one of the Arab world's centers for musical innovation in the field of classical Arab music; for example, the city of Aleppo is known for its muwashshah music, which was specially conceived to accompany Andalusian muwashshah poetry.

Iraqi Maqam is a genre of Arabic maqam music found in Iraq that is at least four-hundred years old. The ensemble of instruments used in this genre, called Al-Chalghi al-Baghdadi, includes a qari' (singer), santur, jawza, tabla or dunbug/dumbeg, and sometimes riqq and naqqarat. The focus is on the poem sung in classical Arabic or an Iraqi dialect. A complete maqam concert is known as fasl and is named after the first maqam: Bayat, Hijaz, Rast, Nawa, or Husayni.

Al-Andalus Ensemble is an award-winning husband and wife musical duo that performs contemporary Andalusian music. The ensemble features Tarik Banzi playing oud, ney and darbuka, and Julia Banzi on flamenco guitar.

Middle Eastern music spans across a vast region, from Morocco to Iran. The various nations of the region include the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the Iranian traditions of Persia, the Hebrew music of Israel and the diaspora, Armenian music, the varied traditions of Cypriot music, the music of Turkey, traditional Assyrian music, Berbers of North Africa, Coptic Christians in Egypt, and the Andalusian music very much alive in North Africa, all maintain their own traditions. It is widely regarded that some Middle-Eastern musical styles have influenced India, as well as Central Asia, Spain, and the Balkans.

Saleh (1908–1986) and Daud (1910–1976) Al-Kuwaity were Jewish musicians born in Kuwait as Saleh and Daud Ezra. Having written some of the most famous songs of all time in Arabic music, their music is to this day famous throughout the Arab world, although they are relatively unknown in Israel.

Rahim AlHaj Iraqi American oud musician and composer

Rahim AlHaj is an Iraqi American oud musician and composer.

Yair Dalal Israeli musician

Yair Dalal is an Israeli musician of Iraqi-Jewish descent.

Amir ElSaffar is an American jazz trumpeter and vocalist. His compositions combine jazz, classical, and traditional Arabic music.

Nazem al-Ghazali singer-songwriter

Nazem al-Ghazali was one of the most popular singers in the history of Iraq and his songs are still heard by many in the Arab world.

Farida Mohammad Ali is an Iraqi singer. She performs regularly in the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble. The ensemble was established in 1989 in Baghdad by Mohammad H.Gomar to continue of the 1973 ensemble organized by the prominent lute professor Munir Bashir. She had taught maqam singing at the Baghdad Conservatory. She left Iraq in 1997. She is married to Mohammad Gomar the Djozza instrument player and lives in the Netherlands.

Al Jeel, also known as Jeel, Geel, is an Egyptian alternative to foreign popular forms of music that developed in the 1970s. Modeled after foreign rock and roll and pop music, Al Jeel became oriented around dance/pop, and had a background similar to reggae. Al Jeel also included many distinctively Egyptian characteristics, somewhat related to past Egyptian musical influences.

Rida Al Abdullah Iraqi musician

Rida Al Abdulla is an Iraqi singer. He gained attention across the Arab world for his singles "Bo'dak Habibi", "Qasawa", "Dhalim", "Min Trid Abousak", "Al Asabe3", "Melih Wa Zad", "Ya Hali" and many other hits including "Weinkom Ya Arab", which was a protest song against the war 2006 Lebanon-Israeli war. His new album "Yom Wa Sana" was released in July 2009 and it includes 14 songs all written and composed by Rida himself.

Santur hammered dulcimer of Persian/Iranic origins

The santur is a hammered dulcimer of Iranian or Mesopotamian origins.

Yusuf Za'arur was a world-renowned Iraqi-Jewish qanun player and director of Radio Orchestra of Baghdad during the 1930s.


  1. Classical Music in Iraq Virginia Danielson, Harvard University
  2. 1 2 3 Kojaman, Yeheskel. "Jewish Role in Iraqi Music" . Retrieved 2007-09-09.
  3. Manasseh, Sara (February 2004), "An Iraqi samai of Salim Al-Nur" (PDF), Newsletter, London: Arts and Humanities Research Board Research Centre for Cross-Cultural Music and Dance Performance (3), p. 7, archived from the original ( Scholar search ) on December 2, 2005, retrieved 2007-09-09 .
  4. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-06. Retrieved 2016-02-08.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  5. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-06. Retrieved 2016-02-08.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)

Further reading