UNESCO recognises Iraqi maqam melodies

Violins continue their haunting melody as a Blackhawk helicopter roars over the Iraqi Maqam Association in Adamiyah in the western part of the capital.

A male voice rises on the hot summer breeze following the melody of the traditional strings and a unique guitar-like instrument called an al-Johza. More helicopters fly over, but the practising continues, stopping only when the singer starts explaining to the violinists how to correct the tempo.

The melody is one of Iraq's maqams, a series of seven musical tunes of the country recently recognised as an "intangible heritage of humanity" by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) cultural heritage division.

While traditional maqams exist across the Arab world, Iraq's are special because of their unique patterns, Hussein al-Adimiy, director of the association, told IRIN. Anyone who has heard a call to prayer in the Muslim world has heard one of the basic maqam melodies.

Even though UNESCO announced the recognition several months ago, it has not yet started the work it plans to support the maqams, Janet Tchilinguirian, UNESCO project manager, told IRIN from Amman, Jordan. The project will start when the current security situation gets better, Tchilinguirian said.

Al-Adimiy will hold two concerts in the next week to celebrate UNESCO's announcement. So far, poor security in Baghdad has kept the institute from holding more performances, he said.

Under Saddam, people had few opportunities to attend such events, with theatre and others arts kept from the majority. Now ordinary Iraqis will have more opportunities to hear these traditional melodies performed.

"Musical heritage is like any phenomenon in life," al-Adimiy said. "Our civilisation is thousands of years old, so this music is an accumulation of those generations up to this moment."

The seven basic maqam tunes, which were embellished in various more modern songs, were more than 1,000 years old, coming from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, al-Adimiy said. The tunes are believed to have started in mountainous areas of Central Asia when people tried to communicate with each other across long distances, he said.

"The most important influence was the end of the Abbasid state, called the "Golden Age" of Iraq," al-Adimiy said. "After the invasion of the Mongols and the Tartars, Iraq was influenced by invaders for seven centuries."

Religious ceremonies kept the maqam alive through the centuries, al-Adimiy said. Without the reading of the Koran in mosques, the maqam sounds would have died out. But the sounds are also much more complex than folklore tunes, he said.

Learning how to play the traditional instruments is the only way to keep them from dying out, Osama Kareem, 26, told IRIN. Kareem is now learning how to play the Iraqi lute. But he also plays the piano and flute, and sings some of the traditional songs. He is finishing his eighth year at the maqam institute. The mostly male students typically stay for six years before taking their knowledge to professional orchestras and other musical venues.

"We learn not only how to play the maqam, but the principles of the maqam," Kareem said. "I want to find the real spirit of the classical maqam, but I also want to develop the classics into modern music."

Hussein Ali Hussein plays the al-Johza, a guitar-like instrument with a gourd-looking body attached to the strings. "There is a lot of expression in this simple instrument," the 24-year-old told IRIN. "It is my cultural heritage. I can use it to show the Iraqi identity to the Western world."

Ironically, because not many people had satellite dishes under former President Saddam Hussein, they weren't influenced by the ubiquitous Egyptian pop music and dances broadcast across the Arab world. But, at the same time, students like Hussein and Kareem said they like to play modern "western" tunes, mostly Arabic pop tunes they hear on the radio now.

"We will never accept that Egyptian songs affect us, because we study the basics of the Iraqi maqam in a scientific way," Hussein said. Al-Adimiy applied to UNESCO to get the recognition. He gathered records of famous maqam singers, including himself. He wrote out what makes the Iraqi maqam different - the preface, a progression, a call and a response, followed by the end of the song.

Turkey and Iran also have unique maqam sounds, but they are different to Iraq's, Roheiy al-Khasnash, the institute's manager, told IRIN. The prestigious institute can accept 180 students, who must take a test to join, he said. Many students try, but fail, to get in.

"I listened to all of the pioneers and it made me want to join the institute," said al-Khasnash, who is now famous in his own right.