Kadhum El Saher

I have been a fan of Kadhum El Saher’s music ever since I was a young boy.

I remember how dust filled cassettes of his songs would elevate mundane car rides into uplifting flights filled with passion and might.

I remember how his music was something that my family shared in spite of generational gaps, and how listening to it gave us room to breathe during difficult times.

I remember how, through his music, I had begun to appreciate Arabic poetry and discover the intricacies of Arabic music. I have always been moved by his songs about Iraq, and his delivery of the ‘mawal‘: a musical form that perfectly embodies the agony of love, separation and loss.

An Iraqi singer and composer, Kadhum El Saher is undeniably one of the most popular figures in the history of contemporary Arabic music. He is also an artist that has occupied a great deal of my imagination… for better or for worse.

Six years ago, I had the chance to interview him as part of a radio piece that I was doing for CBC Radio, Canada’s national broadcaster. It was a piece about the changes brought on to Arabic music by mass commercialization and how the concept of ‘Tarab’ was losing relevance and its presence disappearing.

For those who don’t know, Tarab is an Arabic word that carries a dual meaning. It can refer to a style of music, but also to a transcendent state of mind induced by the music itself.

We spoke about this phenomenon at an annual music festival in Doha.

Although today both the festival and the radio show are defunct, I still feel that this interview is relevant in so many ways.

This is how our encounter went down.

Ahmed Habib & Kadhum El Saher

In the lobby of an extravagant hotel in the seaside city of Doha, fans and residents of this otherwise sleepy coastal cocoon await the eighth annual “Doha Song Festival.” Behind the scenes, and somewhere far down the long hallways of this sprawling complex, a press conference was being held for the Arab world’s most famous artist.

Kadhum El Saher steps up onto the stage of the small press room. His presence turns the festivities from a question and answer period to a fan love-in for a man commonly recognized as a sex symbol throughout the region. I was there to do a radio story on the direction Arabic music was taking, and what was taking place embodied many of my worst fears: pop star worship, much like the rest of the world, with little attention being paid to the music itself.

I wanted to examine why Arabic songs were turning into a bad experiment of mixing together anything from anywhere, with the hopes of being innovative, yet with the expected results of being imitative, at best. I wanted to speak to contemporary Arab musicians about these changes.

I was also interested in speaking to Iraqi artists to see how they felt about how their music was contributing to current discussions about exile, occupation and war in Iraq.

Turned off by the atmosphere of the press conference room, I muscled my way through the idolatrous masses and set off on a mission to track down Kadhum El Saher with a few pointed questions of my own.

Outside the elevator on the fifth floor, I finally caught up with him.

Q: How do you define ‘Tarab’? A: Tarab is most commonly known as the classical school of Arabic music. In essence, it involves just a few instruments, mainly the strings like the ‘qanun‘, the ‘oud‘, the double bass and violin. Then there’s the wind instrument the ‘nai‘, and usually these are all accompanied by the ‘riq‘ as the only percussion instrument.

They used to sing the most beautiful songs before. For most, it is something that we listened to in the past.

Now there are new instruments like the electronic keyboard that give rise to new musical arrangements.

But I feel that these new songs have no identity. They are neither Western nor Arabic. They are trying to be something innovative, but they have no substance.

Tarab carries certain musical elements within it that make the theme and the rhythm of the song clear. The poem is sung in such a way that it doesn’t require the help of fast rhythms and loud percussions. Sometimes the poetry has no percussion at all, and yet when you hear it, you are driven into a state of Tarab yourself.

Q: Is Tarab disappearing? A: It will never disappear. There are some Tarab artists with beautiful voices, and one is delighted to hear them, but they are few, very few. If you compare the percentage of Tarab to the rest of the contemporary Arabic music scene, Tarab constitutes just two percent of what is being produced.

There are no cultural institutions today that support the Tarab school of singing. That’s why you see so many Tarab artists today sitting at home and doing nothing.
Q: What do you think are the reasons for this situation? A: Maybe their sense of dignity doesn’t permit them to compromise their art by assimilating it into the forms of music that are so dominant these days.

Nowadays, anyone can sit at home with a keyboard and computer and produce a song and release it to the satellite channels. There are so many satellite channels, they will play anything. Even if a singer doesn’t have a good voice, the technology available can cover it up and add artificial definition to it, no matter how bad it really is.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future about Arabic music? A: For now, we say thank god; but for the future, we say god forbid. Seriously, god forbid from what’s coming. There are many artists with beautiful voices, but they all say ‘I don’t want to enter the music world.’ They feel miserable. They are uncomfortable with the lack of professionalism, the lack of specialization in the craft of music, and the lack of interest in Tarab. It is very rare to come across a production company that supports it.

All the production companies are interested in is exhibitionism: replacing good music with good bodies. Arabic music today has become a means for entertainment — entertainment for the eyes only.

As for Tarab, there are no cultural institutions today that support this school of singing. That’s why you see so many Tarab artists today sitting at home and doing nothing.

Q: What’s the role of Iraqi musicians in preserving Iraqi musical identity? Is this identity disappearing too? A: Don’t worry about the Iraqi artist. As soon as Iraqi instruments like the ‘khishba’ and other southern elements hit the stage, Iraqi music is present. This is also true with traditions like the ‘maqam‘, ‘chalghi‘, and ‘imraba’‘. Iraqi musical identity is still there.

When I sing, I do it so that Iraqis don’t leave Iraq behind.
Q: What role do you play in helping those living in Diaspora, particularly youth in the West, maintain their Iraqi identity? A: It doesn’t matter what kind of song you listen to, as long as it’s beautiful. I’m against the idea of making you listen to the Iraqi school of music or the Arabic school only. For me personally, if it’s beautiful and it makes me happy, no matter who sings it, no matter in what language, I’ll listen to it and be interested in it.

Q: Through your music, Iraqis are taken on a voyage straight to Baghdad. Within the context of this journey that you paint, does this place an extra responsibility on your art?

The works that I have presented for Iraq are many, although I consider them to be humble contributions in the context of my own responsibility and duty to my country. However, I’m happy to present them. Such works are for our country, our nation which is being tortured, wounded, destroyed.

When I sing, I do it so that Iraqis don’t leave Iraq behind.

I think that’s best done by creating a musical experience that plants the soul of humanity in our hearts and not the seeds of reactionaries.

I’m against doing something reactionary.

I would rather do something that is humanistic, that entices the emotions, particularly the beautiful sense of love, for the land we grew up in. Hopefully, that would inspire others to do the same.


Six years later, and so many more questions on the mind

It wasn’t the first time nor the last that we had met. But it was the only time where we worked together, although on a radio piece that I’m not even sure people listened to.

I couldn’t even find the recording of the interview or the final radio vignette that it was a part of. Maybe that’s a befitting fate for a fleeting moment that was too good to be true.

His last name means “he who stays up late at night,” and his first name means, “he who suppresses his anger.”

He who suppresses his anger, and stays up at night: a poetic description of the lives of so many Iraqis whose lives have been destroyed.

For all that his music has contributed to my life and the lives of so many Iraqis, I am equally critical of him as well. Perhaps I was too star struck to ask some of the difficult questions that are currently on my mind, and I chose a comfortable path instead.

I want to ask El Saher about his advertising antics. Why did he choose to lend his voice and fame to a telecoms company that many could consider to be a beneficiary of the occupation of Iraq?

Since we spoke, he also has participated in The Voice, a talent show that achieves more in the world of fluffy entertainment than in the world of building talent and artistic capacity. Why hasn’t El Saher organized a cultural festival or project to nurture up-and-coming voices, particularly those emerging from destroyed cultural spaces like Iraq?

Do we want the kind of society where ‘artist-celebrities’ are responsible for the development of cultural spaces anyway? But then who among us is responsible?

I also want to speak to him about how over the past few years, many of his songs have started to sound the same, offering very little to ears and minds in the Arab world. Yearly album releases, whose contents are dictated by his record company, have resulted in a banal stampede of songs that seem to stand for little more than track list fillers.

Perhaps our artists have turned too quickly in to larger than life celebrities, and in desperate need of leadership and vision, we expect too much.

I hope that I will have the chance to interview him again.

Until then, Kadhum El Saher remains a permanent fixture in my playlist and in my heart as an artist that has greatly contributed to the evolution of Iraqi and Arabic music.

His music held my soul through desperate times and set fire to my imagination when I needed it most. He was a voice for Iraq in the mainstream media when Iraqi voices were suppressed.

For that, I am thankful.

I would also like to thank him for his time, honesty, and assistance in making my radio piece, and hopefully, this diary entry, a success.

Ahmed Habib is an Iraqi writer living too far away from Baghdad. You can follow him on Twitter at @ahmedhabib.