Listening to the cheerful, yet nostalgic music of Ilham Al Madfai, the legendary Iraqi singer, guitar player and composer has always been a source of energy and joy.
Attending a live concert by Al Madfai is a dream that came true last week at the Cairo Jazz Club16, an elegant and spacious nightclub newly opened in Sheikh Zayed city. Arriving at 12am, the excited audience were holding their breath. Wearing browns with his trademark hat, Al Madfai made quite an impression the minute he appeared on stage, with most of the young people moving as close as they could and a joyful dance starting.
For almost three hours, Al Madfai, 78, sang and played in harmony with his 10-member band, which includes bass, drums, percussion, qanoun and piano.
It was rewarding to see him lovingly perform his most popular songs: Foug Al-Nakhal (In the palm trees) and Maly Shoghol Belsoug (No need to be in the market) and many others. The band members, a mix of Iraqi and Egyptian musicians, responded beautifully to Al Madfai’s improvisations. It felt like a fountain of energy pouring out of the stage. Al Madfai’s ability to induce joy is unique. Most of the audience memorise the songs, despite the difficulty of Iraqi dialect. Al Madfai sings of love, beauty and Baghdad. He also sings of humanity. His albums include Live at the Hard Rock (2001), Baghdad (2003) and Dishdasha (2009).
“Your songs are very popular everywhere, how do you explain that?” Al-Ahram Weekly asked Al Madfai the following day at the downtown Semiramis Hotel, where he stayed during his three-day visit.
“It was a great night, wasn’t it,” he beamed. Wearing a cap with a Beatles logo on top of a smart summer outfit, he looked youthful. “We’ve performed in many non-Arab countries such as the US, France, Germany and of course Britain and we are used to such a warm response from the audience. However, the Egyptian audience is very unique, easy to communicate with,” Al Madfai said. “My music tells all the stories,” he added.
Born in 1942, Al Madfai studied engineering for three years but had to flee to Britain in the mid-1960s because of the political circumstances. In London, he played at Baghdad Café, where he met with famous musicians like Paul McCartney.
In 1967, he returned to Baghdad, and started his fusion of Oriental traditional Iraqi and Western rhythms. He formed The Twisters, the first Arab band to modernise Arabic music. But he was forced to leave again in 1979, when Saddam Hussein seized power. He has since travelled everywhere to play Iraqi music and make it popular.
Choosing easy and accessible, yet meaningful lyrics has always been one his approach.
“Giving oriental music the leading role, and merging it with a Latin tempo has been another challenge,” he says. “At the beginning of my career, it was necessary to study the history of Arabic singing and the reality of the musical scene, and how to merge the traditional Iraqi lyrics and music with a contemporary format.”
A guitarist since childhood, Al Madfai has played other instruments but guitar remains his dearest companion. “It is a string instrument and therefore assimilates Oriental melodies. The oriental scale is different. Oud is oriental; guitar is universal.”
What are the most important factors that influenced your life and career? Was it you your forced immigration from Iraq?
“It is how to communicate,” he said decidedly.
“Iraq is a very big country, known for its cultural diversity. In music, the Iraqi maqam, which is known as Abbasi, is historically distinguished. And there are many other scales that could be in harmony with Western instruments. What I managed to do is to communicate well with other cultures to create this link between Oriental scales and the Western melodies to adapt to the current changes in mood, to the needs of youthful souls.
“Age is just a figure,” he adds. “On stage, I feel so powerful. I could play continuously and tirelessly for hours. I once played continuously for seven hours in Beirut,” he smiles.
Khuttar is one of the most famous songs arranged by Al Madfai, which he played in a nostalgic mood. I was glad to see the younger members of the audience singing along excitedly. When I asked him what the word khuttar meant, he responded with a smile: “Visitors. It is surprisingly commonly used in southern Egypt.”
Al Madfai also performs poems by such beloved poets as Abul-Qassem Al-Shabi, Nezar Qabbani, Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati, Badr Shakir Al-Sayab and Karim Al-Iraqi. Sabah Jadid (New Morning) is one of his most watched songs on YouTube nowadays.
Nicknamed Baghdad Beatle, he defiantly says, “I have never competed with any other musician. I have my own style. I fought for the Iraqi song since the 1950s and I managed to make it popular throughout the world. Foug Al-Nakhal is an old Iraqi traditional folk song. My new arrangement of the music gives it a special taste. In addition, palm trees are a meaningful symbol in traditional Iraqi culture, and I guess in other Arab countries as well.”
Before the Gulf War, because of censorship under Saddam Hussein, most Iraqi poets, musicians and engineers fled the country, he noted.
“I couldn’t survive in such a suffocating atmosphere. Censorship was very hard especially on poets and musicians. Free words were slaughtered,” he said in a sad tone. “I had never been questioned by the authorities at the time, but I couldn’t stand it. Iraq is rich in new musical talents. Even now music is surviving despite everyday suffering.”
After a long time travelling across the world, in 1994, Al Madfai settled in Jordan, where he was given his second nationality.
“Jordan is very close to my heart. I perform many concerts there. The level of music in Jordan is not good enough, though. They need to work harder, and to assimilate other musical experiences and get inspired by their legacy.”
Al Madfai has been performing in Egypt for 20 years. “The musical scene in Egypt is like no other; there is a revolution in every aspect,” he said.
Asked how he likes to spend his free time, he said, “I am thinking of building pyramids in Iraq. That way I would always be in touch with Egypt.” He laughs. “The Pyramids are an amazing construction… Engineering is like music, they are both about structure. You definitely need to have a good base to build on,” he murmured. After a minute, he added, “I do sports. It is very useful.”
“I have played in the most famous musical halls such as the Alberto and the Queen Elizabeth halls in London,” Al Madfai declared, “but I never thought of immigrating to Europe or the States. I was never seduced by modern architecture or the Western civilisation. A small home-made of mud is more than enough for me. Mud is very dear to the Arab psyche, and to myself as an Iraqi musician.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: In the palm trees
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