I heard that the blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in return for his guitar-playing genius, that Paganini was the devil’s violinist and the devil himself is a fiddle player. That was reported as fact to a folklore researcher and quoted in his article The Devil and the Fiddle in 1943. He was told:
I grew up in Chicago and Aurora. And one of the earliest things I can remember about my fiddle, that my old uncle told me ‘the Devil was in the fiddle’. He was my guardian and he wouldn’t let me take lessons.
I can play The Devil Among the Tailors on the violin, but I didn’t know about the Devil’s Interval until yesterday’s event with Yair Dalal performing Iraqi Jewish music on violin and oud. He explained that one of the pieces he was about to play featured the Devil’s Interval (Diabolus in Musica), or tritones. Traditionally it is shunned in Western classical music but it features in heavy metal, at least according to an article linking Black Sabbath, medieval theology and the tritone. Yair told us that it’s used unflinchingly in Iraqi maqam, the traditional musical system which is about much more than Arabic musical scales and is also about form, melody and rhythm – but not harmony which doesn’t feature.
I’ve blogged previously about Iraqi Jewish music but yesterday I learned a lot more. Yair was in conversation with Sara Manasseh, who directs the Rivers of Babylon ensemble. I was their violinist for a few years in the band’s early days and it’s great to know they are still going and have recorded many more CDs since. Sara is an ethnomusicologist and her comprehensive book, Shbahoth – Songs of Praise in the Babylonian Jewish Tradition has the words and music for some of the songs Yair performed.
It also has words and music for the song from the Mosul tradition that I introduced to the band. There’s even a credit to my late father Menashe.
Yair played some of his own compositions, traditional works by medieval poets such as Ibn-Gabirol, and twentieth century songs by Saleh Al-Kuwaity. Al-Kuwaity composed around 800 songs but after most of the Jewish community, including the musicians who made up the radio orchestra, left Iraq in the early 1950s their names were removed from their works. That’s now changing and knowledge of Iraq’s popular music history is being revived. Yair explained that most musicians in Iraq had been Jewish, so when the Jews left the musicians felt a heavy responsibility. They stayed in Baghdad until the last possible moment in order to record their music so it wouldn’t be lost.
I can remember going to a talk Sara gave many years ago where she played examples of traditional songs, and someone in the audience rudely asked if the performers had any training. I guess if you’re only used to a few simple genres of Western music and flinch at anything unfamiliar you might assume there was nothing complex, difficult or refined about these strange sounds and that they’re merely uncouth. Luckily audiences have mostly changed from those days. Yair’s training, he told us, when he was a young man living and working in the desert involved overnight five hour journeys each way, and then two solid days of study and rehearsal before going back to his home and work. He did that for years. He is from an Iraqi Jewish family although he was born in a transition camp in northern Israel, and grew up in an area where there were many Iraqi Jewish musicians who were constantly performing, at a time when their music was out of fashion in Isaeli society generally.
The Baghdad Bandstand clips on YouTube are a great way to see and hear some celebrated Iraqi musicians jamming, chatting and explaining what they’re playing – not in English but there are subtitles. If you’re in London you may also be able to get to Yair Dalal’s masterclass on Monday 11th September at SOAS, or to East meets West A Concert for Peace, on September 27. Or you can listen to a younger generation of musicians reviving the old songs and putting them to new beats.
The rock musician Dudu Tassa is a grandson of the other al-Kuwaity (or al-Kuwaiti) brother. Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis have been touring and recording songs from his relatives’ back catalogue and it seems that through their versions this music, originally from Baghdad, is getting popular back in Iraq once again after a long interval.
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