The Devil’s Interval and Yair Dalal

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.

Yair Dalal

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.

Shbahoth

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.

Eliahu Eliahu (2)

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.

 

The Devil’s Interval and Yair Dalal

The shadow works of Raphael and Hella

Apologies, firstly, to any artists reading this who know what I’m talking about more than I do. This August I saw two exhibitions, three days and five hundred years apart, that made me feel I have finally learned something quite profound about visual art. On Tuesday I went to see Breathing Colour at the Design Museum in London, featuring  Hella Jongerius. It got me noticing and thinking in a whole new way. I saw a great Raphael exhibition once (not to be confused with any more recent artistic namesake) so on Friday I went to see Drawings by Raphael at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Colour and Line

You’d think these works by Hella of Holland and Raphael of Urbino might have little in common. One is all about colour and experiments with colour, the other about experiments with line and features only pen and ink,  brown or red chalk or charcoal drawings, but I found them deeply connected. Hella Jongerius creates ‘colour catchers’ , like this:

ColourCatcher2

They are objects with intricate folds made of paper or card, in a single colour, but the shaping, folding and positioning next to other coloured objects gives rise to many subtly different shades. Like this:

ColourCatcher

She calls them her canvases, and explains that while we’ve got used to the ‘flat’ industrial palette of colours, in life colour isn’t like that as it is always being affected by changing light according to the time of day, proximity to other colours (metamerism), by shadows, and by our own vision.  I came out gazing at objects on the street and seeing how everything was, in its own way, full of shadows changing flat colours into rich three dimensional objects. This is surely obvious to any trained artist now, but centuries ago there were plenty of artistic styles that didn’t use shadow. In Peckham Rye Park I noticed the grass wasn’t just green, and the earth wasn’t just brown. They were greens plus light and shadow, or browns plus light and shadow, like this (the industrial palette of pixels of course gives only an approximation).

At the Ashmolean, I found I was looking at the Raphael drawings with shadows in mind – shadows on bodies, and shadows in faces. Here’s one of the earliest works in the show. It’s possibly a self portrait, and possibly from 1500 when he would have been 17.

SelfPortrait2

There’s some shadow, but not a lot. Here’s a much later drawing from his final years, in 1519 or 1520.

RaphaelDrawings

Raphael uses light and shadow as much as Hella Jongerius, and while her work experiments with colour and perception,  Raphael’s explores light and shadow as they reveal human emotion through bodily expression. It was extraordinary going round the exhibition to see how he developed his techniques, repositioning faces and people to get different effects. Each drawing got me looking to see what direction the light was coming from. Like a musician who always knows where the beat is, Raphael always knows where the light is, and he knows how faces and bodies cast their own intimate shadows, like any object with intricate folds. Hella of Holland’s light is northern European, and that’s most obvious in her sequence of textile hangings that take you through from dawn to night. Raphael’s was a stronger Mediterranean light and his scenes usually outdoors. I liked the twisty, wriggly babies too. His sketches for Madonna and Child paintings experiment with positions – babies who look at their mothers and ones who don’t, relaxed babies, escaping babies, babies more interested in other children. One drawing, ‘Charity’, shows three infants grabbing at the same woman. If any of these were life drawings his studio must have been a riot.

Oak gall ink and Mosul

I found a surprising link with Mosul at the Raphael exhibition. The ink he used was made from oak galls. Iron gall ink was in common use throughout Europe for writing and drawing from the 5th to the 20th centuries. Sarah Shield’s study of Mosul’s trade before the creation of Iraq as a nation state, Mosul Before Iraq: Like Bees Making Five-Sided Cells, describes how gall nuts were collected from the mountainous Kurdish regions around the city to supply the tanning industry, because leather working and tanning were Mosul’s most important commercial activities. Oak galls, sometimes called oak apples (formed by parasites on oak trees) were used for dyes and inks.

Oak galls

Most of the leather was used for making shoes. The most traditional and cheapest style was a backless slipper, in red, yellow or black. When I remember my grandmother from Mosul, I can recall her backless black slippers. They stuck in my mind as a child because they were unlike any other shoes I’d seen.

There were between 30 and 40 dye houses in Mosul at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Shields, synthetic chemical dyes were brought to Mosul by German merchants in 1909. My grandfather’s chemist shop must have traded in dyestuffs. At his suggestion my father started to import and export dye from London after WW2 when everything was scarce. Magenta was my favourite word when I was very young as it was so unusual, and I still think it’s an amazing colour. Schooled by Hella Jongerius, who called her book ‘I don’t have a favourite colour‘, I won’t say it’s still my favourite colour though I’ve used it for the heading above.

Both exhibitions are on until September if you get a chance to see them. Highly recommended, and amazingly for London in August, the Design Museum had no queues or crowds.

The shadow works of Raphael and Hella

A Brexit amulet and the Medieval Cairo Genizah

Amulets are still everywhere. You might have noticed them in cabs dangling from rear mirrors, behind the serving counter in a takeaway, and worn as necklaces or rings. They go back thousands of years. I didn’t know what an amulet was until I read Edith Nesbit’s The story of the amulet, and even then I didn’t connect the object in that children’s story – Egyptian, and solid – with a pendant I was given as a child. I lost it long ago (probably stolen in a burglary) but it was a tiny hinged gold box, in the shape of two tablets of stone with Hebrew letters representing the ten commandments. I thought it was a locket and it was always empty. I couldn’t think why it was a box or what anyone would put inside it.

An eye, a blue stone, or a hand (often with an eye or blue stone inside) meant to ward off the Evil Eye are typical amulet symbols.

eye amulethand eye 2hand and eye

But the supreme magical power of an amulet was always meant to come from mystical words, especially the secret names of God, and the names of angels and demons. An amulet could be a scrap of paper or parchment, with charms and spells written around it in an intricate pattern. Amulet writing, like the selling of pardons in medieval Christianity, was once a lucrative trade.

L0043622 Hebrew Manuscript amulet for the protection...from the plague A pendant for carrying round an amulet needed to be hollow, like this:

amulet bottle

My favourite items in an amazing exhibition I went to a couple of weeks ago were the amulets. Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo is in Cambridge University Library, free and on until early October. The Genizah was a store of old documents in the attic of the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. Ben Ezra was also known as the synagogue of the Palestinians or the synagogue of the Jerusalemites. There was also a separate synagogue in Fustat (now known as Old Cairo) for the Babylonian community. Documents of all kinds, not only religious texts but letters, marriage contracts, lists, legal decisions, medical writings, charitable appeals, accounts, charms and even children’s alphabet books couldn’t be destroyed because they might contain the name of God or other holy words and letters. The store was eventually dispersed and bought up by collectors, so now teams of researchers in several universities are working on conserving, restoring and translating them. Cambridge has around 200,000 documents and they are an immense resource for historians, as they range across many countries and communities and hundreds of years.  Most of the texts on display are around a thousand years old and were written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic language written in Hebrew letters) or Hebrew. In the middle ages, most of the world’s Jewish population lived in Islamic lands and children learned to write Arabic using Hebrew letters. There are translations of all the documents, and the exhibition guide also notes the languages they are in.

The tiny ‘Scorpion amulets’ in the exhibition, intended to protect their buyers against scorpion bites,  were from Egypt, 11th or 12th century. The curators wonderfully describe the language of these scraps of paper as ‘Hebrew, Aramaic and gibberish’. Carrying an amulet was normal practice even though amulets, and their writers, were condemned by Maimonides who wrote a diatribe against them. (There’s a signed letter from Maimonides in the exhibition.)

Scorpions scare me a lot. My father told me that in his youth in Mosul he had known of a five year old child who died of a scorpion bite. They can be deadly. It strikes me that the danger we face now is totally different, but there are people who say that it can be warded off through the right, powerful words. Yesterday I heard a pro-Brexit economist explaining that the economy was not in any trouble, and that he didn’t expect any damage to the economy as long as people said the right positive things about Brexit. So words are what we need, not actual plans, which is a relief if you read this month’s briefing by three Sussex professors,  A Food Brexit: time to get real. If it wasn’t for the sheer, charming, magical power of positive language we would be heading for trouble.

Inspired by the Scorpion amulets I’ve created a Brexit amulet. It has names of power with a little gibberish thrown in for good measure. If we all wear one of these, nothing could possibly go wrong, could it? That’s pretty much the pro-Brexit economists’ plan actualised: the power of positive words.  Seriously, I recommend reading and sharing the briefing on what might happen to the UK’s food supply in future, given that the government currently has no plan. As the authors put it,

The implications of Brexit for food are potentially enormous. This verdict applies, whether there is a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. The UK food system, consumer tastes and prices have been thoroughly Europeanised. This will be impossible to cut out or back by March 2019 without enormous consequences. The UK food system faces real challenges on food security.

Scarier than a scorpion.

BrexitmeansBrexitmeans$&%$&it

MaynotMaynot******MaynotMay

F***B££££G$$$F***FoxF***BJMG

הלפהלפהלפהלפהלפהלפהלפהלפהלפ

ואברגציתלואברגציתלואברגציתלואלאו

A Brexit amulet and the Medieval Cairo Genizah

Mosul, music and citizens in an age of terror

The final liberation of Mosul from IS is being regularly announced now and one of these days it will actually be true.  Three years ago IS used the ancient and highly symbolic al-Nuri mosque to declare its  so-called caliphate. A few days ago they blew up the mosque, before it could be recaptured, and have taken to sending out teenage girls as suicide bombers from their last few hold-outs in the old city. Around a million people from the Mosul area have been forced to flee for their lives. It’s unimaginable. It’s as if a city the size of Birmingham had been occupied by a death cult that destroyed its concert halls and libraries, murdered, raped and tortured entire communities and banned everything human, all artistic endeavours, everything that didn’t conform to their own ultra ‘pure’ version of religious conformity.

I’ve posted about Mosul’s history before in this blog, and here I want to commemorate three things: Mosul’s one time diversity from the days when culturally and religiously plural societies were a normal feature of the entire area, music from Mosul, and ordinary citizens choosing to keep track of events in Mosul and communicate to the rest of the world. Those citizen experts are anything but ordinary.

Joel Wing

You might have caught Joel Wing being interviewed on BBC radio news recently. He is an expert on what’s happening in Iraq but his background is extraordinary. He runs the Musings on Iraq blog and updates it constantly with news about what’s happening in Iraq, currently mostly the battle to retake Mosul. Joel Wing’s blog has become fairly well known and his expertise is trusted by a lot of journalists and analysts.  It turns out he’s a history teacher from Oakland, California who decided back in 2008 that since the US was involved in Iraq people ought to know what was happening, and became an expert through sheer continuous dedication and hard work. He collates news from English and Arabic language sources and presents clear summaries, along with reminders via Twitter of what happened on the same date in past years going back to at least 1991 (the war following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait). His latest post, as I’m writing this, tells us that Iraqi officials are going to announce final victory today over IS in Mosul, but they’ve made similar impatient announcements before and it’s unlikely that IS will be totally defeated today. Plenty of commentators including Wing are pointing out that ridding Mosul of IS presence won’t mean that IS is finished. Controlling cities or large stretches of territory is  only one of their strategies and they’ll continue to spread their ideology, hatred and violence – predominantly towards other Muslims – by other means.

Also today, there are estimates that it will cost a billion dollars to rebuild Mosul but as for repairing the harm done to the people of the city, especially children who have lived through three years of terror, there are no estimates. It will take a long time. UNHCR and UNICEF, Save the Children and no doubt lots of other NGOs are launching appeals.

The Mosul Eye and Mosul music

The Mosul Eye blog is heartbreakingly optimistic. It was set up by an Iraqi historian based in Mosul who has planned reconciliation events, a bring-a-book festival to help restore Mosul’s libraries, and an astonishing violin recital among the ruins to make the point that music can now return to the city in the face of terror. Like the Taliban and the jihadists who took over in Mali, IS banned music and threatened the lives of musicians. The Mosul Eye blogger arranged for a few Mosuli musicians to return and play in one of the ancient Nineveh sites IS tried to destroy. You can hear Ameen Mukdad, the violinist, here with explosions and gunfire in the background.

I played on a track on the Rivers of Babylon Treasures CD, Eliyyahu Eliyahu,  which is in the Mosul tradition of Iraqi Jewish music going back at least eighty years but probably much further. It’s the only existing recording as far as I know. It took me a long while to work out that some of the notes don’t exist in Western musical scales because they’re the notes in between those other notes. I recorded my father singing it when he was in his 80s and that’s when I realised I had transposed some of the tune into a more familiar sounding key in my memory, and had to flatten the notes back to where they should go. I always thought of the song as wistful, and about hoping for a better future when the prophet Elijah eventually shows up.

Next week I’m going to see Songhoy Blues again, a band formed by Malian musicians in exile. They played in London in 2015 alongside the showing of a film, They will have to kill us first,  about musicians daring to return to Timbuktu to give a free concert and inspire local people to hope for a return to normality. Their new album is called Resistance.

Old Mosul communities

This photo is of a Christian monastery near Mosul, St Elijah’s or Mar Elias

(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)

512px-Saint_Elijah's_Monastery_1_Mosul

It was the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq, dating back to around 600 CE. It was destroyed by IS probably in 2014. Mosul used to have the highest proportion of churches of anywhere in Iraq – Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox, and probably others I don’t know about. My father remembered going inside churches as a child and seeing what he described as ‘big dolls’ (statues presumably). At one time there were at least twenty churches, not to mention the five synagogues and nearby Yezidi shrines. It’s an understatement to say that communities didn’t always live amicably together in the past but even so, Mosul’s long history is one of many diverse groups living side by side, including many Kurds. From the 1970s the Ba’athists started a Stalinist-style deportation campaign, removing Kurds from northern Iraq and dumping them in southern deserts. It’s estimated that 300,000 may have been killed. This transfer policy also involved settling Ba’athist supporters in the north.

This news story describes Muslims in a liberated area of Mosul helping to rebuild a destroyed Chaldaean church as a gesture of solidarity, but it’s not certain that Christians will feel safe enough to return.  Kurdistan is now seeking a referendum on independence. Relations with the government in Baghdad are pretty tense and although Kurds have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, and have lost many of their own fighters. it’s been without much help from Baghdad. There’s an all-party parliamentary group on Kurdistan with a  website here  and there was a Commons debate on Tuesday which discussed the medical and psychological help needed following Mosul’s liberation and what the UK can do –  the proceedings are now available. The Kurdish referendum issue is going to be fraught.

I’ve been recommending experts in this blog (see here and here ) as well as occasionally writing about Mosul. If you’re interested in following news from Iraq, I’d recommend Joel Wing as a real expert, of the responsible citizen type.

[Blog housekeeping note: the menu in the top righthand corner shows up OK on some devices and platforms but not others. If you can’t see a menu of links to previous posts try expanding the set of lines at the top and they should turn into a menu. I’ve been trying to find out how to fix that and make them more visible but it seems a general WordPress design problem.]

 

Mosul, music and citizens in an age of terror

Mosul in mind

Things are still desperate. There is a hopeful moment in Ben Solomon’s interactive film report from the front line in East Mosul. ISIS forced their own hideous curriculum on schools, but in one school where he filmed, only 20% of the pupils had been turning up. Now with ISIS gone they are flocking back. West Mosul, where the old town lies not far from the river, isn’t free yet. Here’s a picture of – believe it or not – a Jewish boys’ school in old Mosul,  Lawrence Kedoorie School, from before 1951.

lawrence-kedoorie-school-mosul

It comes from Ezra Laniado’s 1981 book on the Jews of Mosul (only available in Hebrew).

jews-of-mosul-cover

One of the endpapers even has a map of the small Jewish quarter and in my copy of the book my father circled his address on it in red pen. It was one street back from the Souk al-Kasibin (market of the butchers) which must have been the busiest place in the community. There’s what looks like a child’s drawing of it in the book, by Gabriel Laniado. You can see children playing, people selling bread and fish, and a barber’s shop. The clothing including turbans or keffiyehs doesn’t indicate religion or ethnicity and I’d guess the people shown would all have been Jews.

souk-al-kasibin-mosul

Mosul in mind

Dangoor Walk

There’s a new road alongside the Crick, named Dangoor Walk.

dangoorwalk

I guessed that it must have been named after the late Sir Naim Dangoor, and sure enough he appears on the list of donors on a wall inside, amongst those whose generosity is acknowledged by Cancer Research UK. Strictly speaking, the acknowledgement is of Sir Naim Dangoor CBE and the Exilarch’s Foundation. The Exilarch’s Foundation is a real charity, but Exilarch is now an insubstantial almost mythical position. The title is a link to the past of an old community and refers to the secular leader of the Babylonian Jewish community in exile. It hasn’t referred to anything real for about a thousand years.

If you want to see how Wikipedia editors struggle with getting right things that might be controversial or not fit in with legal or neutral enough definitions, take a look behind the scenes at previous edits (using history and talk tabs). The first version, written before his death, began by describing Dangoor as a refugee. The latest version of the page on Dangoor doesn’t use ‘fled’, ‘forced to flee’ or ‘refugee’ which were in early versions, but tells us he took the ‘difficult decision’ to leave Iraq, which meant he also lost all he had. It is a small example of a much larger issue: minority communities from Iraq and other countries of the Middle East and North Africa, who left under extreme duress and in some cases had to escape when they weren’t allowed to leave, lost everything and had to find other countries to take them in. They weren’t and aren’t officially designated as refugees.

Dangoor Walk