Iraqi oud legend Naseer Shamma seeks to heal Baghdad’s wounds with music

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Renowned Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma warmed Baghdad’s cold winter nights this weekend with soulful musical compositions that not only captured his audience’s ears, but also their hearts.

Teaming up with the new National Ensemble of Iraqi Musical Heritage for a series of concerts, the virtuoso played moving melodies on the oud intertwined with old folk songs.

The concert at the National Theater sent a shiver down the spines of audience members, as the crowd collectively burst into applause, with many words of praise. Some could not hold back their tears.

“I’m delighted to see Baghdad shining with lights and music,” Shamma said at Thursday night’s concert, one of four held this month in the Iraqi capital.

“This important combination of young musicians brings hope and glory not only to Iraqi music but to music in general.”

He opened the concert by playing Hello Baghdad with lugubrious tremolos on oud. It brought a nostalgic air that had the audience clapping loudly, humming and bobbing their heads.

Next came On the edge of pain as a “salute from Baghdad to Palestine, to the women of Palestine and to the children of Palestine”.

Among other compositions, he also played The cities of daffodils, which he composed for the historic citadel of Erbil in the northern Kurdish region after it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Who is Naseer Shamma?

Shamma, 59, earned a music degree in 1987 from Baghdad’s Institute of Musical Studies, specializing in the oud. That same year, he won Best Emotional Melody in Iraq for a Romantic Song.

This kick-started a long and illustrious career, during which he performed countless concerts in countries around the world and received over 60 awards.

To promote the talents of the region and develop a new generation of musicians, he created Bait Al Oud, or The House of Oud, in several countries, including Cairo and Abu Dhabi. He provides musical education not only in the medium of his choice, but on a variety of other traditional Middle Eastern instruments.

Naseer Shamma plays the oud during rehearsals at the Iraqi National Theater in Baghdad on January 17, 2022. AFP

Throughout his career, Shamma has always prioritized his contribution to promoting peace and raising funds for long-approved projects that serve his humanitarian vision.

Since the 1990s, he has spearheaded many efforts for his fellow Iraqis who have endured harsh UN-imposed economic sanctions, war and instability, regularly returning to visit the country after his departure in 1993.

In 2015, he launched the Ahalna campaign to financially support families uprooted from their homes following the 2014 IS assault on northern and western Iraq.

Two years later, he launched Alaq Baghdad with the aim of rehabilitating the city’s main squares and streets to stimulate investment. In cooperation with its main partners – a group of banks and private companies as well as the Ministry of Culture – the initiative succeeded in renovating a number of squares and streets.

In 2017, Shamma was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace.

Preserving cultural diversity in Iraq

The recent concerts will also serve to rehabilitate the Institute of Musical Studies and the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet.

“We are working on developing every place in Iraq where we can perform,” Shamma told his audience, also unveiling a plan to build a large hall for visual arts.

“We have managed to leave humanitarian, cultural and artistic touches here and there using all capacities to preserve the tremendous diversity in Iraq,” he said.

“We should be proud of all the beauty and culture in Iraq. These are the strengths of this country which, for 8,000 years, has been home to great civilizations. »

I am delighted to see Baghdad shining with lights and music. This important combination of young musicians brings hope and glory not only to Iraqi music but to music in general

Naseer Shamma, oud player

Shamma recalled the lavish inauguration of the National Theater in the 1980s, promising more efforts to rehabilitate the theatres.

“Lighting up a theater will help people recover,” he said. “We must seek out the positives and guide them out of the darkness into a horizon full of light, beauty, music, art, theater and cinema.”

Following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that overthrew Saddam Hussein, cultural life declined in Baghdad and other cities.

But when security began to prevail in late 2007 and early 2008, life gradually returned with many music shows, cinemas, art exhibitions and concerts by Arab singers, including Lebanese pop star Elissa.

Despite an unstable political and security environment and attempts by radical clerics to stop these concerts, Iraqis have become determined to carry them out.

“Whenever we mention Baghdad, we mention art and culture,” said viewer Mohammed Abbas Mohammed, 32. The National after Thursday’s show.

“Since its creation by the Abbasids and the eras that followed, Baghdad has remained a metropolis despite the invasions and occupations it has suffered.”

For him, the presence of artists like Shamma in Baghdad is “a beacon of hope”, while hosting such events is “important for life to return to normal in Baghdad and to spread hope in all its corners”.

Veteran Iraqi actress Sanaa Abdul-Rahman said the concerts had “renewed their vigor” in Baghdad.

“You can only feel the soul and life of any country through music,” she said. “If we want security to prevail on this Earth, music and art are the main means.

“We have a civilized country, but the obscurantists want to prevent us from joy, smiles and life.”

This is one of the main reasons why the National Ensemble of Iraqi Musical Heritage was created at the end of 2020 by the famous maestro Alaa Majeed. It is made up of young musicians, including women, which is now unusual for the country.

Shamma said he was overwhelmed by the presence of female musicians playing oud, santoor and qanun.

“Iraqi girls are playing musical instruments again and it’s amazing,” he said, and the audience again burst into applause.

“This photo must not be erased from Iraq.”

Updated: January 23, 2022, 9:23 a.m.

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