Dusty Streets and Hot Music in Baghdad: Iraqi Maqam Music and Chalgi Ensembles

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Kept alive until today by a very small number of chalgi Baghdad ensembles and through remaining shellac recordings, Iraqi maqam is a sophisticated musical genre from urban Iraq that developed in the 1920s‒1940s.

Until the 1940s, chalgi Baghdad ensembles, which played Iraqi maqam (maqām al-‘irāqī), were very common aspects of public life in bigger towns in Iraq. These ensembles played at life-cycle events ‒ especially weddings and circumcisions ‒ in private homes, at religious occasions and to larger audiences in the then numerous coffee houses or nightclubs. During this period, recordings on 78 rpm shellac discs were produced and sold, and the newly established radio stations broadcast maqam, thereby increasing its popularity amongst the listening public. According to the musicologist Yeheskel Kojaman, as social events, these musical performances united different social classes, religions and ethnicities, such as Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Armenians, Muslims, Jews and Christians.

Al-Qubanshi, Muhammad: Al Jawqa Al Iraqi āra ātharihm, 1. 9CS0025714 (S1). For copyright information, please click on the image.

The Chalgi Baghdad and Oriental Musical Ensembles

The term chalgi Baghdad denotes also that it was mainly popular in the Iraqi capital Baghdad and constitutes of a music ensemble supporting the singer. At a performance of Iraqi maqam, a singer, called qāri’ al-maqām, is supported by the al-chālghī al-baghdādī (the Baghdad ensemble) or the al-takht al-sharqī (the oriental ensemble).

Plan of the city of Baghdad issued by the Admiralty War Staff, 1917. IOR/L/MIL/17/15/41/3, p. 527
Plan of the city of Baghdad issued by the Admiralty War Staff, 1917. IOR/L/MIL/17/15/41/3, p. 527

Scheherazade Qassim Hassan describes al-chālghī al-baghdādī ensembles as follows:

In secular performances, the Iraqi maqām is accompanied by al-chālghī al-baghdādī (the Baghdad ensemble). This consists of the sanṭūr (hammered dulcimer) and jōza (four-string bow fiddle with coconut resonator) accompanied by two or three drums: ṭabla (single-headed drum), duff zinjārī (frame drum with discs set into the frame) and naqqāra (double kettledrum). Occasionally a large frame drum replaces the naqqāra. The traditional role of the chālghī ensemble was to anticipate and lead the singer.

By contrast, Hassan describes al-takht al-sharqī as a later introduction, emerging in Iraq in the 1920s, which ‘performed Arab art and light music in Egypt and Syria’, consisting of the ‘qānūn (plucked zither), nāy (end-blown flute), ‘ūd (lute) and two types of drum’.

Hakim, Nasser: Pasta Hamed. 9CS0025082 (S2). For copyright information, please click on the image.

Instrumentation and Influence

As a general rule, the al-chālghī al-baghdādī ensemble comprises the pear-shaped oud (lute), the box-zither qānūn ‒ or occasionally the santūr, a hammered dulcimer ‒ the violin and drums, the single-headed dumbuk goblet drum and/or the daff tambourine. Not least through the influence of Egyptian music, which was being transmitted by Egyptian radio stations since the early 1930s, more instruments were added and/or doubled.

In 2013, the author had a chance to meet the octogenarian and expert in traditional Iraqi music, Yeheskel Kojaman, who knew many musicians when he was growing up in Baghdad. Yeheskel Kojaman remembered these ensembles as follows: ‘During the late 1920s an instrumental ensemble at a nightclub consisted of violin, qanum [sic] (plucked trapezoid zither), oud (lute) and percussion players. Only in the broadcasting station were cello and nay (flute) introduced.’ Most of the ensembles employed on the recordings featured here accord with Kojaman’s description. More recently the ensemble has developed further, that is the instruments playing the melodic line (oud, violin or qānūn) have been given more scope to play solos or have even been allowed to dominate in a purely instrumental performance.

Shellac label of ‘Al Jawqa Al Iraqi’ - Iraqi Music Ensemble lead by Muhammad Al-Qubanchi. Congrès de la Musique Arabe, Caire 1932
Shellac label of ‘Al Jawqa Al Iraqi’ - Iraqi Music Ensemble lead by Muhammad Al-Qubanchi. Congrès de la Musique Arabe, Caire 1932

The Iraqi Maqam Musical Genre

Iraqi maqam, or as it is more commonly known in Iraq, nagham, has been passed on orally and draws influence from a rich mixture of Kurdish, Turkish and Persian music as well as other musical genres from other parts of the Arabic-speaking world. In particular the central role of the voice makes clear the importance of lyrics as well as a specific mood. Because maqams (or maqamat) are the melodic modes used as the basis for improvisation, the subtleties of the maqams are brought out by their melismatic character, that is, the practice of drawing out one syllable over several notes.

The performance is introduced by a taḥrīr, a shorter rendition of the main theme, using only syllables or phrases. Both the introduction and the maqam proper are unmetered, so only feature melodic instruments. The lyrics are based on poetry ‒ either the classical Arabic qaṣīda or the more colloquial mawwāl baghdādī (or zheiri) – which are centred around themes such as love, separation, longing and sadness.

Though a performer has to observe the rules of a specific maqam pattern, he or she has considerable scope to improvise and express a unique mood by, for example, lengthening or shortening their performance. After a long melismatic maqam performance, a short vocal piece, usually the light pesta A short metred vocal piece sung after a long maqam performance. (a metred song; also pesteh or peste) is sung. These pieces provide contrast because they are syllabic, often give the leading instrumentalists a chance to sing and should prepare the audience for the next rendition of maqam.

Al-Qubanshi, Muhammad: Al Jawqa Al Iraqi Ma dara ḥusnuh, 1. 9CS0025710 (S1). For copyright information, please click on the image.

Though the vibrant musical life of Iraq’s cities in the first half of the twentieth century has all but vanished, one can still listen to songs by the very few performers who are still performing and to those early music recordings preserved on shellac discs.

Some of the material for this article originates in a conversation between the author and Yeheskel Kojaman in 2013.

Listen to:

Iraqi titles playlist. For copyright information, please click on the image.