Radio Baghdad orchestra
Radio Baghdad orchestra, 1936. Saleh al-Kuwaity is in the back with a violin, with Daoud in front of him. They won the favor of the Iraqi king.
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“Back then, we would have been on the verge of becoming social outcasts if we’d listen to it. I remember, as a kid, how we’d shout at our parents to turn off the radio, because we didn’t want the neighbors to hear that we listened to Arabic music at our house. It wasn’t just me; it’s a whole generation,” musician Yair Dalal says in the documentary film “Iraq’n’Roll.”

“Our identity as Israelis wasn’t a solid one at that time,” he adds. “It was an identity with a question mark. The culturally victorious power group in the State of Israel then was the group with European origins, and they decided that the cultural agenda of the State of Israel would be Western and not Mizrahi [from Middle Eastern or North African countries].”

“Iraq’n’Roll,” directed by Gili Gaon and screened during the Jerusalem Film Festival earlier this month, presents the story of what she terms the sweeping “erasure” of Mizrahi culture by focusing on one especially remarkable story: that of brothers Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity.

Saleh ‏(1908-1986‏) and Daoud ‏(1910-1976‏) were born in Kuwait, to a Jewish family of Iraqi origin. Saleh played the violin and composed. Daoud was a talented oud player, and the pair were very successful at teens. At some point they returned with their family to Iraq, where they also developed a glorious musical career, and introduced innovative elements into traditional music. Indeed, to this very day they are considered to be the moving forces behind modern Iraqi music. They collaborated with the greats of Arabic song, won the favor and friendship of the Iraqi King Ghazi, amassed capital and property, and were the talk of the land.

But in the 1950s, when they decided to immigrate with their families to Israel, their music was of no interest to the cultural establishment. They did have a weekly program on Israel Radio in Arabic, on which they played their works, but outside that “ghetto” they were treated with condescension. Instead of performing in distinguished concert halls and earning the appreciation reserved for great artists, they were forced to appear at festive events and haflas ‏(large family celebrations‏); instead of making a respectable living from their music, they had to open a housewares store in the market in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood.

The brothers forbade any of their family members from pursuing music.
“He wouldn’t give me any credit now, my grandfather?” Dudu Tassa, the grandson of Daoud al-Kuwaity and a popular singer today, asks his uncle, Saleh’s son Shlomo Kuwaity, in the film. “No,” the uncle declares. “He would forbid you to play. They understood that life here, in Israel, for an artist in their field, is very difficult. If we were in Iraq, he wouldn’t have minded our learning to play, but because it was here, they experienced the humiliation and lack of status. They had to travel all over the country to make a living, to play at weddings, bar mitzvahs, brit milahs.

“It wasn’t the status they had there, where they had a concert hall and ate lunch with the king. [Saleh] ruled out being a musician in Israel from the start. When I worked during the summer and asked him if I could buy a guitar with my money, because I knew he forbade it, he said to me, ‘Look, you can buy the guitar, but I’ll break it.’”

Arabs here, Jews there

Documentary filmmaker Gili Gaon, 37, has two other documentaries under her belt ‏(“Land of the Wolves,” about former army general and Likud politician Yossi Peled, and “Almanut Ze Over Ba’genim,” about herself, her mother and grandmother, three women who were all widowed within five years‏), and a range of television work. She is currently in the final stages of writing the script of her first feature film, “Arba,” together with Avi Amar. “It is also based on a personal story, about a girl whose spouse has been wounded and lies dying in a hospital for 48 hours, and about the relationship that develops there between her and his Mizrahi family,” she says.

Gaon was the partner of promising director and screenwriter Sharon Amrani, who drowned a decade ago at the age of 31. In the documentary “Sharon Amrani: Remember His Name,” written and directed by Yair Raveh, Gaon directed a scene depicting her partner’s final moments.

Gaon says that when she heard the tragic story of the Kuwaity brothers, she felt compelled to make a film about them.

“The cultural erasure they suffered was part of a process imposed on all of Mizrahi culture in the 1950s and ’60s,” she explains in an interview. “People arrived here then from different cultures, and were told, ‘Okay, now forget what your name used to be, what your profession was − you are part of us, and you have to assimilate.’ In Iraq [these musicians] were big: They played in the king’s court, founded the Iraqi broadcasting authority, had property and a lot of money, wrote music, performed it with their orchestra, were very well known and worked with the greatest musicians, like Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthum. Here in Israel they were nothing.

“When they got here, nobody wanted to listen to their music, Arabic music. Here they were considered Arabs. And in Iraq − and I didn’t touch on this in the film because I chose to focus on Dudu [Tassa]’s story − Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi culture minister to strike the names Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity from the archives. They had hundreds of songs, and their names were expunged from records of these songs, and ‘folk melody’ was written next to them instead. So this was a double erasure: There they tried to wipe them out because they were Jews, and here no one wanted to hear them because they were seen as Arabs. The essence of these people was the fact that they were musicians. Their entire [musical] journey was blotted out.”

Journey to the past

Gaon initially intended to tell the story of the Kuwaity brothers, but once she saw that the existing archival material on them was quite sparse, she looked for another angle. When Dudu Tassa told her he wanted to devote his next album to new adaptations of works by his grandfather and great-uncle, she realized she had found that angle: presenting the story of the brothers through the eyes of the grandson.

Viewers of “Iraq’n’Roll,” which was made with funding from the Second Television and Radio Authority and is scheduled to air Sunday on Channel 2, join Tassa on his quest to understand the Kuwaitys’ music, observing him as he experiences and also renews it, while at the same time gathering details about their fabulous, yet tragic, story.

At the beginning of the film, which was produced by Danny Haimovich, Tassa says he feels the songs are both close to him and distant at the same time.

“At first you listen to the music, but don’t understand a thing,” he says. “It’s like listening to someone speaking French ... It’s terribly beautiful, but what can you do with it? You don’t understand a thing. Even though it’s music, it isn’t like anything I know.”

But very slowly, and with the help of people around him, Tassa succeeds, in front of the cameras, in comprehending the intricate music of his relatives, developing an affinity for works that belong to other days and another musical style, light-years away from the rock’n’roll he knows.

“It was interesting for me to see what Dudu does with this music and to see the process he went through on this journey, in which he suddenly connected with his past,” Gaon says.

“He did this not as a member of the angry second generation [of immigrants], but as a member of the third generation, which comes from a place of compassion. Dudu says at a certain point in the film, ‘I’m not here to correct the wrongdoing, and I’m not searching for my roots.’

“But ultimately everything comes down to that. By the end of the film he admits that this journey connected to his identity as a person ... Dudu essentially restores the Kuwaity brothers to awareness, puts them on stage once more and mediates their music for the present time. Yair Dalal says something nice in the film, which in my eyes is the essence of this journey: ‘Without a cultural past, you have no cultural future.’”

In the course of his cinematic journey, Tassa mounts a show with Dalal, in which they perform pieces by the Kuwaity brothers, and also works out new adaptations for their works that eventually turn into the album “Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitys,” which came out a few months ago. His journey is filled with moving moments, including his decision to invite Albert Elias, a flutist who performed in Israel with the Kuwaity brothers, to perform on the album; his idea to help his mother realize her dream and, despite her father’s ban, become a singer; and of course his efforts to revive the Kuwaity brothers’ music here, in the country that silenced them.

“Saleh and Daoud are the Bob Dylan of Iraq, that is how someone once defined them to me, and it’s very true,” Gaon says. “My need to tell their story derived from, among other things, my feeling that it’s not possible they aren’t in the history books. We learn about Bialik and about Alterman, but don’t know anything about the people who are considered the founders of modern Iraqi music. That seemed to me an injustice. It was very important to me to expose this, to bring it to light, and I really hope that the film will help jump-start some initiative ... [so] that they’ll be talked about, be known, have seminars conducted on their music − become part of our consciousness. And you never know, there might be other stories of this kind that we don’t even know about, of other terribly famous and talented people who simply arrived here and disappeared merely because they were considered Arabs.”