Waheed Ghanim, Basra
Religious extremists have caused many musicians in the southern province to leave home. Those that stay find it hard to make a living.
The last time that Basra musicians were attacked was in 2016 – back then, explosive devices were detonated at a performance. “And since 2003, more than a dozen performers were killed in Basra,” says Ibrahim al-Rashid, who heads the local Basra Society for Heritage, Culture and Arts. “Some have been forced to leave Iraq. Others have been arrested and tortured during security raids on parties and events. Often the artists are assaulted on the streets and their assailants then just take off,” he explained.
Religious groups who disapprove of music-making are thought to be behind the persecution. Dozens of musicians have also emigrated, al-Rashid says, to places like Iraqi Kurdistan where they can play without fear.
That has not stopped the musicians left behind in Basra though. Members of a popular local band, Hanif, told Al Menassa how they smuggled instruments into the province.
“We bring the instruments in, in pieces,” the band leader said. “We import Pakistani leather because it is clean and of good quality. Then we assemble everything here. We have crossed borders with our musical instruments after, for example, playing in Iraqi Kurdistan. But if anybody asks us at the checkpoints, we tell them that we are bringing them for religious celebrations.”
Al-Rashid says that the more experienced older musicians teach younger players. There are also singers and dancers, some of whom are female, but mostly these women don’t ever appear at parties or private events – they fear they will be harassed there. They do however participate in public concerts and in folk music festivals in places like Baghdad.
There are less than a dozen female-only choirs, says Khalaf al-Jawar, deputy head of the Basra artist’s union. They usually only perform for other women at wedding parties.
Many of the musicians are unemployed for much of the year, depending on three months of religious festivities every year to make their living. The best bands charge around US$280 to perform a concert but this money has to be divided among the band members as well as used to pay for their driver and for the hiring of audio equipment.
One drummer, Hussein Hashem, says he has been teaching rhythmic instruments to make ends meet. Another musician, well-known singer Mohammed Salam, says he relies on his work as a carpenter to support his eight children. There is no way that singing covers his costs, he told Al Menassa.