Mouwafak al-Tayar, 67, performs an old Baghdadi Square song. He remembers when Iraqis would come out of their houses and join his troupe as they performed at local celebrations.
Mouwafak al-Tayar, 67, performs an old Baghdadi Square song. He remembers when Iraqis would come out of their houses and join his troupe as they performed at local celebrations. Courtney Kealy
Tabla player Ahmed al-Obeidi says he's saddened that he and fellow musicians can no longer perform traditional Baghdadi Square music publicly.
Tabla player Ahmed al-Obeidi says he's saddened that he and fellow musicians can no longer perform traditional Baghdadi Square music publicly. Eric Stewart
The troupe leaves its costumes at home and conceals its instruments. The performers fear that Islamist militias who condemn all music will attack them.
The troupe leaves its costumes at home and conceals its instruments. The performers fear that Islamist militias who condemn all music will attack them. Eric Stewart
Listen to selections from a performance at NPR's Baghdad bureau.
There are few things that bring joy to Baghdadis these days. The Iraqi capital has split along sectarian lines, creating enclaves that for one sect or the other have become too dangerous to enter. Musicians who perform the "Baghdadi Square," an old style of folk music, used to enliven weddings and other celebrations throughout the city. Now, those performances are rare.
But the musicians did make a special appearance at NPR's Baghdad bureau.
This troupe of performers now moves incognito about Baghdad. They leave their traditional costumes, white robes and turbans, at home.
Fearing Islamist extremists who condemn music of any kind, they also conceal their instruments when they travel. Ahmed al-Obeidi carries his drum in an empty flour sack. Khedeyir Abbas, puts his tambourine in a gym bag.
The troupe has two singers — two men in their 60s who chain-smoke and play with their prayer beads as they wait to perform.
Adnan al-Sheikhly leads off with a song about a man courting a woman. In it, the man asks her for her hand but her family demands a huge dowry. They want a two-story palace and a Pontiac.
This style of singing is called the Baghdadi Square because each song is made up of four verses. It dates back centuries. In the past, the genre served as social satire. One old standard focuses on the relationship between a woman and her mother-in-law, and jokes that each wants to kill the other.
It's an informal style of singing that is very popular with ordinary Iraqis. Mouwafak al-Tayar, the group's other singer, says that in the past, they would perform at local celebrations, especially for weddings, until dawn.
"Baghdad was safe," he says. "We could go out and perform as we like. Everybody would come out from the houses, the offices, and take part. Kids would follow us. They love this kind of music because it's very lively."
Now, with a nighttime curfew in place and violence throughout the city, the group rarely performs — except at official government occasions.
Al-Sheikhly says the music makes him nostalgic for old times.
"The songs we sing talk about an old era, a past era, not a new one," he says. "And I like the old time. It makes me see the transformation between the old and what happened in our modern times. So I'm singing about the past."
Ahmed al-Obeidi, a graduate of Baghdad's Music Institute, has been playing the drum (known here as the tabla) for 27 years. He wishes the troupe didn't have to perform secretly, and leave its costumes at home.
"I really feel frustrated that we cannot perform as we used to," he says. "Music is the food of the spirit and the artist is above all the politics. I really feel pain that the situation has come to this.
"Many of the songs are impromptu, created out of a moment at a wedding reception, using the names of the bride and groom. It's their spontaneity and their wit that make them so popular with ordinary people."
In a love song, al-Tayar sings: "How can I console myself after you leave? Don't believe, my precious, that my heart will forget you."