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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There are few things that bring joy to Baghdad 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 - that's the 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 our Baghdad bureau.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay has the story.

JAMIE TARABAY: This troupe of performers now moves about Baghdad incognito. 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 around.

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.

Mr. ADNAN AL-SHEIKHLY (Iraqi Musician): (Singing in Arabic)

TARABAY: This song is about a man courting a woman. He asks her for her hand, but her family demands a huge dowry. They want a two-story palace and a Pontiac.

TARABAY: 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.

(Soundbite of music)

TARABAY: It's an informal style of singing that is very popular with ordinary Iraqis. Mouwafak al-Tayar, the group's other singer, says in the past they would perform at local celebrations, especially for weddings, until dawn.

Mr. MOUWAFAK AL-TAYAR (Iraqi Musician): (Through translator) Baghdad was safe. We could go out and perform as we like. Everybody would come out from their homes and take part. Kids would follow us. They loved this kind of music because it's very lively.

TARABAY: Now, with a nighttime curfew in place and violence throughout the city, the group rarely performs - except at official government occasions. Singer Adnan al-Sheikhly says the music makes him nostalgic for a time long since past.

Mr. AL-SHEIKHLY: (Through translator) The songs we sing talk about an old era, a past era, not a new one. And I like the old time. It makes me see the transformation between the old and what happens in our modern times. So I'm singing about the past.

(Soundbite of music)

TARABAY: Ahmed al-Obeidi plays the drum, or as it's known here, the tabla - famous across the Middle East.

(Soundbite of music)

TARABAY: A graduate of Baghdad's Music Institute, al-Obeidi has been playing the tabla for 27 years. He wishes the troupe didn't have to perform secretly, leaving its costumes at home.

Mr. AHMED AL-OBEIDI (Iraqi Musician): (Through translator) I really feel frustrated that we cannot perform as we used to. 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.

(Soundbite of music)

TARABAY: Many of the songs are impromptu, created out of a moment at a wedding reception, using the names of the bride and the groom. It's their spontaneity and their wit that make them so popular with ordinary people.

(Soundbite of music)

TARABAY: In this love song, Mouwafak al-Tayar sings, How can I console myself after you leave? Don't believe, my precious, that my heart will forget you.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

MONTAGNE: To hear more of the Baghdadi Square performance, just go to npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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