'We Will Never Break': In Iraq, A Yazidi Women's Choir Keeps Ancient Music Alive Women from Iraq's Yazidi minority get together to perform centuries-old sacred songs. They've survived captivity by ISIS and loved ones' deaths. "They are trying to heal," says a Yazidi politician.
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'We Will Never Break': In Iraq, A Yazidi Women's Choir Keeps Ancient Music Alive

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'We Will Never Break': In Iraq, A Yazidi Women's Choir Keeps Ancient Music Alive

'We Will Never Break': In Iraq, A Yazidi Women's Choir Keeps Ancient Music Alive

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In a camp for displaced Yazidis in Iraq, there is music. The women are survivors of ISIS, which attacked the towns and villages the ancient religious minority called home and killed or kidnapped thousands before it was pushed out. But NPR's Alice Fordham visited recently and reports that despite all they've lost, they are working to keep something precious.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SHOUTING)

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Walking around this camp for displaced Yazidis in northern Iraq, I realize most of these children were probably born here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SHOUTING)

FORDHAM: ISIS expelled the Yazidi minority from their traditional villages in 2014. And though they are defeated now, other conflicts are simmering in the area, so Yazidis are stuck in bleak camps like this one, where I walk through rows of identical white tents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHTI SINGING, DRUMMING)

FORDHAM: But coming from one small building is a sound that's insistently alive and vibrant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHTI SINGING, DRUMMING)

FORDHAM: Inside are about a dozen young women playing the drum known as a daf that is sacred to Yazidis and singing a traditional song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHTI SINGING, DRUMMING)

FORDHAM: This well-rehearsed group is a choir called Ashti, or Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHTI SINGING, DRUMMING)

FORDHAM: They meet several times a week to practice, as the choir leader, Rana Sulaiman, tells me.

RANA SULAIMAN HALO: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Yazidis are connected to their land," she says, to places like the mountain Sinjar. And when they are singing, they sing songs related to nature, to places or to the harvest. She's 22 now and came to this camp in 2014 when everyone who could fled ISIS.

HALO: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: She comes from a musical family but says, for the first year, it was difficult to sing because thousands of Yazidis have been killed and kidnapped. Her cousin is still missing. But in the second year here, she came back to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHTI SINGING, DRUMMING)

FORDHAM: Some of the choir members survived horrific sexual violence at the hands of the extremists. Rana Sulaiman says singing folk music is healing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHTI SINGING, DRUMMING)

FORDHAM: For the last two years, this choir has been supported by the British charity AMAR, and it helps preserve something vital to this tiny religion. Mamou Othman is a professor at the nearby University of Dohuk, who works on music as psychotherapy.

MAMOU OTHMAN: This folk music, it's also a kind of affiliation of our religion. So how can you feel that you are Yazidi? When you understand such music and dance with it and be happy with it. So it's kind of our identity, also.

FORDHAM: He says most Yazidi culture is oral. There are few religious or historical texts. It's all taught through the songs.

OTHMAN: Some of them, they are about history, others about nature, others, comedy, others, tragedy. And some of them are about events that took place in the last 200, 300 years.

FORDHAM: He says these traditions are threatened as Yazidis claim asylum outside Iraq and communities splinter. But some things make him hopeful. The British charity recorded and archived a lot of music. A special school for religious musicians is up and running again, and there are active folk singers like the choir I met. Yazidi member of parliament, Vian Darwish, says lots of young Yazidis are enthusiastic about their traditions.

VIAN DARWISH: They are trying to go on, to heal, to have their normal life.

FORDHAM: These days, she goes to weddings again with traditional musicians and generations of Yazidis singing and dancing together.

DARWISH: They have that sense of the love of the life, and they want to go on. They love music, weddings, parties, having normal lives in spite of everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHTI SINGING, DRUMMING)

FORDHAM: In the camp, the Ashti choir sings a wedding song.

GHAZAL DAWOUD HUSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: Choir member Ghazal Dawoud Hussein says many members of the choir here still have members held by ISIS, but their music is a message that the Yazidi people will never break. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHTI SINGING, DRUMMING)

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