April 17, 2009 - Since I enjoy listening to jazz, I was quite excited to learn that the Embassy's Public Affairs Section (PAS) had brought a U.S. jazz band, Alvin Atkinson and the Sound Merchants, to Iraq. The band was performing first in the north, in the Kurdish Region city of Erbil, and then in the south, at the Ziggurat of Ur in Dhi Qar Province. The band was finishing its Iraq tour with an April 4 performance at the Al Rasheed Hotel, performing together with the Dejlah Oriental Band, which would be playing traditional Iraqi music.
I was somewhat concerned that I might not get a seat on the transportation to the concert, especially when I saw that we were just being provided a van, rather than on of the small buses (coaster).that was used for shuttles. The person organizing transportation, however, used good common sense to swap the van for the shuttle and we all got on.
When we got to the Al Rasheed, I was surprised to find that the concert would be held in the hotel's back garden. I nervously considered the possibility of a rocket or mortar landing on the site. An explosion at the concert would be a real coup for insurgent terrorists, since a fair number of diplomatic and Iraqi government dignitaries were gathered. While publicity about the concert had been low key and the event was by invitation only, of course there was no way to keep a public event secret. I comforted myself that most indirect fire (IDF) originated from the east, in Sadr City, and the Al Rasheed hotel provided some cover in that direction. (I later realized that this was nonsense.) In the event, nothing happened except for a ten-minute power outage when the band kept playing the saxophone and drums without the guitars. The sun was a trifle uncomfortable at the beginning (since the concert started at 4:30), but the weather cooled down nicely as the sun started to set.
The audience had a sizable Iraqi component, both men and women and included some bored teen-agers who clearly had been taken to the concert by their parents. The Dejlah (which is the Arabic name of the Tigris River) Oriental Band played first. I was annoyed that a party in the row ahead continued with their rather loud conversation over the band's music, but I otherwise enjoyed the performance. The band comprised four musicians. One played the rebab, a stringed instrument placed vertically on the thigh and played with a bow. Another musician was quite skilled with the qanun, a type of zither which is held flat and played by plucking the strings. The third played the oud, the Arabic precursor to the lute, and the last musician played the tambour, or tambourine. They played five pieces for the first half of the concert.
The audience perked up, however, when Alvin Atkinson and the Sound Merchants took the stage. They played five pieces, only one of which included vocals, "Ain't Doris" in which the composer waxed nostalgic about his grandma's cooking. I thought one of the pieces had a rather muddy melody, but certainly the hit of the concert was second on the list, the classic Duke Ellington number, "Take the A Train." I really enjoyed the finale, a joint performance by the two groups playing first "Baghdad" and then "Caravan." The best thing was the sense of normality that the event provided. In the end, having the concert in the open air really helped to make it more special. I will add it to my memories of other special open-air concerts, at Wolftrap arena and the Fourth of July performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony at the Conner Prairie living history museum in northern Indianapolis.
Two evenings later, on April 6, I attended another PAS-arranged event, a slide show of old Baghdad scenes presented by Iraqi historian Fawzi al-Saadawi. Al-Saadawi made the point that Iraq's multi-ethnic character had contributed to make Iraqi culture special and lamented the loss of Iraq's ethnic communities, including the Jewish, which had been on the territory of Iraq continuously since the Babylonian captivity. He showed a photo of a famous Iraqi singer, surrounded by five Jewish musicians. He said Iraqi music was unique in the Middle East, which tended to be dominated by an Egyptian style of music, since Iraqi music had benefited from the contributions of the various ethnic communities and also had ancient roots in the Sumerian culture. Al-Saadawi underscored the importance of Iraqi children learning their history well so that Iraq's traditions of tolerance would not be lost.