Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted – Baghdad, 1925-9: A Review

Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted – Baghdad, 1925-9
(Honest Jon’s CD)

We are living in a golden age of archivists and curators, from which are coming music that eclipses in interest most of what individual musicians and artists working today are producing. While recent CDs such as Dust to Digital’s Black Mirror and Victrola Favorites are built around the eclectic tastes of particular collectors of 78s, Honest Jon’s is issuing a series of disks drawn from The EMI archive in Hayes the second of which, Give Me Love is drawn from recordings made by the company (then known as The Gramophone Company) in Baghdad between 1925-9. These disks offer a fascinatingly specific look into the history of the recording of the musics of the world: the sound quality is excellent and there is the promise of much more to come.
Iraq in the 1920s was under British control and recording engineers traveled several times through Baghdad, making over a thousand recordings which were issued in Iraq on the Company subsidiary His Master’s Voice, where they were eagerly bought up by coffee house owners who played records for customers until the advent of radio in Iraq in 1936. The city itself was a complex, cosmopolitan place where many histories and cultures intersected caught in the enormous rupture created by European colonialism. Indian movies, Egyptian music, British marching bands all fed into complex network of Kurdish, Shiite, Jewish folk musics which were eagerly consumed even in places like the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, where public sale of such recordings was virtually impossible.
The history of this archive and the process by which these recordings were made, issued and consumed is so complex and fascinating that it almost overshadows the actual music which, despite its topnotch quality, and intelligent documentation via copious sleevenotes, translations and reminiscences might sadly remain opaque to listeners unfamiliar with the many styles of music collected here. There is music from Bahrain and Kuwait, Hebrew hymns of praise featuring hearty cries of “Allah!” courtesy of local Jewish musicians, terrific Kurdish fiddle improvisations, gorgeous laments by Baghdadi chanteuses some, we are told fulfilling dual roles in nightclubs as courtesans, while others sang a religious repertoire for women-only gatherings. Still, lyrics like the following from Mulla Abdussaheb’s “Ya Yumma Weya Baba” – “Ooh, just look at her black headband, so ‘a la mode’ …/You’re trouble — I have abandoned my family for your sake/ The tribulations of your love have turned my black hair into grey/ My family and tribe persecute me because of you” also go to show that some things never change.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

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