Shlomo Al Kuwaity’s Speech (text)

3 December 2008

First, let me introduce myself: my name is Shlomo al-Kuwaity and I am the youngest son of the artist Saleh-al-Kuwaiti. My education is in mechanic engineering, and for many years I have managed various industrial factories mainly in the wine sector. I am currently working in the academic field as Vice-Chancellor of the Tel Aviv College of Management. Although I was born in Israel, I now feel as if I was born and grew up in Baghdad of the old days. Salm

Although this evening is dedicated to a topic connected with music and song, I am not a musician, and I have never learned to play any instruments. My late father, whose achievements and contribution to Iraqi music we are here today to celebrate, never allowed any of his children to follow his path and get involved in music. He probably had his reasons.

I remember, as both a young boy and as a young man, accompanying him to concerts he was invited to perform in and the way people always treated him with appreciation and respect. I didn't know then about his achievements and status in the musical world. And my father, who was very modest, never mentioned it.
But I felt the need to investigate the matter. This happened when my father and uncle were no longer alive, and I could not ask them questions or get information from a primary source. The family knew very little, and my father and uncle did not leave behind any documented material.

In 2006, thirty years after the death of my uncle Daoud and twenty years after the death of my father Saleh, our family decided to do something in their memory so that we, their children, and our own children will know more about their lives' work. We didn't have a lot to go on, but we managed to release a double CD, which included some of their finest songs and a short booklet with information about their history.

Daoud was the singer in the album and the lyrics were by Saleh. The musicians on the album are the same time-honored musicians, who performed in Iraq, including: Albert Iliais on flute and Abraham Salamon on the qanun.

The album had a limited release, and was sent, among others, to some prominent Arabic figures around the world and in Kuwait and Iraq in particular. We were very surprised at the positive responses from the Kuwaiti, Saudi, Lebanese and Iraqi press, and also from a whole host of online websites which specialize in Arabic music.

Because of the success of the album and thanks to material accumulated from various sources as diverse as the Netherlands, England, Iraq and Kuwait, we are now working on a special publication dealing with the Kuwaiti brothers' life and work, in addition to what has been said and written about them in the Arab media, and on websites concerned with music and song.

Saleh Al-Kuwaity first appeared on the Iraqi music scene at the end of the 20's, beginning of the 30's. That was when the two brothers, Saleh and Daoud Al Kuwaity, came first to Basra and then to Baghdad. They were born in Kuwait in 1908 and 1910 to an Iraqi family from Basra.

Their father, Ezra Erzoni, was a trader who moved from Basra to Kuwait at the end of the 19th century together with another 50 Jewish families. When Saleh was ten and Daoud was eight, their uncle who had just returned from a business trip to India, gave them a violin for Saleh and an oud for Daoud.

These gifts were a turning point in the lives of the two brothers, and were later to have a profound influence on Kuwaiti and Iraqi music. They discovered a love and a devotion to music and first learned to play only by listening to records. When their father, who was an amateur Qanoon player, noticed their love and devotion, he asked a famous Kuwaiti musician, Khalid el-Baker, to give them music lessons.
This teacher, who discovered their extraordinary talent, taught them the elements of Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Hijazi music and song. That's how they began at a young age, with the help of their teacher, to perform at celebrations and singing evenings for the Sheiks and other wealthy individuals in Kuwait and the Gulf Emirates.

Their success in these performances encouraged them to continue their studies by listening to Egyptian and Iraqi records. During this period, they accompanied Kuwaiti singers, like Abed Latif el-Kuwaiti and even began to make records for Baidafone that came especially to Kuwait for recordings.

In 1928, the record company stopped coming to Kuwait, and therefore the Kuwaiti artists had to travel to Basra to make recordings.

On one occasion, when they were traveling to Basra, they were heard by a local club owner who used to bring Maqam singers with the Chalari orchestra brought in especially from Baghdad. He asked the al-Kuwaiti brothers to stay in Basra and work at his club as musicians and even offered to let them bring their families with them. After they agreed, he told Mohammed El-Gubnachi, who was due to come and perform in Basra, not to bring a violinist or an oud player with him because he has excellent musicians he wanted to introduce him to. So began the amazing journey of Saleh and El-Gubnachi with the Iraqi Maqam, something that they both specialized in and even improved and added to.

They were also in El-Amara, Mosul and Baghdad, and the Ehwaz, region of southern Iran. They made the most of these trips to get to know the special living conditions of each and every area and the varieties of music there, and were thus able to enrich their knowledge of the diversity of Iraqi music. Saleh lived for six months in Mosul giving lessons to Gamil Bashir and teaching him the basics of playing the violin. In 1930, they finally moved with their families to Baghdad.

As soon as they arrived in Baghdad, they began to work as musicians in the Malha El-Hilal club accompanying the singer Selima Murad. Selima asked Saleh if he could write new songs for her. The first song he wrote was "Gelbach Secher Jalmud" which was highly acclaimed.

In this song Saleh was innovative, in moving from the standard traditional frameworks to a new modern style that relied on traditional elements, yet added to them a touch of westernism and was recognizably a combination of several Maqam styles together. He became almost the only songwriter for two decades and wrote for the singers of the time, like Selima Murad, Zekia George, Munira Hawazwaz, Afifa Eskander, Sabiha Ibrahim, Zehour Hussein and others.

In each of his compositions during those two decades, Saleh kept updating the style of his songs, until he arrived at the modern style of Iraqi songwriting, which has lasted until today, and is considered the mainstay of Iraqi song.

In 1936, it was decided to establish an Iraqi broadcasting service and the Minister of Education approached the al-Kuwaiti brothers and asked them to assemble an orchestra for it. The orchestra was assembled and most of its musicians were Jewish, including Saleh Al-Kuwaity - violin and orchestra leader, Daoud Al-Kuwaity - Oud, Yaakov al Amari - nay, Yosef Zarour - qanun, Abraham Kazaz - cello, and Hussein Abdallah - drums. This orchestra was an example of another innovation that Saleh introduced: he included a cello, a western instrument, in an Arab orchestra. Saleh also composed purely instrumental musical pieces. This had never been done in Iraqi music.

Performances were broadcast live because there was no way to record them at the time. Another broadcasting station was located in the palace of King Ghazi. The King, who greatly admired Saleh, gave him a gold watch with the royal seal and a personal inscription. This watch has remained in our possession until this very day and is still working.

Saleh and Daoud worked for the broadcasting station until 1945. That year, Nuri El- Said, who was then prime minister and an ardent amateur musician, switched on his radio one day and there was no music broadcast according to the published programme. When he contacted the radio, he was told that it was Yom Kippur and the Jews did not work. And so it was decided to set up another orchestra with non-Jewish musicians under the direction of Jamil Bashir.

An important landmark to remember is that when the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum visited Iraq in 1931 on tour, she asked what the most popular song in Iraq was and was told that it was "Gelbach Secher Jalmud" written by Saleh al-Kuwaiti. She wanted to learn the song, and Saleh and Selima taught her the words and the music. She sang the song accompanying her on the Oud for an entire month of performances.

In 1932, the famous musician and singer, Abed El-Wahab, came to Baghdad to perform. He showed great interest in Iraqi and Kuwaity music, and so every night for a month and a half, after his performances, he and Saleh would sit until the small hours playing together and learning from each other. Abed El-Wahab took the Lami Maqam that Saleh had developed and which was unknown in Egypt and based some of his own tunes on it. Saleh took from him the Maqam Hazhanjaren which was unknown in Iraq and added it to the Iraqi Maqam repertoire.

After they left from the Iraqi broadcasting station, the Kuwaiti brothers opened a night club (Malha) called Malha Abu Nawas where they performed and hosted different artists.

The lives of the Al-Kuwaity brothers Saleh and Daoud were full of innovation, of music writing, of creativity, and of expanding and deepening their studies.

This period came to an end when they immigrated to Israel in 1951. When their plane took off into the Baghdad skies, it signaled for Saleh and Daoud Al-Kuwaity the end of their rise and the beginning of their decline.

I would like to mention that the same day on which the ruler of Kuwait learned that Saleh was leaving Iraq, he sent messengers to him to persuade him to move to Kuwait with a guarantee that he would be treated there with great respect but my father refused his offer.

They arrived to a State where the majority of people came from a western background with a western cultural heritage, who had no interest in Arabic music. Even the Jews who came over from Iraq and other Arabic states didn't show great interest in the music, as they were too busy with issues of work and immigration. But, despite all this, Saleh and Daoud managed to put concerts together.

When the Arabic extension of Kol Israel, the official radio station of the Israeli broadcasting authority, expanded to include more programming, Saleh and Daoud even received their own weekly programme which allowed them to renew the relationship they had lost with their devoted listeners.

Saleh bought a store for household items in the market of Tel Aviv's Hatikvah neighborhood to try to earn a living from it. The store was not a great success, but it did serve as a kind of office and address for people who wanted to invite them to perform.

In those days the Hatikvah neighborhood was similar to little Baghdad. It had shops, bakeries, cafes, and all the things that Baghdad had. The language used was Jewish Arabic, and only Arabic, mainly Egyptian, music was played on the radio.

Despite all the difficulties, Saleh never stopped composing and continued to write new songs. Now the problem was to find songwriters whose words he could put to music, and so Saleh was forced to write the lyrics as well for most of his compositions, and apart from the songwriter Ibrahim Ovadiah who wrote lyrics for him, he wrote the lyrics for most of the songs he composed in Israel.

During Saddam Hussein's rule there was a special committee appointed to‘re-arrange' the Iraqi musical archives. Saleh's name was hard to get rid of, and as it turned out his songs were still being played - only without the mention of his name. Students of music at the time still recall today that mentioning his name was forbidden even when his work was being discussed and taught.

Today, this situation has changed dramatically and the issue is being discussed over the net and in the media. In 2006 television station Al Hurra broadcast a programme about Iraqi music in the 20th century. Saleh was chosen by a panel of experts on the show as the definitive Iraqi composer of the 30's and 40's.

The experts were Walid Elgabri of the teaching staff at the Academy of Music, Abdul Razak Al-Azawi, maestro, conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, Wa'adel Al-Hashmi, a music critic and researcher who has published scores of articles and research on Iraqi music. I will show you a small part of this movie.
It is also worth mentioning that in this year, at the 8th conference of the Faculty of Fine Arts in the University of Baghdad, Ibrahim Al Jazrawi gave a special paper entitled "Saleh Al Kuwaiti and his work in Iraqi music and poetry". At the end of this paper he proposed to establish a special library to preserve all material related to Saleh's. This was important, Al Jazrawi claimed, as Saleh is one of the most important composers in Iraqi musical history.

Daoud died of a heart attack in 1976. This shattered my father; Saleh loved Daoud and took care of him all his life and it was as if he lost the will to live. His love of music was his main reason for living. Immediately after the death of Daoud, he got sick until the last day of his life, but Saleh was still working right up until a week before his death in 1986.


I apologize in advance for the quality of the film which is because of the quality of the recording I originally received, but I believe that you will enjoy it nevertheless.
To bring to a close my short speech, I would like to thank the organizers of this evening and you, the audience, who have come to pay your respects to the work of Saleh and Daoud Al Kuwaity. These two men who dedicated their lives to the music of Iraq, and who never parted for as long as they lived.

Thank you very much.

 

Shlomo Al Kuwaity's Speech (video)

 

 

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