Ahmed Mukhtar is an internationally renowned oud player from Iraq. He will be playing at our ‘Voices of Iraq’ film premiere at Westminster Abbey this Friday. In this exclusive interview, he tells us what life was like under the dictatorship, what inspired him to become a musician, and how music can help bring people together. 

You were born and raised in Baghdad. What was life like under Saddam?

Life under the dictatorship was very restraining and stressful. As any other dictatorship, everyone, regardless of their stand on the regime, had to follow its rules and restrictions. Everyday life was affected by the decisions of the dictator for better or worse, for good or bad. When he decided to go to war, everyone had to support the decision. From a musician’s standpoint, musical compositions and songs had to support the cause regardless of whether or not the individual supported the conflict. The entire cultural sector was affected. An artist’s work in any field had to support the regime, continuously acting against what the average citizen believed in. Nobody felt safe either. Everyone was at risk of torture and/or execution, even if an individual did follow the dictator’s instruction. Everyone was under suspicion. Day-to-day life took place while under constant threat.

You are a master oud player. What is an oud and why did you take it up?

The oud is a stringed instrument made entirely of wood. It has a short neck, a curved bowl-like sound box, and is fretless. The oldest known oud comes from ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq), specifically the Acadian period (circa 2350-2150 BC). The musical history of the Middle-East is built on this instrument. The oud is still very much alive because every maqam (scale) and modulation between maqams can be played on it without the need to re-tune. This is because it is fretless. Other Middle-Eastern instruments need to be re-tuned and so are restrictive in playing different maqams. The first thing that attracted me to the oud was its unique sound. The way it expresses the unique mood and spirit of each maqam on its doubled strings is very attractive to me. The way it is held, or rather hugged, is also something that is unique to the oud. The intimate relationship a musician builds with his/her oud is unlike any other instrument due to the way it is held. I also feel close to the oud because of the way I am able to freely express myself while moving from one maqam to another without any restrictions. I feel and listen to the history of my people through the oud.

Is your music viewed differently in the West compared to Iraq?

Of course, the response towards my music differs in the West in comparison to its reception in Iraq. That is not to say that one reaction is better than the other, they are merely different. In the West, I often have the need to explain the musical history of the oud and sometimes the pieces or maqam (scale) which I choose to play. I also feel the need to explain the mood and spirit of a maqam and the extensive use of quarter-tones in Middle-Eastern music (that is the tone that falls in between a flat or sharp tone and a natural tone, which does not exist in Western music). It is a sound that a Western ear may not be in tune with. Whereas, in Iraq I don’t need to explain myself. Since the musical language is already spoken, the message of my music is immediately understood. All I need to do is play. Playing to an audience that has grown up surrounded by the emotionally charged musical scales of the Middle-East is one thing; while watching a Western audience become attuned to the Arabic maqamaat (scales) and learn to appreciate their tonal and emotional nuances is another. Both experiences are a pleasure.

ISIS banned music. With extremist groups in the Middle East gaining ground, is music under threat?

Music has been under threat far before ISIS. During the dictatorship, the music and arts were used only to serve the regime. Musicians had no creative freedom. ISIS is inflicting the same sorts of regulations and control as any dictatorship. The only difference is that ruling with an iron fist is being done very publicly, whereas in the past, such things were hidden under the table. Many of those who supported the previous dictatorship now work under the ISIS flag, passing similar laws and rules under a different name, legitimizing their actions under the mask of a misused religion. Music in Iraq has not progressed over the past 15 years mainly due to the lack of government funding. In 2013, Baghdad was named the cultural capital of the Arab world. That year, the government had budgeted half a billion dollars to support the growth of culture. The money could have easily gone towards building cultural infrastructures all over the country. Yet, nothing has been built. Cultural buildings currently in use are all from the ’90s. They have not been maintained and are hardly fit for use. Nobody knows exactly where the money has gone but we do know that the cultural industries have been severely neglected.

Can music play a role in peace-building and reconciliation?

Music can always play a role in the process of peace-building and reconciliation. It can be used to help heal the psychological and emotional damage inflicted on people in a time of crisis. Music also brings people from different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds together. You tend to feel closer to a culture other than your own if you love and listen to its music. When you are open to appreciating music from a different culture, you learn to understand the people of that culture and their emotions and feelings through the music they listen to. You also tend to appreciate others who listen to the music of your own culture. Music has the ability to build bridges and bring everyone closer together. We can also contribute to a more cohesive future by teaching children to appreciate other cultures through music. Additionally, listening to quality music helps people feel calm and at peace with themselves and others. They tend to appreciate and love life, love others, love nature, love everything around them. When people find, within themselves, the ability to be at peace through music, there is no room for conflict. Music heals the soul. If you play music, its effects are even stronger. Music can do a lot.

If you would like to know more about Ahmed Mukhtar and his music you can

visit his website or YouTube channel

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