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From Daud to Dudu: Israeli rock star makes classic Iraqi songs popular again

By Alison Hird

When Israeli rock musician and singer Dudu Tassa said he wanted to rework and re-popularise his grandfather's repertoire of Iraqi Arabic songs from the 1930s, everyone thought he was crazy. But with the release of El Hajar - the third album in the Dudu Tassa & The Kuwaitis series - he's shown there's real interest in the region for a contemporary take on the music so adored by King Faisal II.

Tassa is one of Israel's leading rock musicians. He's also a songwriter, composer and actor. His career took an unexpected direction when, less than a decade ago, he stumbled on a trunk of old recordings by the al Kuwaiti brothers at his mother's.

Daud al Kuwaiti (his grandfather) and Salleh al Kuwaiti (his great-uncle) were born in Kuwait to an Iraqi-Jewish family. Masters of traditional Arabic music, they became popular in Baghdad in the inter-war years, collaborating with legends like Oum Kalsoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

Their repertoire of Jewish songs sung in Iraqi Arabic were appreciated by both the political elite – including Iraq's then King Faisal – and ordinary people in Iraq and the Gulf.

The al Kuwaiti brothers were stars in Baghad in the 30s and 40s ©Dudu Tassa & The Kuwaitis production

The fall from grace

Following the creation of Israel in 1948, the al Kuwaiti brothers emigrated to Tel Aviv where they were far less well-known. And back in Iraq, Saddam Hussein banned their music from the national radio station they had, so ironically, helped found.

The brothers were forced to eke out a living as shopkeepers, playing in bars and at weddings. Tassa says they never recovered from the fall from grace and "became depressed".

"It wasn't easy for them. Music can take you up in the world, but it can also be difficult and my grandfather experienced that... He was a broken man.

"He forbade everyone in our family, including my mother, from working in the music industry, from singing or playing an instrument."

Dudu Tassa's grandfather Daud al Kuwaiti, broken by his loss of status in Israel, forbade his family to play music ©Dudu Tassa & The Kuwaitis production

The music chose me

Tassa ignored his grandfather's wishes and began recording some of the al Kuwaiti brothers' songs. "I had no choice, the music chose me," he explains, adding they share the same name (Dudu being a diminutive of Daud).

He released Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis in 2011, Ala Shawati (2015) and now El Hajar.

"The song El Hajar (meaning exile or immigration in Iraqi Arabic) talks about longing for something that is gone," he says.

He sings in Iraqi Arabic, along with both Jewish and Arab guests including Ya'aqov Nashawi, Nasreen Qadri and Rehela. And has brought his characteristic electric guitar riffs to the mix along with banjo. Nir Maimon plays bass, keyboards and does the programming.

Daud al Kuwaiti died three months before Tassa was born so they never met, but computer sampling has allowed the two men to come together on the album.

"There's a lot of songs that we are singing together on, it's amazing."

Dudu Tassa ©Maya Sela

Three generations coming to concerts

Tassa's reconnection with his Iraqi Jewish roots makes for a good personal story. But few could have anticipated the project would resonate with such a wide public.

"Something amazing happened. The Kuwaitis albums sold more than all my Hebrew albums and now when we play concerts in Israel there are three generations coming."

Grandfathers are coming with sons and grandsons, says Or Davidson, Tassa's manager, who helped translate the RFI interview.

"Older people that were used to listening to that music years ago, the second generation who didn't want to listen to it at the time, and now thanks to the cool modernised way Dudu and Nir have recorded, the young generation [are coming]."

The al Kuwaitis brother's band ©Dudu Tassa & The Kuwaitis production

Dudu Tassa and the Koweitis could be set for global sucess. They opened for Radiohead on their 2017 tour.

And have high hopes of taking the music back to its origins.

"We're getting a lot of response from Iraq in social media, people from Baghdad are sending us pictures and videos [to show] they are listening to our music.

"We're hoping to perform in Baghdad very soon," Tassa says enthusiastically.

So what might Daud al Kuwaiti have thought of his grandson's defiance?

"That I'm crazy... but I think, I hope, he would be proud."

Follow Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis on Facebook

El Hajar is available here

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