‘Baghdad Beatle’ Celebrates 55-Year Career With Special Concert

Famed Iraqi musician Ilham al-Madfai hosted a private concert in the Atlanta, Georgia, suburb of Duluth recently to mark 55 years of performing. Al-Madfai is a guitarist, singer and composer who combines Western guitar styling with traditional Iraqi music. His Western-inspired songwriting prompted his nickname, “The Baghdad Beatle.”His music is popular across the Arab world, as was reflected in the crowd of Algerians, Syrians, Egyptians and Iraqis at his Duluth show.”I fought so hard to be here,” said Nura Khuffash, a Georgia resident at the invitation-only concert.Amid the coronavirus pandemic and upheaval in the Middle East, the small concert provided an eagerly sought respite for many of the guests commemorating the 79-year-old al-Madfai’s long-running career.The author of this story is a friend of the family of the performer.”I was listening to Ilham’s music since I was a little girl,” Khuffash, a native of Nablus, West Bank, told VOA.”I really fought to be here because I had to find someone to watch my kids so I could come with my friends. I really went above and beyond, and I’m excited to be here,” Kuffash said. The songs of al-Madfai originate from compositions written at the beginning of the last century. They are often played as Maqam, a melodic style of music popular in the Middle East that incorporates stringed instruments, such as the qanun, and drums, such as the tabla. Al-Madfai, who was born in Baghdad, has popularized these traditional Arabic classics through an energetic vocal performance. Throughout his recent celebratory performance, concertgoers sprang out of their chairs in the small but packed indoor venue and burst into dancing, a testament to al-Madfai’s appeal. Attendees of the private concert are seen dancing to the music of Al-Madfai.Although al-Madfai’s music often sparks a contagious, joyful energy at his shows, his lyrics are poignant, injected with deep political connotations. Al-Madfai drew a major following in Iraq in the 1970s, but Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in 1979 prompted him to leave the country. He returned to Iraq shortly before the Gulf War. In 1994, he emigrated to Jordan, where he currently resides. “The songs are very special,” said Ara Artanik, a drummer who performs with al-Madfai in the United States. “They have political meanings, and the songs are written as an artistic expression and reflect the political situation in Iraq as well as the rest of the region, which many Arabs can relate to, not just Iraqis,” Artanik said. Another guest, Rania Layous, described al-Madfai’s music as a connecting force that binds members of the Arab diaspora living in the U.S. “Every song has a story, and it’s very much related to not just the Iraqi culture but all of the Middle East,” Layous said. “It’s really nice, you know, because we all have immigrated and we all have a story, so his music ties us together to the experience we share from the same region.”Layous, who is of Palestinian origin, emphasized how notable al-Madfai’s voice is for an Arabic singer. But because of his strong Iraqi accent, not everything he sings is intelligible. “Some of the words when he’s singing I don’t understand, but because his voice is so unique, the songs become very melodic, which you just want to shake and dance to,” Layous said. Al-Madfai’s son, Mohamad, who is also his manager, spoke with VOA about the shared partnership and sentimentality father and son feel. “It’s very emotional,” Mohamad said. “We started 25 years ago together, just the two of us, developed the basics of production, music production and putting on concerts and touring. And since then, we’ve performed in about 60-70 countries.”Al-Madfai often performs during short stays in the U.S. He is scheduled to perform a couple of shows in the U.S. before returning to the Middle East later this year.

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