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Iraq: Baghdad Jazz Pianist Longs For The Days Of Black Suits, Dance Halls And Duke Ellington

  • Valentinas Mite

In the 1950s and '60s, Baghdad was a city of jazz musicians, the foxtrot, and a liberal middle class. That atmosphere is gone now, maybe forever. A Baghdad jazz pianist, Samir Peter, says the former regime of Saddam Hussein had no tolerance for jazz. The regime insisted jazz was harmful and alien to Iraq's cultural traditions. Today, Hussein is gone, but after 30 years of neglect, few Iraqis seem to appreciate jazz music. Concert halls have been looted or destroyed. Peter himself has only one dream -- to leave Iraq to pursue his art.

Baghdad, 20 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq is a country known more for its camels, caravans, oil, and its deposed dictator than for its jazz music. Nevertheless, visitors to the capital, Baghdad, can still hear the works of legendary American musician Duke Ellington and other jazz greats.

Pianist Samir Peter plays jazz in Baghdad hotels, but he says he's going to stop performing because he has few listeners. People want to hear Arabic or Western pop music, he laments, not jazz.

Dressed in Levis jeans with his long black hair tied in a ponytail, Peter sat down with RFE/RL at the Al-Hamra hotel in central Baghdad last week to talk about his career and how life used to be in the capital.

He says the music scene was lively in the 1950s and '60s when Iraq -- despite not having a cultural tradition of jazz music -- had some of the best jazz performers in the Arab world.

"Iraq in the '50s, I am telling you about the '50s in Iraq -- there was a lot of culture in Iraq. People used to go to dancing halls wearing black suits and if somebody didn't know how to dance tango, foxtrot, he could not go to these parties. So they used to go to some institutes [to learn] how to dance tango, waltz, foxtrot, cha-cha -- these kind of dances. The people were so influenced by Western culture."

Peter, after finishing his piano studies in Hungary and Italy in 1974, earned a living in Baghdad by giving private piano lessons to the children of rich families. He says it was a matter of prestige for the rich to take piano lessons.

However, during the rule of Saddam Hussein, he says, almost all of Iraq's famous musicians left the country and are now performing in Jordan, the United States, Europe, or Australia. Peter says Hussein insisted that jazz was alien to the country's culture and did not tolerate it.

He says life changed when the Ba'ath Party came to power. Until that time, he remembers, there were Western newspapers, magazines, and books easily available in the streets of the capital.

"[At that] time, Duke Ellington visited Iraq one time. Louis Armstrong, he visited, and made the concert. And we had a lot of concerts in the '60s. We had the most famous philharmonic orchestra."

Hussein's rule and the almost decade-long war with Iran brought a different atmosphere, however. Peter says the authorities decided to play the card of Arab nationalism and insisted that Western music was alien to Iraq. Musicians were not allowed to travel out of the country and it became difficult to get instruments and to bring sheet music into the country.

"We were not allowed to buy instruments," says Peter. "To a get a piano, it was so difficult. Since the Iranian war started, they stopped importing any instruments, and we could not get the music scores even. I used to get my music scores from my friends. I started working in the hotels. I was a residential pianist in the Sheraton company [an international hotel chain]. So I had a lot of foreigner friends. They used to travel, and they asked, 'What would you like us to bring you?' And I used to say, 'Only bring me musical scores.'"

Peter says he has a big music library at home that consists of musical scores illegally brought into Iraq. He says he used to make photocopies of the scores and share them with his fellow jazz players. He says he always felt threatened. He believes his telephone was tapped.

Peter says he continued to perform, but that the majority of his listeners were foreigners. He says he was given support by the French Cultural Center in Iraq and that he performed for UN agencies based in the country.

Peter says he became famous among foreigners living in Baghdad, but not among his fellow Iraqis.

"They were speaking about me -- he is an American, he likes the foreigners. So I was in danger always."

He says not only jazz but also Beethoven and Mozart were removed from official broadcasting playlists.

"After Saddam consolidated his power, we did not hear Western music at all," says Peter. Classical jazz was replaced by Arabic pop music that Peter calls "rubbish stuff." Hussein's son Uday owned the main commercial radio station in Baghdad and broadcast such music around the clock, he recalls.

He says the authorities supported young pop singers who publicly expressed their loyalty to Hussein. Peter says ambitious young singers who performed at least one song for Hussein had a chance to become a star.

Like Hussein's regime, these young performers have disappeared from Iraq. But Peter says the atmosphere of the 1950s has not yet returned.

Peter says there is nobody left in Iraq who appreciates classical jazz. The new generation has grown up. The theaters have been bombed and burned and looted during the war, so there is no place to hold concerts. He says there is not a single recording studio in Baghdad with a piano.

"There is no use to stay here anymore because this country I don't think is going to be stable," he says. "Maybe it takes two years or more to be stable, and we will have a lot of problems because [U.S. forces] did not capture [Hussein] and his sons. He will make a lot of problems."

Peter has issued one CD, which was recorded cheaply in the French Cultural Center last February. The sound quality is poor, but it is precisely this lack of perfect clarity, combined with Peter's brilliant performance, that takes the listener back to the 1950s and '60s, back to the Baghdad of the foxtrot, black suits, and Duke Ellington.