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DUBAI: As one of the first Middle Eastern musicians to marry Western instrumentation with Arabic music and poetry, Iraqi singer-songwriter Ilham Al-Madfai has been dubbed “The Baghdad Beatle”.
“When we talk about Ilham, we are talking about a music school. He created his own path and his own style of music. Without the music of Ilham Madfai, most of the old Arabic songs would have disappeared”, explains the son (and manager) of the singer Mohamad, in an interview with Arab News.
“What Ilham Madfai did in the 1960s – the revolution he created by recreating those old Arabic guitar songs – made early music popular with the younger generation and helped them take pride in their culture and their music.”
Born in 1942 in Baghdad, Al-Madfai formed what would have been Iraq’s first rock and roll band, Twisters, when he was just 19 years old. this new style.
“In Arabic, the instrumental intros are endless and the melodies sad,” Al-Madfai told AFP in a March 2021 interview. “I shortened the opening and chose the instrument that adds rhythm catchy and stays in the listener’s ear.”
The lyrics of most of Al-Madfai’s songs, except those he wrote himself, come from ancient poetry and Iraqi folk music. “I interpret them by mixing musical influences that I have discovered,” he explains. “All I did was reinvent old Iraqi songs so they could survive the passage of time.”
Al-Madfai moved to London to study architecture as a young man, following in the footsteps of his siblings. He quickly became a regular at Bayt Al-Baghdadi, better known as Café Baghdad – a hangout frequented by many notable British musicians of the time, including Beatles co-founder Paul McCartney, jazz star Georgie Fame and Scottish folk singer Donovan.
“At that time, young Iraqis were only fans of Western music,” says Mohamad. “And then Ilham came along, and people started getting in this mood of having Arabic songs playing on the guitar, and they started dancing to the songs. And that’s why the world called him The Baghdad Beatle – because he presented Arabic music in a different way. And his contribution to the Arabic music world is so immense, because today we have millions of musicians who are influenced by Ilham – and not just when it comes to playing guitar, but even in performance style. Mohamad told Arab News. .
When Al-Madfai returned to Baghdad from London in 1967, he began combining flamenco guitar rhythms with Iraqi folk songs, and his popularity continued to rise throughout the 1970s. However, his fame – and his musical adventures – were halted by the rise and then the reign of Saddam Hussein. Unwilling to join the Baath Party, Al-Madfai left his home and continued to work in several Middle Eastern countries as an engineer. It will be years before he breaks his musical silence again.
When he returned to his country in 1990, the first Gulf War began soon after. And while Al-Madfai was greatly admired by Saddam and his family, he rejected their friendship at every opportunity, risking his life. After trying again to leave his country for four years, Ilham was allowed to travel to Jordan in 1994 and settle with his family in Amman, where he still lives.
“We all left our country for various reasons. It is true that I live in Jordan but I remain an Iraqi, attached by all means to my native land,” Al-Madfai, who also holds Jordanian nationality, said in an interview with AFP.
Al-Madfai’s talents are not limited to music, according to his son.
“When I was a kid, he raised me in sports,” says Mohamad. “Love sports, love football, love music… He knows everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything. He has a wealth of experience in architecture, engineering, science, politics, sports and, of course, music and art. He paints and draws, he did the interior design of our house in Amman and our houses in London and Abu Dhabi.
“I’m very lucky to have a talented father like him. Even up to this moment it is a school for me. Every day I learn something new from him, from his experience in this world and, of course, from a great musician,” he continues.
Deep down, Al-Madfai is an interpreter. From the Glastonbury Festival to the Royal Albert Hall in London to the COP27 event in Egypt last week, he has always been a tireless performer, never missing an opportunity to perform for his legion of fans.
Mohamad recalls a concert attended by none other than the new King of the United Kingdom, Charles III (who was then a prince): “Charles said to (my father): ‘You reminded me of the good old days of Baghdad and Iraq, which I used to like to visit. And you remind me of the trees of Baghdad. Your style is incredible and you are the best ambassador of Arabic music.