It was Nineveh Cultural Night. As I set my books on the author table, I heard the sound of the classical music of the legendary singer Abdel Halim Hafez. It transported me to the days of long ago, when I was a little girl in Baghdad, Iraq. Television was programmed for only several hours a day and the rest of the time my family listened to the radio.
After I finished setting my books, I turned around and was surprised to see a young man playing the oud. Not having paid any attention to my surroundings, I’d assumed it was a stereo. He then sang the songs in their original Arabic language even though I learned later that he was born in America.
This event, where I was a speaker, occurred shortly after my mother had passed away. Listening to him brought so many heartfelt memories that, for me, it became the most notable part of the evening. I sat there and enjoyed the sound of the oud, a musical instrument that’s some 35000 years old, the oldest found in Persia.
Brian was lucky to be born to a very supportive mother who taught him and his siblings several languages and encouraged his music career. At 12 years old, he cried to her that he wanted an oud so she took him to a small warehouse in Dearborn where he was given the option to choose one of two ouds. He loved the design on one of them, they bought it, and this became his favorite oud.
Brian was soon taught by Abdul Karim Badr, who I happened to interview in 2010, and who has since passed away. I’d had the pleasure of visiting Badr at his home and listening to his story and music. Badr was born in 1921 in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother and a Syrian father. Yet much of his music career was spent in Iraq, during the country’s “Golden Age,” where he said that King Faisal II was so moved by his music that he granted him an Iraqi citizenship. Badr said that during that time, “People wished to have the good fortune of attaining a visa to Iraq.”
Times have changed, haven’t they?
Badr had said to me, “Today’s music has no meaning, depth or talent. Authentic singing and those who value true art are gone, replaced by too much noise.”
I find this to be the case even in writing, where people spew whatever comes to mind without consideration for authenticity and literature.
Badr felt that the media attributed to this problem. He’d said, “The media has become a school for people. Children imitate and become attracted to idols like Michael Jackson who sometimes behave in an obscene fashion while performing. And the words singers these days use! Dressed in fine clothes and wearing lots of makeup, female as well as male singers sing about their loved ones abandoning them. Why are pretty singers singing about lost love? Because they are not so pretty on the inside.”
In the olden days, when legendary singers like Um Kalthoum or Abdel Halim Hafez sang, there was no food or drink served or any other distractions. It was pure music. Back then, when one turned on the radio, one knew a singer’s origin, whether they were Iraqi or Lebanese or Egyptian. Later different singers began mixing things up and using others’ songs and music. Today, many singers and musicians are forced to do the music people want of them, to know everyone else’s songs, in order to make a living and survive in the industry.
In August of 2005, Abdul Karim Badr was given the Golden Oud Award for his fine artistic work, teaching and inspiring a rising new generation. And on August 12, 2006, he was awarded the Michigan Heritage Award in Lansing by the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum. While he has made many contributions to the arts, he credits his greatest achievement to having married his beautifully elegant and supportive wife of over four decades, Evelyn, who was born in Iran to a Chaldean family.
Brian was very fortunate to have had such a teacher. And the Iraqi American community is fortunate to have a young man like Brian continue the art of music which reminds people, such as myself, of our ancient birth land’s richness. In 1932, Iraq was awarded first prize for music in the Arab world by the Egyptian Music Award. In 1956, the first Arabic television in the Middle East was set up by the British Museum.
Art is important for a healthy democracy. That is it is such a threat to some countries who want to keep their citizens oppressed.
Brian can be contacted on Facebook “Oud player in Michigan خضر العواد.” By phone 586-424-7101 or email firstname.lastname@example.org