Iraqi Singer Breaks down Barriers
When Iraqi singer Farida Mohammed Ali performs at the Chicago Cultural Center Monday, the final date on her US mini-tour, it will mark a musical event unlike any other city has ever witnessed, according to Chicago Tribune.
First, Ali is a master of maqam, an immensely complex Arabian music form dating from the 15th Century and little known outside Iraq. The music is based on between 55 and 70 maqams, or suitelike songs, and no single singer has ever mastered them all.
Second, Ali is touring during a US embargo of her native country. As world music enthusiasts know, her concert marks a watershed not only in genre, but gender as well.
"This is the first time ever an Iraqi maqam singer has toured the US, never mind a female," said Wafaa' Salman, founder of the Institute for Near Eastern and African Studies in Cambridge, Mass.
In Iraq, Ali became the first female maqam singer qualified to teach others. Though there has been talk in Chicago's Iraqi community of tensions associated with the concert because of gender and political issues, cultural center officials said they do not foresee any problems at Monday's performance or a need for heightened security. Still, city officials requested that the names of Ali's band members not be published.
Ali now lives in the Netherlands, a move necessitated by the harsh realities of the Iraqi boycott. Unable to find work and running out of cash, she and her family moved there in 1997, aided by fans in Holland.
True, the recent success of "Buena Vista Social Club," the 1997 album and subsequent film that featured an array of talented Cuban musicians, proves that music rises above the din of world affairs. But what if the gulf between two nations is a Gulf War? Observers following the Middle East agree that where diplomats and negotiators have failed to ease distrust and prejudice between the American and Iraqi peoples, a singer just might succeed. Despite her expatriate status, Ali, 37, said her heart remains close to her homeland.
Long before coming to the US, Ali had to convince skeptical men back home that she was worthy of performing maqam. "It used to be a male-dominated form of music, but I'm trying to challenge people and take it forward," Ali said to the daily. "Maqam is a form of Sufi singing, a religious experience, and the argument goes that it's for males and there's no place for female singing. But I got so good the men couldn't criticize me anymore."
Today, Ali is one of three singers credited with keeping maqam's heritage alive. "It's the most lasting form of Iraqi music," she said.
"Iraq has been vilified and we've all been made to look bad, even Iraqis in America. People forget that Iraq is the cradle of civilization: Writing started there, music started there. Things have to be put in perspective, and the one way to do that is through music," Ali added – Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)