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V/A - Choubi Choubi!: Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq

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Artist: V/A

Album: Choubi Choubi!: Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Oct. 9, 2005

Earlier this year, word went out that al-Sumerian television was planning an Iraqi version of the massively popular American Idol program/contest. One could almost hear an exasperated sigh emanate from the more cynical corners of the blogosphere, as many felt such a move was coming at a time when the Iraqi population, whose infrastructure had been radically destroyed in the wake of American efforts at democratization/emancipation, were in need of more substantial (and far more basic) social services and programs. However, as Mark Gergis points out in his liner notes to Choubi Choubi!: Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq (one of the latest entries to the stellar Sun City Girls-affiliated Sublime Frequencies catalogue), music had always been encouraged in the land of the Baathist regime. Then again, the average American (myself included) probably has little to no clue about the inner cultural workings of Iraq, instead being constantly fed news relating solely to military and political concerns.

This latest compilation, aside from being close to an hour's worth of incredible music, is of fundamental importance as it attempts to provide a wholly different view (i.e. cultural/musical) of a region that is in the news on a daily basis in the context of heartbreak, catastrophe and ongoing violence. Even more significant is the fact that most of these tracks come from the period of Saddam Hussein's reign, thus providing key cultural insight into an epoch about which there is an obvious dearth of non-military and/or apolitical material.

As previously stated, the Baathists encouraged musical production as a means of showcasing the secular nature of their regime. These tracks then become a representation of a highly institutionalized culture machine that existed during a particularly bleak time in Iraq's history (although one that, somewhat paradoxically, viewed the career aspirations of a professional musician as not being very respectable). The main focus here is on the titular "choubi" style of music, described as "a festive, driving rhythmic style that can feature fiddles, double reed instruments, bass, keyboards, and oud over its signature beat." However, that signature beat almost becomes secondary to the frenetic rhythms supplied by a hand drum known as a Khishba. These beats come rapid fire, and when produced electronically tend to resemble (to these ears, at least) the beats present in vintage gabber tracks. The musicianship here is top notch, but sadly most of the performers are left anonymous. Tracks like "Ahl Al Aqil," with it's blistering percussion and sweeping fiddles, and "Choubi Choubi," which features an unknown female voice amidst the choubi gallop, become tantalizing-but difficult-to-place glimpses at a foreign culture.

A few names do manage to survive, however. Souad Abdullah's breathy voice glides overtop a heavy rhythmic stomp on the unnamed closing track. Sajada Al Ubaid's "Ala Honak" blends a vocal improv style known as mawal with choubi to produce a passionate vocal take that sounds haunting in its desperation. The collection also features a couple of forays into Basta style (more typical of Baghdad). On tracks like "Yumma, Al Hilou" and "Ashhad Biannak Hilou," the percussive elements serve their purpose as a rhythmic counterpoint to the more colorful instrumental accompaniment. Also on display here as well are three tracks from Ja'afer Hassan's 1970s Let's Sing Together LP. Although his standard folk rock moves are anomalous in the context of this compilation, as a forerunner of the Iraqi Socialist movement that existed before Saddam Hussein's rise to power, his music provides and intriguing alternative to the direction Iraqi pop sounds would take under Baathist reign.

Whether an Iraqi attempt at the Idol format will go a ways toward helping to mend a shattered national psyche remains to be seen. It's also nearly impossible to predict what forms of Iraqi musical expression will survive the turmoil, and just how they will play into the rampant cultural commodification that such a show inevitably brings along with it. Choubi Choubi!, then, carries with it an almost elegiac quality of communicating styles of music that may not be heard or created in the same way ever again.

A whole generation of Americans have grown up with very little to associate with Iraq outside of war, sanctions, military industrial complex jargon, and that country's role as an arbiter of American political hegemonic status throughout the world (not to mention as a signifier at home of the success or failure of the War on Terror and the apparent god-given project - in Bush speak - of bringing democracy to the rest of the planet). And even those elements are constantly refracted through an unflinching American lens as we tend to view a war in terms of how it effects our troops, supplies, and public opinions polls as opposed to those we are ostensibly trying to help. Choubi Choubi!: Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq provides a crucial service in attempting to show a segment of the Iraqi population outside the context of war and in a light that is often sorely lacking in news coverage that speaks of victims, enemies, terrorists/insurgents, and pawns in American political rhetoric. And alongside that, it contains sounds that need to be heard to be believed.

By Michael Crumsho

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