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V/A - Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted - Baghdad, 1925-1929

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Artist: V/A

Album: Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted - Baghdad, 1925-1929

Label: Honest Jon's

Review date: Sep. 11, 2008

In the last decade, the reissue game has grown from an eccentric hobby into a full-blown business. No longer is a compilation of exotic tunes dug up from far-flung regions of the map an occasional surprise, it’s an ubiquitous happening. In any given week, you can drop that hard-earned paycheck on a reissue of a rare soul group arranged by Charles Stepney barely heard on its original release in 1970; a compilation of ‘60s Turkish freakbeat psych never before available stateside; impossible to find recordings of an Arabic instrument with 70+ strings threaded across a sound box made of wood and fish skin; or a retrospective of early-’90s UK dance records compiled by a revered ragga jungle DJ. And that’s just on the front page of the Honest Jon’s Record Shop website.

Now that decades-old Nigerian funk bands have become as widely heard as contemporary Seattle indie rock bands, our ears are gradually being attuned to more exotic sounds. The majority of these reissues are extremely accessible, but they are also allowing listeners everywhere to be exposed to genres, regions and cultures that otherwise are unreachable due to geographical, financial and cultural boundaries. This is obviously good. And it is leading to releases unthinkable in any other setting. For example: the latest from the Damon Albarn-helmed Honest Jon’s imprint, Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted – Baghdad, 1925-1929.

To most Western ears, Middle Eastern music has never been an easy pill to swallow. Instrumentation, tone, scales, harmony and rhythm differ to such a degree, that most first-time listeners would probably have little patience for the region’s traditional music. Now add nearly a century’s difference of cultural evolution to the mix, and you have a truly challenging listen. But this compilation – culled by Mark Ainley, responsible for an impressive number of Honest Jon’s and Soul Jazz releases – has a motif that transcends nearly every culture: the emphatic emotional resonance of lost love.

Besides the usual incentives for purchasing an Honest Jon’s reissue – the impressive packaging, remastering (this time care of Abbey Road), and liner notes, which includes an interview with a Baghdad citizen from the period who knew some of the musicians involved – Give Me Love offers a glimpse into an era of Iraq when ethnicity and culture intertwined symbiotically. In fact, as the liner notes state, “the music collected here is diverse, sometimes syncretic.” The musical traditions of Iraq, Bahrain, Kurdistan and Kuwait sit side by side, and in some cases overlap. And the 22 cuts included are pulled from around 900 sides recorded by the Gramophone Company over four sessions in Baghdad from 1925-1929. They are sonic artifacts left over from a burgeoning record industry trying to expand into new, unexplored markets.

As stated before, to unaccustomed ears the music may not be completely accessible on first listen. Once you dig through the liner notes, though, the setting in which the music was crafted begins to take shape, and a whole new dimension is added to the sonic elements. These are heart-wrenching ballads; torch songs amplified by trying geographical conditions, impending political conflicts and oppressive living situations.

Take, for example, Sayed Abbood’s “Shlon Aslak.” His voice wreathes with only oud and violin accompaniment. The song scrapes along with little discernible rhythmic or melodic progression, but the emotion is undeniable. The exact depths of that emotion though is only revealed in the translation of the lyrics:

“Short of dying, how can I get you out of my mind?
My agonising pain and my cries go on and on.
Everyone except me is asleep.
I toss and turn; sleep eludes me.”

It’s a moving piece as one comes to understand the meaning behind it. The listener can’t help but be buried in the emotional weight of the lyrics and Abbood’s matching croon. The music may be foreign, but the sentiment certainly is not.

There are many other discoveries to be made during this rare insight into early 20th century Iraqi culture. The stories of the musicians known, the setting in which the recordings were made, the interwoven cultures and musical styles, and even pictures from the era are revealed within the immaculate packaging. And most importantly, it humanizes the region to those of us who only know its tumultuous contemporary setting. Everyone has felt the pain of unrequited love; it is one of the very few feelings each and every one of us can relate to.

By Michael Ardaiolo

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