Iraqi musical legend ‘Ilham’ longs to get back on stage

“After the absence, you must come back, your dream is a cloud, your sadness is a mirage,” sings the 79-year-old veteran performer with the world-weary voice, as he strums a guitar.
Sunday 21/03/2021
Iraqi musician Ilham al-Madfai, is pictured with his guitar in the ruins of the Amman Citadel in the Jordanian capital. (AFP)
Iraqi musician Ilham al-Madfai, is pictured with his guitar in the ruins of the Amman Citadel in the Jordanian capital. (AFP)

AMMAN--The Arab world’s favourite troubadour Ilham al-Madfai, who last year had to perform to an empty Roman amphitheatre and scrub concert dates across Europe and the Gulf, can’t wait to get back on stage.

Unveiling his latest work in Amman where he has lived since 1994, the Iraqi star widely known as simply Ilham has tried to break free of the shackles imposed by Covid-19 with a song of hope entitled “After the Absence”, taken from a poem by Omar Sari, a young Jordanian.

“After the absence, you must come back, your dream is a cloud, your sadness is a mirage,” sings the 79-year-old veteran performer with the world-weary voice as he strums a guitar.

“Come back tenderly, your voice rings in my ears, leave behind the sadness, forget the past,” read the lyrics of the song posted this week on YouTube, in which Madfai is accompanied by young Iraqi-Egyptian female vocalist Nadin Al Khalidi, also on guitar.

Ilham was a dashingly-handsome rebel in his younger days, replacing the stringed oud and qanun, the flute and violin with electric guitar, piano, drums and saxophone, to the delight of young Arabs if not musical purists.

That dates back to his time in London in the 1960s where he had been sent to study architecture like his two brothers and their sister.

Later, he blended in the traditional instruments in a fusion of the East and West, an Arab jazz crossover with a flavour of Andalusia, accompanying European songs with Middle Eastern sounds and also vice versa.

 Upbeat rhythm 

“In Arabic, the instrumental intros are endless and the melodies sad,” the musician nicknamed “The Baghdad Beatle” said.

“Me, I shortened the opening and chose the instrument which adds an upbeat rhythm and stays in the listener’s ear,” Madfai explained.

The lyrics of most of his songs, apart from those he writes himself, come from ancient poetry and Iraqi folk music.

“I interpret them by mixing in musical influences that I’ve discovered,” said Madfai, whose work has inspired a generation of modern artists in the region.

Iraqi musician Ilham al-Madfai, is pictured in the ruins of the Amman Citadel, overlooking the Jordanian capital Amman. (AFP)

“All I’ve done is reinvent old Iraqi songs for them to survive the passage of time.”

Madfai, who grew up in a house filled with music, hopes he helped “save the heritage of Iraqi songs from oblivion”.

“Men, women, children, everybody would sing at our house. I grew up nurtured by love of music,” he fondly recalled, harking to the Baghdad of the 1950s as a cultural oasis where he said as many as 85 women singers alone performed in different clubs.

In his apartment in the upmarket district of Abdoun, among the books, paintings and a large portrait of his wife Hala who died in 2014, Madfai spends his time sketching, composing music, writing poetry and, of course, singing.

But he is anxious to spread his wings again and get back on stage before live audiences. He also longs for his old haunts in Baghdad.

“We must carry on singing whatever happens, to send a message of hope out to the world, because music is the universal language of the people,” he said.

“It crosses borders and reaches all parts of the world.”

Baghdad cafe 

Coronavirus lockdowns and his isolation have left him frustrated. “If the pandemic carries on much longer, I’ll open the window and sing from the balcony like Europeans have done.”

Last May, Madfai and his band gave a closed-door concert at Amman’s 6,000-capacity Roman amphitheatre, broadcast on Iraqi and Jordanian television.

The musical legend who now also holds Jordanian citizenship had to call off 2020 concert dates in  Britain, Germany, Sweden, Italy and the Gulf.

He has crossed the globe and performed at prestigious venues such as London’s Royal Albert Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall as well as Le Trianon theatre in Paris, but his heart yearns to sing again in Baghdad’s modest Al-Zahawi café.

“We’ve all left our country for a variety of reasons. It’s true that I live in Jordan but I remain an Iraqi attached in every way to my native land.”

Al-Zahawi café, established in 1917, sits on a corner of the Iraqi capital’s famed Moutanabi Street where book fairs are held every Friday.

It owes its own spot on Baghdad’s cultural map to legends of the traditional Iraqi “maqam” music such as Mohammad al-Qubanji and Youssef Omar.

“It’s on this little Moutanabi Street, where writers, intellectuals, musicians and artists of all religions cross paths, and which breathes culture, that I dream to go to and sing again after the pandemic,” said Madfai, who last played back home three years ago.