Singing in Arabic, an Israeli musician is winning over listeners from Tel Aviv to Baghdad, covering tunes by his grandfather and great uncle, an Iraqi Jewish duo who were once two of the Arab world’s most famous performers.
Dudu Tassa’s new album, el-Hajar, which in Arabic means “exile,” is a mash-up of modern takes on melodies made popular by his ancestors, the late Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti, who fled from Iraq to Israel close to 70 years ago.
“Over there, they owned a club and played in major concert halls,” Tassa said, adding that his grandfather’s music was adored by Faisal II, the last King of Iraq.
“In Israel, they ended up playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs,” Tassa, 42, said. “There was a real sense of pain there. It wasn’t easy for them.”
The musician’s family was among the tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews who fled in the mid-20th century to Israel, whose creation in 1948 and successive defeats of Arab armies caused bursts of popular anger and violence against Jews.
Saddam Hussein ordered the Kuwaiti brothers’ names removed from Iraq’s national archives after coming to power in 1979, Tassa says.
Today, some 600,000 Israelis, out of a population of close to 9 million, can claim a measure of Iraqi ancestry - a trace of history Tassa and his band, The Kuwaitis, have brought to light through their three Arabic-language albums.
“We get reactions from all over the Arab world, on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram,” Tassa, who regularly sells out concerts in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities, said. “They send us messages from Iraq and Baghdad saying, ‘Come perform, come perform’.”
One fan in Baghdad, Fatima Kabbani, said Tassa’s grandfather established the modern Iraqi song.
“We love Dudu not only because he is the grandson of al-Kuwaiti, but because he has his own unique style,” Kabbani, 24, said while streaming Tassa’s music from a park near the University of Baghdad.
“He is a singer and an artist, and art has nothing to do with politics,” Kabbani said.