Iraqi-born pop star Kadim al-Sahir (also known as Kazem al-Saher) has sold more than 30 million records since he launched his career with a controversial single in 1987. His movie-star looks and gracious manner have earned al-Sahir immense celebrity in the Arab world and international recognition as well. His romantic ballads, sung entirely in Arabic, feature complex chord structures and lush orchestral accompaniments that include both traditional Arabic and Western instruments. While Saddam Hussein held power in Iraq, al-Sahir attempted to remain neutral on the subject of politics, but his songs resonated with legions of Iraqi expatriates worldwide. “Despite his attempts to steer clear of the political sphere,” wrote Leela Jacinto in an article that appeared on the ABC News website, “there’s little doubt that for most of his fans across national, political and sectarian divides, the handsome singer crooning his songs of love and yearning is a powerful symbol of the troubles that have wrecked his ancient homeland.”
Al-Sahir was born in 1961 in Nainawa, a village in northern Iraq, but grew up in Baghdad. His father was a minor government official who staffed one of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces. At age 12, he sold his bicycle and bought a guitar at the souk, or marketplace. He took lessons for a few months, and then wrote his first song in the classical Iraqi style known as maqam. His parents initially discouraged his pursuit of a musical career, he told ABC News. “My family wanted me to complete my studies, to have a stable career. I’m the seventh son of nine siblings and we all lived together in a very small house—it was a solid upbringing, but it was hard in those days, and my parents wanted me to be secure.”
Gradually, al-Sahir’s mother came to support his ambitions. As a teen, he wrote songs that were paeans to girlfriends, and even composed love letters that his brothers sent to their paramours. When interviewed by Banning Eyre for the Afropop Worldwide website, al-Sahir recalled an incident with one of his siblings, in which “my brother took me to the place where there are many artists. They don’t have work. They sit at the cafeteria, just waiting for a job or something. He said, ‘Look. These people don’t have jobs. They are artists. You will be like them.’ Then he took me to a big castle where there is a famous artist. He said, If you respect your music, and respect yourself, if you study well, you will be like him.’”
As a young man, al-Sahir spent six years at the Musical Institute of Baghdad, a center renowned for the study of classical Arabic music. He trained on the oud, a guitar-like instrument, but ran into trouble when some
For the Record…
Born in 1961 in Nainawa, Iraq; son of a palace worker; married (separated); children. Education: Attended Musical Institute of Baghdad, early 1980s.
Released first single, “Ladghat el Hayya” (The Snake Bite), 1987; signed to al-Nazaer label, 1988; released first LP, Ghazal: Abart al-Shat, 1989; made first U.S. tour, 1989; recorded duets with Sarah Brightman and Lenny Kravitz, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—EMI Records, 810 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019.
of his professors learned that he also wrote pop music. He had a difficult time breaking into the Iraqi music business as well, finding that producers wanted him to record songs they had written, not his own. At the time, Iraq’s devastating war with neighboring Iran was still raging—al-Sahir lost his best friend in the conflict. His first major hit, 1987’s “Ladghat el Hayya” (The Snake Bite) was a satire that was censored by the government for its lyrics about a man who is paralyzed by fear. A friend who was a television producer and director then came to his aid; the pair drove to the city of Mosul, and al-Sahir’s song was inserted into the television news report about the city. It became a huge hit in Iraq.
From there, al-Sahir signed with a record company in Kuwait, and found that his intelligent pop music had tremendous potential. “I used to watch singers and see what they were doing,” al-Sahir recalled in the Afropop interview with Eyre, “and I saw that if I just did classical, it would be much harder.” New York Times journalist Neil Strauss noted that al-Sahir “revived traditional romantic classical music and incorporated out-of-use Arabic musical scales, paved the way for other contemporary Iraqi singers to seek fame outside the country, collaborated with some of the Arab world’s finest poets and refused to replace his large orchestra with synthesizers.”
In 1989, the same year that his first album, Ghazal: Abart al-Shat, appeared, al-Sahir toured the United States for the first time. Two more pop records followed, but his homeland was again devastated by war, this time during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Al-Sahir, who lived in Baghdad at the time, was writing “Fi Madrasat Al Hob,” a song based on lyrics by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. As al-Sahir recalled in the Afropop Worldwide interview, he feared that, given the bombs falling on Baghdad, it would be the last song he wrote. “I even placed this song in a different room and I slept in another room so that just in case a bomb came, only one of us would go, the music or me,” he told Eyre. “And I wrote the letter. I put it with the song. If anyone found it, please respect the music and put it in the right way.”
Al-Sahir left Iraq after the end of the 1991 Gulf War. He settled in Jordan for a time, but found it difficult to travel and thus continue his career. After stops in Lebanon and Tunisia, he settled in Cairo and began recording again. Salamtek Min Al Ah, with its blend of pop sensibilities and both traditional and modern instruments, sold well throughout the Arab world and won critics abroad as well. A. J. Racy, an ethnomusicologist from the University of California at Los Angeles, told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jonathan Curiel that al-Sahir was “the gentleman of Arab pop. He’s rooted in Iraqi music, which has always suggested a sense of tradition for the Arab world. The Iraqi maqam system is very old and appeals to real connoisseurs. Kazem is capable of taking liberties with the music, to make it more ecstatic. He also uses poems by wellknown poets. And he composes his own music. Many pop singers rely on their producers to produce everything. All these things make him special.”
Al-Sahir’s 1998 release Ana Wa Laila (Me and Laila), his first for EMI, brought him wider international recognition. The title track—about a woman who will not let herself become involved with the pining narrator, because he is poor—became so successful that it ranked sixth in a 2002 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) poll of the world’s most popular songs. Another wellknown track is “Beauty and His Love,” in which a man’s girlfriend fears he has a found new love, which is revealed at the song’s close to be the city of Baghdad. The song resonated with millions of expatriate Iraqis, as evidenced by the rousing sing-alongs that ensued when al-Sahir performed it on a short American tour in early 2003.
The tour took place during the tense weeks just before an American and British-led overthrow of the Hussein regime, making it difficult for al-Sahir to get a visa to enter the country, even though he’d become a Canadian citizen. Strauss, the New York Times music critic, saw the first show and described al-Sahir as “at his exacting best, leading his band through a two-hour set. Keenly calibrating the mood of the audience, he constantly deviated from the set list, cut songs short and doubled the choruses of other hits, constantly challenging the 15 Arabic-American musicians performing with him for the first time. At the same time, he refused to play songs with complicated orchestrations—often stopping them after several seconds and then restarting—until the audience was playing full attention.” Al-Sahir and his band—which included renowned Arab-American musicians—made stops in Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco, receiving positive press in each city. He gave several interviews, often using a translator, and steered clear of overt political statements, lest there be repercussions for his family back in Baghdad. “I have a special mission in mind,” Kazem told Detroit Free Press writer Niraj Warikoo, “to remind people that Iraqis are good. They’re artists, philosophers, poets, they’re singers, writers. They’re a creative people, a peace-loving people.”
Al-Sahir recorded a duet with British actress and singer Sarah Brightman, “The War Is Over Now” and teamed with Lenny Kravitz for a song titled “We Want Peace.” He plans to record more songs in English and remains committed to furthering the cultural exchanges that have historically served to eradicate political strife. “In these difficult times today, I feel it is important for people to see the other face of the Iraqi people,” he asserted in the ABC News interview with Jacinto, “that we also have artists, poets, philosophers, writers and celebrities, that we also have a creative culture and it’s not just what they see on the news.”
Ghazal: Abart al-Shat, EMI, 1989.
Al Aziz, Al Nazaer, 1990.
Hada Alton, Stallions, 1992.
Banat Alaebak, Stallions, 1993.
La Ya Sadiki, Music Master, 1993.
Salamtek Min al-Ah, Rotana, 1994.
Ighseli Belbarad, Rotana, 1996.
Ana Wa Laila, EMI, 1998.
The Impossible Love (Al Hob al-Mustaheel), Ark 21, 2000.
Abhathu Anki, EMI, 2001.
Quasat Habebain, EMI, 2002.
Al Hob al-Mustaheel, EMI, 2003.
Baad al-Hob, EMI, 2003.
Fi Madrasat al-Hob, EMI, 2003.
Habibati Wai Malar, EMI, 2003.
Live Kadim, EMI, 2003.
Detroit Free Press, February 28, 2003.
Europe Intelligence Wire, March 26, 2003.
New York Times, February 26, 2003, p. E1.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 6, 2003, p. F1; March 10, 2003, p. D1; April 16, 2003, p. D1.
“The Iraqi Elvis,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com (July 1, 2003).
“Iraqi Star Tours U.S. and Sings of Baghdad,” Cairo Times,http://www.cairotimes.com (July 1, 2003).
“Kazem al-Sahir, 2003,” Afropop Worldwide, http://www.afropop.org (July 1, 2003).
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