Iraqi musician Ilham al-Madfai is credited with being the first artist to combine modern musical instruments with the Arabic genre. He formed his first band in the 1960s, and since then has traveled the world performing his music. He is currently working with Iraqi musicians overseas in developing their talent on the BBC's new show "World Routes Academy."
On his return from Copenhagen, Mawtani spoke to Ilham in Amman, Jordan, about his upcoming work and the current state of Iraqi music.
Mawtani: Why did you visit Copenhagen?
Ilham al-Madfai: I was part of a BBC team that spent a considerable time working on music shows, such as "World Music" and "World Routes." An academy was established for migrant Iraqi youth currently residing in the UK, Europe and the United States. These young people used to play in just the Western genre, but have now gone back to their Iraqi roots and are re-discovering their indigenous culture, language and folklore songs. I was selected to help these young people, discover their talents and bring them to the world stage. So the purpose of my visit to Copenhagen with the BBC team was to announce the idea of the music academy at the World Music Festival.
Mawtani: Has the academy been launched? And what are its goals?
Al-Madfai: The academy has been launched, actually. The show will air February 10th from London. We will be sending Iraqi young people to Lebanon, Syria and Istanbul so they will get to know more about Arab music and contribute to the Arab music scene.
Mawtani: Tell us about your latest album "Dishdasha."
Al-Madfai: The album includes eleven traditional songs and was released last March. It was produced by the now Dubai-based EMA, after their Beirut office closed down. The release of the album was delayed because of a change in management. The new contract includes producing another new album.
Mawtani: Does "Dishdasha" include songs in foreign languages?
Al-Madfai: Yes, the album includes a song in Italian and another in English. In that particular album, I sought to create a nice blend between traditional and foreign music.
Mawtani: Previously you dedicated a song in Erbil called "Peace to Iraq from Ilham." Now that you have a very busy agenda, where does Iraq fit in your plans?
Al-Madfai: It is an honor for me, as an Iraqi artist, to sing for peace in my homeland, Iraq, despite what all the critics say. Iraq is very much alive in my heart, notwithstanding the criticism leveled against my music, which has become popular.
Mawtani: What do you make of that criticism?
Al-Madfai: This is not what I want to talk about. I want to point out the richness of our original and traditional music. No one is making new contributions in that direction, when we badly need to preserve our musical heritage. This begs the question: how many Iraqi artists give due attention to the music and lyrics of Iraqi music? Artistic freedom is not just about dancing. It is about preserving the kind of music that mirrors our culture.
Mawtani: Aside from the show on the BBC, how can you offer to help the new generation of Iraqi artists?
Al-Madfai: I am not the one who should be extending help. Rather, new Iraqi singers should be expected to preserve Arab music and pay special attention to our musical heritage on their own. Iraqi singers need to dig up Iraqi songs and work on developing them.
Mawtani: Lastly, tell us about your work with Mario Reyes of the Gypsy Kings.
Al-Madfai: I was selected because I am from Iraq and because my singing style is similar to the band's style. They were looking for a voice from Iraq, and chose me. I sang "Habibi leh," which they included on their album.
PHOTO: [File] Ilham thinks new Iraqi artists should not forget about their roots.