- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 27, 2004

AMMAN, Jordan - There’s not another man like Ilham al-Madfai, the “Beatle of Baghdad,” in the entire Arab world.

From his penthouse home in Amman, the Iraqi musician known for his blending of traditional folkloric music with Latin and Spanish beats and rhythms, radiates a profound sense of wisdom. His gentle humility is surprising for a man who pioneered the crossover between Arabic and World music and has sold out venues regionally and internationally — from London to Qatar to Germany.

“(My) initial influences came from the U.S., but the new waves from England started to influence me — the Shadows, Cliff Richards, Elvis Presley, and Frank Lane,” Mr. Madfai says. “And then the Beatles came along.”

Mr. Madfai speaks in a soft voice, tracing his musical interests to his childhood in Baghdad. The piano and the oud (a Middle Eastern lute) caught his fancy, he explains, and by age 12 he and some friends began visiting a local institute to learn more about music. By 1959, Mr. Madfai had his first performance — with the Bingo Band at the Mashreq Club in Baghdad.

A guitarist at heart, Mr. Madfai formed the Twisters when he was 20. The ensemble was the first Iraqi band to use “modern” instruments — electric guitar, bass and drums — to play Arabic music, bringing a breath of fresh air to the Iraqi scene.

With the new instruments, he rejuvenated the traditional and folk songs of artists such as Nazem al-Ghazali by adapting various styles from the West. While his approach was initially controversial in the Arab world, he now seems to have been ahead of his time.

“The Twisters was a name derived from the Beatles’ famous song ‘Twist and Shout,’” Mr. Madfai says. “At the time I was a student, and every Sunday I used to perform Iraqi songs.”

The Beatles heavily influenced those songs, and it was in London that Mr. Madfai became known as the “Baghdad Beatle.” He chuckles while recalling those carefree days.

Mr. Madfai hardly seemed destined to become a singer. Like many Iraqis, he went to England to pursue an education. There, he began to study architecture. “No matter what we did, the main thing in our life is that we had to succeed in our studies,” Mr. Madfai says of that time.

Despite his studies, he still found time to play music with a group of young people at the Baghdad Cafe, where he got the chance to perform in front of some of his role models — including Paul McCartney, Donovan and Georgie Fame — in the 1960s. Although the original Baghdad Cafe is defunct, a new Baghdad Cafe has sprung up on Westbourne Grove.

With the onset of the 1967 war, Mr. Madfai’s carefree student days ended, and he was forced to return to Iraq. Back home, he formed the band 13-and-a-Half, and the Spanish guitar began to play a prominent role in his music. (The flamenco and Andalusian influence are immediately obvious on Mr. Madfai’s “Khuttar” album.) His guitar influences come from a number of sources, says Mr. Madfai, citing his admiration for Andres Segovia, the father of the modern classical guitar, and his love of the renowned Gipsy Kings.

“We do similar music (in Iraq), but we have different beats, rhythms and attitude,” he says. “I play the Oriental guitar,” he says, explaining that “the guitar itself can give you this influence.”

In 1979 Mr. Madfai and his family left Iraq for political reasons, an event that affected his music. He returned to his homeland after the 1991 Gulf War, but was prohibited from leaving the country. He fled to Jordan in 1994, leaving only for musical tours in the Gulf and in Europe.

“Baghdad,” Mr. Madfai’s new album — which debuted last year after the fall of the Iraqi capital — represents a break from his past. A fusion of different instruments and musical styles, the album offers a mix of sorrow and happiness.

“There was an influence of Latin and jazz mixed with songs of the desert, of the Bedouins and tribes,” Mr. Madfai says of the album, which sounds at times like Carlos Santana with a touch of Sting. “We had lyrics from popular songwriters and poets like Nizar Qabbani. I tried to combine the influence of ancient instruments with traditional Iraqi instruments. I was trying to prove that the instruments have no limit, that they can be part of our remembrance of Iraq.”

Iraq, which has had a traumatic history, is starting another chapter with the demise of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Mr. Madfai had hoped to go back to his homeland this year, but the deteriorating security situation isn’t encouraging for the musician.

“What’s happening in Iraq is catastrophic, and I hope it doesn’t continue for a long time,” he says.

Yet, with Saddam gone, Mr. Madfai is upbeat. There is a twinkle in his eye — one senses a positive, free outlook on life. He plans to produce three more albums in the coming year and promises more diversity with each.

What does the future hold? He hints that fans can expect Arabic, African, Italian and Spanish mixes, and even collaborations with big Western names.

And who knows? Maybe the new Iraq will soon be ready for the return of an old Beatle from Baghdad.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide