Saturday 30 June 2012

Ilana Eliya - Kurdish Jewish music - in Tottenham!

Iraqi Kurdistan once had a population of 25,000 Jews - descendants of the Israelites driven into exile by the Assyrians. Now there are none. Almost all of them left in the 1950's as part of a great exodus of Iraqi Jews precipitated by virulent anti-semitism in the rest of Iraq (although not it seems in Kurdistan) and a desire to be part of the newly re-established state of Israel.

Today there are around125,000 Israelis who can claim descent from the Jews of Kurdistan. As well as being Israelis they have preserved their Kurdish culture, particularly their music and tonight I was privileged to attend a concert of Ilana Eliya, the queen of Kurdish Jewish music. Born in Jerusalem to Kurdish parents, Ilana explained that when younger she was solely interested in western music but returned to Kurdish music following the death of her father, a cantor and collector of traditional songs from Kurdistan. She remembered watching her father listen to Radio Kurdistan on short wave in Jerusalem and making recordings. She also spoke about her mother and in the second set of the evening wore her mother's beautiful Kurdish wedding dress.

Ably supported by Daphna Sadeh and the Voyagers (who I have already written about, here), Ilana quickly won over the audience of around 70 people at the Bernie Grant Cultural Centre in Tottenham, working her way through a variety of love songs in Kurdish and Hebrew as well as performing one song - Leil Huza - in Aramaic. This song commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples on the fast of Tisha B'Av.

Ilana's voice is clear, powerful and expressive. She is able to move quickly from joyful songs such as Nawrose where she wishes the audience a happy spring festival to the searing pain of Fermane (Devastation) and I Felek (Oh Fate). Both of these songs tell the story of the suffering of the Kurds, without their own homeland. Fermane is particularly powerful. She explained that the song is about the town of Halabja, chemical bombed by Saddam Hussein in 1988 resulting in at least 5,000 deaths.

Her passionate singing of Fermane held the audience spellbound. But Ilana also knows how to start a party and whilst the Voyagers played Debka, she led several members of the audience in a performance of this traditional dance, snaking around the stage, scarves waiving and the rest of the audience clapping in time. Closing with Az Kevukem (Like a Partridge), she again had the audience on their feet, including an impromptu performance by a belly dancer (!) and was given the standing ovation she so richly deserved. I should also mention the Voyagers - Daphna Sadeh as dependable as ever on double bass and as musical director, Stewart Curtis delighted on flute, clarinet and saxophone, whilst Nim Schwartz and Guy Schalom shone on oud and saz and on middle eastern percussion respectively.

The concert was part of a series of events organised by Gulan - a charitable organisation that seeks to promote and preserve Kurdish culture, including minority Kurdish cultures and followed another terrific event held on Thursday evening at the Royal Geographical Society. Music also featured on Thursday evening, as well as a wonderful exhibition of photographs of Kurdistan taken in the 1940's by Anthony Kersting (1916-2008) who travelled widely in the middle east and was a leading architectural photographer of his generation. If only there had been a catalogue! I particularly liked the scenes from Erbil market and from the town of Amadia - the shaded stalls and store keepers, melons piled high in a small shop and the imposing walls of Erbil's citadel.

As if this wasn't enough, the highlight of the evening was Ariel Sabar talking about his book My Father's Paradise. The book tells how Ariel, in his younger days indifferent to his father's culture and origins, began to want to know more and eventually made a journey back to Zakho to look for physical traces of the history of the Kurdish Jews. His father, Yona, is a world expert on Aramaic, the language of the Bible and the original language of the Kurdish Jews and was also present. Yona took questions from the audience, several of whom had links with Zakho and who were clearly delighted to hear his stories of life there. He told about his childhood and education, about the position of women in Zakho society and about the mutual respect the Jewish, Muslim and Christian residents of the town had for each other. As well as respecting each other's festivals and sharing in their major life events, Yona told how in the late 1940's a group of mullahs arrived in Zakho with the intention of stirring up anti-semitism, but were told to leave by local Muslims.

Interestingly, there is a good relationship between the Kurds and Israel, including an Israel-Kurdistan magazine published regularly in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq. These two events have whetted my appetite to know more about this ancient community and about Kurdistan. You might be surprised to know that its relatively easy to visit Iraqi Kurdistan which is both stable and peaceful, with at least one travel agent, the specialist Undiscovered Destinations, offering group tours there. Its already on my list!

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