Fricke's Picks: Baghdad Blues

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Iraq was a young, artificially created nation — carved from the defeated Ottoman Empire by Britain and France after World War I — when the Gramophone Company, the British label that eventually became EMI, recorded the 22 beautiful, haunting 78s collected on Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted — Baghdad 1925-1929 (Honest Jon's). The country was, even then, under occupation (by Britain) and riven by sectarian violence, and these stark, impassioned performances by local singers and instrumental virtuosos reflect the daily, unpredictable dramas of love and survival: the elegant piercing wail of Siddiqa El Mullaya; the majestic sorrow of Kementchedji Alecco's Kurdish-violin improvisation; the frenzied-Coltrane ecstasy of the zourna (a kind of wild oboe) coursing through "Ya Yumma Weya Baba" by Mulla Abdussaheb. There is a precious unity here, too. Jewish musicians back Arab singers; rural dance music is played with city-market verve; spiritual reflection is sung with carnal force; songs of romance are rendered like hymns. For a few moments, on these ancient records, Baghdad sounds like paradise — one still within reach.

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