The Iraqi Music Festival has become a fixture in my cultural calendar. How do I love it? I could count the (many) ways – but I’ll sum it up with three main points:
1.Heritage/folkloric traditions and contemporary culture are showcased together
Sometimes there’s this divide in the arts/cultural psyche between heritage practices (often seen as outdated, irrelevant and/or amateur) and contemporary practices (often viewed more favourably in the current climate where that loaded and kind of ambiguous word, “innovation”, is used as a marker of value or excellence).
But last night’s showcase music event at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre saw traditional dress/dance/music interspersed with more modern forms in the same program. And this concert sat within the overarching Iraqi Cultural Festival program that comprised of: a visual arts exhibition and program of events by Iraqi-Australian artists exploring memory of place, storytelling and identity; award winning new short films made by Iraqis living in Australia and abroad; and a keynote address by director, producer and civil activist, Mohamed Al-Daradji.
What this annual festival does so beautifully is to ignore that stigma around folkloric forms by placing them within the continuum of cultural expression as it evolves and responds to changing times and environments. And what the festival achieves is even more beautiful – it acts as a vehicle to connect people across place, time and cultures (within and outside of the various Iraqi cultures it represents). So, in that sense it is both a balm for the displaced and a thread pulling tightly across generations and homelands.
2.Arabic audiences know exactly when to clap
There’s a circular debate that’s been running forever in Western classical music circles – that of when an audience “should” clap. We could learn a lot from Arabic audiences I think. There is a definite etiquette around clapping of course. Eg: you clap at the end of a solo/improv section and at the end of each song, but Arabic audiences are also cued to clap and join in the singing at times by the singer on stage. And when they are cued, they respond, en masse and in sync. The audience almost becomes part of the performance, as the music is experienced and enacted together by performers and audience.
And cheering… well… you can do that whenever the mood takes you. And the mood took the guy sitting behind me often. It was great! And if you want to click your fingers, clap along or sway in your seat, or even answer your phone mid-concert (like the guy beside me) … get this… no one cares! No one tut-tuts you or scowls at you. How wonderful, how refreshing… how freeing as an audience member. [Disclaimer: there’s a time and a place for this stuff, right? Don’t blame me if you get chastised for taking duck-faced selfies mid-act at the opera, k?]
3.The inner workings of the ensemble are laid bare on stage
The other really refreshing aspect of the performance last night was just how interactive the musicians on stage were with each other. Head nods, hand cues, big conducting signals at pivotal moments by the leading performer were all just naturally and authentically part of the performance. There was also banter between performers on stage (what looked like in-jokes being shared) and a photographer traversing the stage to get the shots he needed, interacting with musicians and audience while doing so… again…. no one seemed offended in the slightest.
This view into the workings of the ensemble and a performance is exciting for audiences and makes the experience all the more inviting. You feel privy to the (often hidden) dynamics of the ensemble and that just adds a whole other layer of interest and engagement.
There’s a lot more that I loved about the Iraqi Music Festival, not the least of which is the fact that we are lucky enough to have a maestro like Imad Rahem (pictured above playing violin) grace local stages, or the fact that this music resonates with me on a personal level because of the similarities between it and the music of my cultural inheritance… but I might post about those things another time.