KIRKUK, Iraq—Sounds of a thumping drum and entrancing flute drew residents of this northern city to their balconies recently in hopes of glimpsing a wedding party that never materialized.
The racket came from five burly men gathered in a back-alley shop to sing of misspent youth, two-timing sweethearts, martyred fighters and, above all, Kurdish independence. With closed eyes and honey-coated voices, the men revived songs that once were recorded in code and, in an attempt to boost morale, smuggled to militiamen hiding in the snow-capped mountains of northern Iraq, home to most of the country's Kurds.
The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime has allowed the once-forbidden Kurdish music to spread throughout the country. Even such unlikely fans as Arab taxi drivers and Turkmen teenagers are singing along with the renaissance of a culture that spent nearly three decades in obscurity.
"During Saddam's time, we had so much pressure on us that we could never even think of performing our songs on the TV or the radio," said Moayed Jawhad, a 28-year-old singer in a popular Kurdish wedding band. "Now the business is much better, deep inside we feel better and the music we're writing is much better."
Members of Jawhad's band, Razawa, were responsible for the music blasting through a Kirkuk neighborhood recently. In a freezing room overflowing with cigarette butts and pistachio shells, the men tried out an expensive new synthesizer that could spice up their folkloric songs with samples of a cell phone ringing, women shrieking and dozens of drum selections. The band members, most of them former militia fighters with missing teeth and faded tattoos, were delighted.
"This is how we'll keep the songs alive," said Sabah Hassan Ahmed, a 30-year-old singer. "We'll do remixes and speed up the tempo. These songs lived with us through everything. We can't leave them now."
Some songs they wouldn't dare change. The 1988 massacre at Halabja, where Saddam had 5,000 Kurds killed in a gas attack, inspired a body of mournful music usually accompanied by an ancient flutelike instrument called a nai.
The festive mood in the music shop turned somber as one band member whipped out a nai and played a slow, jazzy piece written for Halabja victims. His friends sang about a man who spoke out against Saddam and was never seen again.
Halabja wasn't the only inspiration for sad songs. After the former regime forcibly removed thousands of Kurds from the north during the process of "Arabization," many Kurds took refuge in Europe. The movement spawned songs of exile in which homesick musicians compared the vistas of Sweden to their own mountainous lands in Iraq.
"Beautiful poetry usually comes from people who've had lots of pain," Jawhad said. "Maybe that's why we have such good music."
The Kurdish music that makes its way to Baghdad, however, is usually the more upbeat wedding fare. Radio Sawa, the Arabic pop station overseen by the U.S. State Department, was the first real conduit of Kurdish music to residents in Iraq's capital. Dozens of Web sites and e-mail listservs since have helped Kurdish music spread to far-flung cities. On any given day, Iraqi radio and satellite television feature politically charged songs that assert a long-stifled identity.
"Why are you still wearing that black robe?" one popular tune goes. "The old fashions are gone now. Wear Kurdish clothes!"
One of the hottest artists is Zakaria, a handsome young singer who's the Kurdish equivalent of Western pop star Ricky Martin. Music vendors in Baghdad said they sold out of Zakaria's albums quickly, mostly because of new Arab fans who first heard him on Radio Sawa.
"I love the music, and I'm learning the words," said Retah Behnan, a 24-year-old Arab listener. "Hearing Kurdish music on the radio really makes you feel the change in Iraq. Besides, Arabic music all the time is boring."
The Kurdistan Artists Union in Sulaimaniyah, considered the cultural capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, is celebrating the revival with festivals and releases from new artists.
Many musicians said they served long prison terms for performing anti-Saddam concerts and were prevented from seeking fine arts degrees at Iraqi universities. Anwar Karadghi, a violinist and longtime member of the artists' union, heads a music group founded after the 1991 uprising against the former regime, which resulted in a self-governed Kurdistan.
"Under Saddam, our music existed in a fog," Karadghi said. "We were never allowed to tour, never allowed to travel. But each house here has an instrument or an artist who loves their music just as they love their land. Art was how we expressed our yearning for freedom."
Samples of Kurdish music are available on the Internet at:
http://multimedia.realcities.com:8080/ramgen/bayarea/contracostatimes/kurd(underline)music/diya(underline)qeredaxi.mp3 (MP3 format, performer Diya Qeredaxi)
http://multimedia.realcities.com:8080/ramgen/bayarea/contracostatimes/kurd(underline)music/diya(underline)qeredaxi.rm (RealAudio format, performer Diya Qeredaxi)
http://multimedia.realcities.com:8080/ramgen/bayarea/contracostatimes/kurd(underline)music/zakaria.mp3 (MP3 format, performer Zakaria)
http://multimedia.realcities.com:8080/ramgen/bayarea/contracostatimes/kurd(underline)music/zakaria.rm (RealAudio format, performer Zakaria)
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ban Adil contributed to this article.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): kurdmusic