Fathers of Modern Iraqi Music - World Jewish Congress
Fathers of Modern Iraqi Music
Dāʾūd & Ṣalāḥ al-Kuweiti

It has been said that no marriages could take place on Yom Kippur in Baghdad, because no wedding orchestra would be complete without its Jewish musicians. This is a testament to the importance of Jewish musicians within Iraqi society in the first half of the twentieth century. However, there is one duo whose importance in the music scene outweighs all others: the Kuwaiti brother, Dā’ūd and Ṣalāḥ, considered by many to be the founders of modern Iraqi music and whose legacy can be heard on radios across the Middle East to this day.

The brothers Dāʾūd (1910–1976) and Ṣalāḥ (1908–1986) al-Kuweitiwere born in the Sūq al-Yahūd (Ar. Jewish quarter (literally marketplace)) of Kuwait City to a family of Iraqi Jewish origin. Family lore states that when Ṣalāḥ was ten years old and his brother was eight, they were given a violin and an oud by their uncle and began studying music. Known as prodigies from a young age, Salah began composing popular instrumental music in the style of the Persian Gulf, collaborating with Bahrani and Kuwaiti artists, while Duad was a regular performer for the parties of the Kuwaiti elite. The first song the brothers arranged and performed, the traditional Kuwaiti Wallāh, ‘ajbanī jamalak [Oh My God, I Loved Your Beauty], remains a popular favorite on radio stations across the gulf, although it is unclear whether listeners realize this was the work of two Jewish brothers.

Dāʾūd & Ṣalāḥ al-Kuwaytī with Yūsuf Zaʿarūr and their group in Baghdad in 1935.
Dāʾūd & Ṣalāḥ al-Kuwaytī with Yūsuf Zaʿarūr and their group in Baghdad in 1935.

Eventually, sometime in the early 1930s, Dāʾūd and Ṣalāḥ moved to Iraq, which held the promise of a more dynamic music scene and also had a significantly larger Jewish community than Kuwait. In Baghdad, Salah helped found a modern school of Arabic music, the first of its kind in Iraq. Influenced by Egyptian trends in Arab music, he was known for incorporating European instruments such as cellos into traditional folk melodies. Over time, the brother’s renown grew, and they were regularly invited to accompany the leading Arab singers of their day. Most notably, in 1933, while visiting Baghdad, Umm Kulthum commissioned a song from Ṣalāḥ entitled Qalbak ṣakhar jalmūd  [Your Heart Is a Rock], which became a regular feature of her repertoire. Another major Egyptian musician, Muḥammed ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, established a long-term relationship with Ṣalāḥ after visiting Iraq in 1932. The brothers also performed for a virtual who’s who of the Arab aristocracy at the time, regularly playing for King Fayṣal I of Iraq and his son and successor Ghāzī, and also at the wedding of Mubārak al-Ṣabāḥ, the emir of Kuwait.

Ultimately, political tensions arising as a result of the creation of the State of Israel effectively ended the career of the Kuwaiti brothers in Iraq and compelled them to emigrate to Israel, along with the majority of the Jewish community of Iraq from 1949–1952. Following their departure from Iraq, their music continued to be played and well received; however, they were not credited as the artists when their recording played on the radio, their music simply being referred to as “folk music.” In 1972, Saddam Hussein went so far as to order the names of the al-Kuweiti brothers deleted from official publications and from the curricula of the Academy of Music in Baghdad.

In Israel, the Kuwaiti brothers remained popular among their fellow Iraqi Jews and were even given a weekly spot on Israeli radio. However, they never achieved the same recognition in Israel during their lifetimes as they did in Iraq. This changed thanks to the grandson and nephew of the Kuwaiti brothers, Dudu Tassa. In 2011, Tassa, a major figure in the Israeli rock scene, rediscovered the music of his family and founded a band called ”Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis.” His project led to a documentary entitled Iraq’n’Roll, which presented the story of lost Mizrahi culture by focusing on the Kuwaiti brothers, thus further raising their profile within Israel. 

Today, Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis perform new renditions of the al-Kuwaitis brothers’ traditional Iraqi songs at festivals all over the world, thus keeping the music alive and introducing it to a new generation.

  • Edwin Seroussi (2023). ‘Kuweiti, Salah and Daud, Al-’. Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Ed. Norman A. Stillman et al. Brill Reference Online.
About Iraq

The ancient city of Baghdad was once the vibrant heart of the Jewish diaspora. From 586 BCE, when Jews first settled in Mesopotamia after the destruction of the First Temple, to the flourishing community of the 20th century, Iraqi Jews played a significant role in the region.

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