Abdullah Herki moans: “Get out! Where’s the groom? before his keyboardist embarks on a frenzied solo to get the wedding crowd dancing in Dohuk, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. Dancers intertwine their little fingers and the line dance winds around the hall, with the brother of the bride in front, twirling the cushion the newlyweds will later use to celebrate their wedding.
Kurdish weddings can last for days, reminiscent of a marathon. A wedding guest explained to Al-Monitor, “This is the moment we are all waiting for. Everything leads to marriage. Given the importance of weddings in Kurdish culture, musicians play a key role in maintaining a sound aesthetic for the party.
Since the Kurds in the Middle East are dispersed in different countries, it is more useful to compare the different varieties of Kurdish wedding music according to linguistic (Kurmanji, Sorani, Gorani and Zaza) or topographical (plains against mountains) criteria, rather than national borders. .
Kurdish wedding music emphasizes collective dancing. However, Kurds proudly point out that men and women frequently dance together. These wedding dances usually begin with simple line dances, but the complexity and speed of the dances builds throughout the night. Some dancers break out into expressive crises, either in a circle, a semi-circle, a duet or a solo. Divisions exist in the dances which run parallel to the linguistic divisions of the Kurdish language. The Kurmanji dancers stand upright with their hands straight at the sides – known as the “Kurdish grip” – and hop with sudden movements, while the Sorani dancers use simpler steps, rhythmically shifting their shoulders up. downstairs while swirling with the music.
The wedding musicians are historically of Dom or Roma origin, not ethnically Kurdish. In the second half of the 20th century, however, as Kurdish cultural expression was decriminalized and gained in autonomy and notoriety, ambitious Kurds began to participate more directly in wedding music.
The basis of wedding music traditionally features a zurna player, a wind instrument, and the dhol, a large cylindrical drum. Based on this model, musicians from different fields favor different types of instrumentation. In Qamishli, Nusaybin, and Midyat, along the Syrian-Turkish border, the kemanchah violin is used for regional wedding dances, while Kurmandji-speaking Kurds use the violin. In Iranian Kurdish towns, such as Mahabad and Bukan, the zarb, a cup drum, is a predominant influence.
Nowadays, the most eye-catching wedding dance pieces have gone electric, using smoky samples from a drum machine or an elektrobaglama, a string instrument similar to saz or lute. The duzula, a horn of Armenian origin, has been replaced in Sorani-speaking regions by the keyboard, and in communities along the Iran-Iraq border, some alliances even feature two keyboard players. The circle is complete, elektrobaglama, tanbur or saz players now imitate the high and energetic sounds of the zurna to speed up the tempo.
The group must be able to sense the energy of the crowd to create the tempo of the dance. “You want to push the crowd as much as you can,” said Badal Shamsani, who has been playing amplified saz since 1988. Interestingly, towards the end of the night, musicians can play popular non-Kurdish songs that reflect belonging. regional. a crowd; it can be dance music from Ankara, Arabesque, or Chobi, the Iraqi equivalent of dabke.
The arena for wedding musicians is competitive. Shorash Baker, from Afrin in northeastern Syria, spoke about the tight space. “The talent is great,” he said. “If you don’t have it, no one will hire you.” It was a big hit in Syria, being booked months in advance and sometimes happening at two weddings in one night. However, since settling in Germany, he has struggled to make a name for himself among the Kurds in the diaspora in Central Europe.
Ali Avriki, a popular wedding singer from a village just outside of Dohuk, is well known for his charismatic smile and good humor. He has performed traditional folk songs with a twist for over 20 years. Over the past two years, he started sharing his performances on Instagram and his popularity has taken off. This helped him land his best concert a few months ago in Zakho, a town on the Iraqi-Turkish border. “I got on stage and let out a big smile as my musicians started,” he said. “Everyone went wild.” It was originally scheduled to finish at midnight but performed well after 2 a.m. “No power cuts, no screaming children,” he said. The representation of the wedding was like a dream.
Code change and versatility are required on the part of musicians to create an intoxicating experience without crossing social and political lines. Internationally successful musician Omar Souleyman began his career performing at weddings in Hasakah, Syria. He employs a double musicality, alternating between Arabic and Kurmandji, depending on the crowd.
But even if they gauge atmospheres and measure audiences, the risks of occurring can be substantial. In 2018, two wedding singers were arrested for singing songs in Kurdish at a wedding in Istanbul. The Kurdish language was not decriminalized in Turkey until the early 1990s, leading to an increase in the number of professional wedding musicians.
George Murer, ethnomusicologist and documentary filmmaker, explained how the genre became electrified. “The godfather is Bismilli Zeko,” he said. “For wedding musicians in northwest Kurdistan, his stature is important as his contribution to the creation of an inspiring sound.”
Seid Gebari’s cassettes helped further popularize electrified Kurdish folk music at weddings, making the elektrobaglama a marketable sound. There is more and more experimentation, according to Murer, with musicians “beginning to merge the aesthetics of heavy rock guitar with the specific timbres and phrasing styles of often loud folk instruments such as the zurna and the kemanchah “.
Herki, student of Seid Gebari, tries to innovate constantly and perform original songs to stay on top of the genre. His flagship song, “Habibi Asmar Chokleta”, in 2012, was woven into a mix of Arab, Turkish, Kurmanji and Sorani influences.
Even successful singers have to endure a grueling and thankless schedule and a series of challenges. “I once accidentally sang the wrong name while welcoming the groom’s father,” Herki told Al-Monitor, recalling his embarrassment.
But that’s nothing compared to getting caught up in a fight between two family members or chasing a wedding host for the agreed upon rate. Perhaps the hardest part is being the face of the community during difficult times. A singer had to stop his performance and broke the unfortunate news that the brother of the bride had been killed by an Islamic State activist. The party then turned into a funeral.
Visas are another hurdle faced by singers trying to build a global audience. Avriki told Al-Monitor that the US consulate in Erbil had refused his visa three times. He had been invited to perform at weddings in Nashville, Tennessee, which has a large Kurdish population. Murer has repeatedly invited groups to major events, like SXSW, a music festival held in Austin, Texas, but has still failed to secure visas for them. “The United States Consulate in Ankara does not like giving visas to young working class people, with minimal education and no English,” he said, “even though they have been invited to participate in a festival ”.
Even though challenges abound, there is still hope that a global shift will occur, given how new this sound is today. Kurdish singers are influenced by rock, electronic dance music, hip-hop, and pop, which will inevitably lead the world music audience to develop a deeper appreciation for creativity from the Kurdish region. As musicians expect a larger and more diverse audience, there will always be another marriage to occur.