The Maqam of Iraq

Amir ElSaffar 

 Maqam is the urban classical vocal tradition of Iraq. Found primarily in the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra, the maqam repertoire draws upon musical styles of the many populations in Iraq, such as the Bedouins, rural Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen as well as neighboring Persians, Turks, and other populations that have had extensive contact with Iraq throughout history. The use of the word maqam in Iraq is distinct from its use in the rest of the Arab world and Turkey, where the term refers to a musical mode on which compositions and improvisations are based. In Iraq, maqam refers to the composition itself.    

The exact beginning of the maqam tradition in Iraq is unknown, and is a subject of debate among maqam musicians and connoisseurs. Some believe that the maqam is a several hundred years old tradition, brought in by the conquering Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Others postulate that it began during the Abbasid period (8th-13th century A.D.), when Baghdad was the seat of the Islamic caliphate and was a great center of art, learning, and technological achievement. Still others believe that the maqam may reach to a much further past, to Iraq’s ancient civilizations, the Babylonian or perhaps the Sumerian.

Until the 20th century, the maqam was ubiquitous in the urban centers of modern-day Iraq, its melodies heard in various settings. In religious contexts, maqam melodies were used in the call to prayer, during mawlud rituals (celebrations of the birth of the prophet Mohammed), as well as in Qur’anic recitation. Maqam was also sung in the zurkhanes (athletic houses), to energize the participants performing physical activity. It was even sung by street vendors advertising their products. Tradition often dictated which types of vendors would sing what melodies. Formal maqam concerts took place in private homes during celebrations and in gahawi (coffeehouses), which were the primary venues for maqam performance.

There were several coffeehouses in Baghdad that specialized in maqam. Among these were Gahwat Shaabander, Gahwat al-Qaysariya, and Gahwat ‘Azzawi. These places functioned both as performance spaces as well as institutions wherein the maqam was transmitted. During the day, experts, amateurs, and novices, known collectively as ushshaaq al-maqam, or lovers of the maqam, would sit for hours, philosophizing about the inner meanings of a maqam melody, discussing a particular maqam’s possibilities, debating who was a more skilled singer, or critiquing a recent performance. Every evening in these gahawi, a maqam concert would take place that, when performed in its complete sequence, would last about nine hours.

The main performer was the qari’ (pl. qurra’), or reciter. The word qari’, which is the same word used for a Qur’an reciter, was used, as opposed to mughenni, or singer, to emphasize the spiritual nature of the maqam and to elevate the maqam to a status higher than other, lighter vocal genres, which were not held in such esteem. These qurra’ were usually craftsmen or merchants, coming from the lower strata of Baghdadi society, for whom singing was a not a full-time profession. Most did not have a formal education, and some were even illiterate, yet they were masters of a highly intellectual, complex vocal form, which could be perfected only after years of disciplined, concentrated work. They also possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of Arabic poetry, from which they would choose lines to recite to a maqam. When performing a maqam, the qari’ would enter a state of deep spiritual exaltation, which would spread to the listeners in the room, who would often let out expressions of joy and ecstasy, engaging in an interplay and exchange of emotion with the performers.

In performance, the qari’ was accompanied by a four-piece ensemble, known as a chalghi baghdadi, which consisted of a jowza (a four-stringed spike-fiddle with a coconut shell resonator), a santur (a box-zither with steel strings, played with wooden sticks), a dumbug (goblet-shaped drum), a riqq (tambourine), and naqqarat (two small kettle drums played with sticks).

Elements of the Maqam:

Each maqam is a semi-improvised musical recitation of poetry, performed within a formal structure that governs the use of melodies, structure, rhythm, and poetic genre. The following details apply specifically to the maqamat of the Baghdadi repertoire.


The Baghdadi maqam system consists of some 100 melodies, each of which has a unique name, and to which is often ascribed some other attribute: an association with a geographical region, a tribe, a historical event or person, or some other aspect of Iraqi society. These melodies are performed in a rhythmically free and semi-improvised manner, with ample room for interpretation, ornamentation, and variation, such that every performance is unique. Each singer is expected to develop a personal approach to performing these melodies. What must remain in any interpretation is the ruhiyya (spirit or spiritual essence) of each given melody. Totally free improvisation does not exist in maqam performance.


Each melody in a maqam composition functions as one of six structural components that make up the maqam’s form. These components are the tahrir, which is the opening melody/main theme that is repeated throughout the maqam; qita‘ (sing. qita‘a) and awsal (sing. wusla), or secondary melodies, which form the building blocks of the composition; the meyana, or climax, which is usually a qita‘a or a wusla sung in the high register; a small cadence known as a jelsa, which precedes the meyana; a qarar, or a descent into the lower register; and the teslim, which is the final, closing cadence that signals the end of the maqam and the coming pesteh (defined later). Each maqam begins with a tahrir and concludes with a teslim, and contains one or more of the rest of the structural components. Some maqamat follow a predetermined sequence of melodies that each performer is expected to adhere to, whereas others contain a relatively free form.


Poetic tradition and the maqam are closely intertwined in Baghdadi culture. Most maqam listeners are also avid readers of poetry, and pay as much attention, if not more, to the words of the poem as they do to the musical aspects of a maqam performance. At its essence, maqam singing is a form of poetic recitation.

The rules of performance practice dictate which genre of poetry is sung with each maqam, although the choice of the specific poem is left to the singer. Almost all of the maqamat use one of two genres of poetry. The first, known as the qasida (pl. qasa’id), is an ode written in Classical Arabic and is found throughout the Arab world. The second genre of poetry, called zuheiri, is a native Iraqi form that is sung in Iraqi dialect. It consists of seven lines, arranged according to the rhyme scheme AAA BBB A, where the final word of each line is homophonous, but yields a different meaning in each repetition. Several maqamat were traditionally sung with Turkish or Persian poems, though in recent years, these poems have been replaced by qasa’id.


Although maqam singing is rhythmically free, many maqamat contain a rhythm, or iqa‘ (pl. iqa‘at), which is performed by the accompanying instruments. In the Baghdadi maqam repertoire, eight iqa‘at are used (six of which are heard on this recording). Each iqa‘ is performed on the percussion instruments as a pattern of “dums” (sustained, low-pitched strokes) and “teks” (short, high-pitched strokes) and silences that fit into a meter of a fixed number of beats. The iqa‘ and the melodies exist concurrently, converging and diverging spontaneously, creating a polyrhythmic effect.

The Classification of the Iraqi Maqam by Mode

In Baghdad, there are approximately 56 maqamat (this number varies according to different sources). From each maqam can be extracted a seven-note mode, or scale, on which the tahrir and other melodies are based. Maqamat are classified based on their mode, which results in eight families, which are Rast, Bayat, Hijaz, Segah, Nawa, Hussaini, Ajam, and Saba. Almost all maqamat fit into one of these families.

Each family has a primary maqam, which bears the name of the mode, and several secondary maqamat. The primary maqamat tend to have a fixed sequence and long, elaborate structures, whereas the secondary maqamat are often of a lighter and simpler nature, though there are exceptions.

Additional Musical Pieces, Muqaddima and Pesteh:
In performance, each maqam is preceded by a rhythmic instrumental piece, known as a muqaddima, and is followed by one or more pestat (sing. pesteh). Pestat are rhythmic songs with repetitive melodies that often contain simple, humorous, texts dealing with day-to-day life and various aspects of society. The light-hearted nature of the pesteh serves to counterbalance the heavy, complex, introspective nature of the maqam. Members of the instrumental ensemble and the audience usually join in singing these songs. Unlike the maqamat, these songs have remained popular in Iraq to the present day.


Some Performance History:
Neil van der Linden

The first figure to emerge as a maqam singer and composer in the modern sense was Rahmat Allah Shiltegh (1798-1872), of Turkmen origin. Many of his compositions have been preserved. The ones to follow him were Ahmad Zaydan (1820-1912), Antun Dayi (1861-1936), Rachid Al-Qundarchi (1887 – 1945), Salman Moshe (1880-1955), Yousouf Huraish (1889-1975), Najim Al-Sheikhli (1893-1938), Mohammed Al-Qubanchi (1900–1989), Salim Shibbeth (1908- ?), Hassan Chewke (1912-1968), Sadiqa Al-Mulaya (1901 to 68) and Hassan Daoud (years of lifespan not known to author).

A landmark event for Iraqi maqam was the international conference on Arabic music held in Cairo in 1932. There the legendary Mohammed Al-Qubanchi and his ensemble performed. Qubanchi is reputed for having ‘modernised’ maqam, choosing for a style emphasising on the expression and pronunciation of sung text. It is noteworthy that six out of seven of his accompanying musicians were Jewish-Iraqis.

The 1950s brought a surge in Iraq’s prosperity, and a vibrant urban life to Baghdad. A student of Mohammed Al-Qubanchi, Nathem Al-Ghazali (1910–1963) put his mark on the Iraqi music of this period, focusing on the light side of the maqam by mainly singing its pestehs. While apparently most of the Iraqi music is too Iraqi for the rest of the Arabic world, Nathem Al-Ghazali succeeded in becoming a household name all over the Arab world.

Nathem Al-Ghazaly’s wife Selima Murad (1902–1974), of Jewish origin, not known outside Iraq, except for the Iraqi immigrants in Israel, is still Iraq’s most popular female singer of the past. Another popular student of Al-Qubanchi was Yousouf Omar (1918–1986).

Outside an occasional success like Mohammed Al-Qubanchi’s performance in Cairo and Nathem Al-Ghazali, who in the past was the only Iraqi maqam singer to gain a wide popularity in the Arabic world Iraqi (with the pestehs and other lighter repertoire), maqam never became familiar in the general Arab world. This may be due to geographical conditions, the specific dialects of Arab spoken in Iraq (also preserved by the country’s relative isolation), its closeness to un-Arab musical traditions and the fact that Kurdish, Persian and Turkish were quite commonly spoken in Iraq, plus the fact that Egypt’s music and films dominated the Arab culture of the 20th century.

Modernity and globalisation tend to press traditions like maqams to margins, but even in the nineties the names of Mohammed Al-Qubanchi, Yousouf Omar, Selima Murad and Nathem Al-Ghazali were still household names given the amounts of cassettes of their recordings that were found in common homes, including those of the lower middle classes. But since then first the continuation of the economic boycott and after that the recent war and the ensuing current strife have taken their toll on the practice of maqam.

However, the Iraqi maqam meanwhile started a new, although in principle alienated life outside the country.

Munir Bashir (1930-1997) was a popular Iraqi performer and composer who adopted maqams for solo ‘ūd. This repertoire gained popularity outside Iraq as well, before and after he emigrated in 1993. But outside Iraqi the popularity was limited to Western world music stages and festivals in the Arabic world. With the growing interest in ‘world music’ and its commercialisation, a certain generation of maqam singers from Iraq enjoyed global success in this niche of the music industry. Hussein Al-Athami, Farida Mohammed Ali and the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble are noteworthy. Hussein Al-Athami (b. 1952) lives in Amman, while Farida Mohammed Ali (b. 1963) and her ensemble settled in Holland. Hamid Al-Saadi, a student of Yousouf Omar, lived in the United Kingdom for a while. Recently he was rumoured to have migrated back to Iraq. The young American singer and musicologist of Iraqi origin Amir El-Saffar, educated as a jazz trumpet player, is now taking up the tradition. Maybe his scholarly knowledge of the maqam, in combination with his training as a jazz musician, will inject new life into the Iraqi maqam. Of course artists like Hussein Al-Athami and Farida Mohammed Ali and the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble enjoy a warm welcome among the Iraqi diaspora. But even then it is difficult to assess whether this will remain a living tradition and not mostly nostalgia.

There are pockets of continued living practice in Iraq, but the situation is of course difficult. Recently a festival on maqam organised by the Ministry of Culture in Baghdad was held in the Northern Kurdish town of Suleymania instead (which had political reasons as well).

So inside Iraq maybe there is not enough practice possible for a viable life of Maqam, while outside the maqam has become object of festival culture, risking to become a festival-friendly artifact, and on the other hand risking becoming an object of musicological museology instead of a living art. Through these circumstances the actual development of the maqam has mostly come to a standstill.

Some links to the audio and videoclips:

Nathim Al-Ghazali:


Abudhia by Mohammed Al-Qubanchi in Berlin where Electrola invited him to record
Abudhia by Mohammed Al-Qubanchi

For more audio examples:ām _Mawwal.htm

Some more introductions to Iraqi music:

-- Scheherazade Hassan, A space of inclusiveness: The case of the art music of Iraq, in: International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, 1:1, 2008. Intellect Journals, London.

-- Scheherazade Hassan, Tradition et modernisme: le cas de la musique au Proche-Orient, in: Musique et anthropologie. L'Homme: Revue française d'anthropologie. 171:172, 2004, pp. 353-369. Paris.

-- Scheherazade Hassan, Al mosika al 'arabiya al klassikiyya wa makanataha fil-mujtama' al 'arabi al mu'asir, Classical Arabic Music: its position in Contemporary Arab Society, in: Archeology of Literature: Tracing the Old in the New, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics. 24, 2004, pp. 27-57. American University of Cairo.

-- Scheherazade Hassan, Musique Arabe: Le Congres du Caire de 1932, in: Yearbook for traditional music 1994

-- The Repertoire of Iraqi Maqām (review) by Scott Marcus
Asian Music - Volume 39, Number 2, Summer/Fall 2008, pp. 188-193
University of Texas Press

-- The classical Iraqi maqām and its survival, by Neil van der Linden, in: Sherifa Zuhur (ed.), Colors of Enchantment: Theater, Dance, Music, and the Visual Arts of the Middle East, American University in Cairo Press (2001): 321-335

-- Iraq Mesopotamia forever, in Rough Guide to World Music by Neil van der Linden, in: Rough Guide to World Music: Volume 1, 3d edition (2006): 533-538

-- Maqām Singing in Modern Iraq, by Neil van der Lindenām

Amir El-Saffar website

On the brothers Al-Kuwaiti

The Sound Of Resistance: Iraq (with a picture of the young Munir Bashir)


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