It may seem strange but some of the most popular songs at weddings, henna parties and other celebrations in Iraq these days are often about death and killing. Ever since the extremist group known as the Islamic State sparked a national security crisis, patriotic songs that support efforts against the Islamic State, or IS, group, have been becoming more popular.
Of course some Iraqis have always listened to these kinds of songs. During the 1980s in particular when Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was at war with Iran, songs praising Hussein and the country were in demand – and in fact, were demanded by the Iraqi government. Since 2003, the audiences for that kind of thing dwindled, as locals had more choice in music and more options for expressing themselves. Iraqis tended to consider patriotic songs about war, were for soldiers and times of war. But now, once again, patriotic songs are experiencing another revival and are more popular than ever, with many of the songs attracting listeners from both Sunni and Shiite Muslim denominations.
“It's not like anybody asks us to play these songs,” says Ahmad al-Badri, also known as DJ Ahmad, who organises parties and weddings at a popular Baghdad event centre. “But these songs are very fashionable at the moment. We play them at every party we organise in our hall. They create a good atmosphere and make people more willing to socialize.”
“I always go to weddings with friends and relatives,” says Mahmoud, a 20-year-old local. “There's nothing else we like dancing to more than these melodies.”
After the IS group claimed Mosul and the fighting against them began, the Iraqi government's Communications and Media Commission issued guidelines to local broadcasters, asking them to increase "patriotic anthems and the broadcasting of teeming crowds, and the heroic deeds of security forces”. There was also a call to play the songs at checkpoints while people waited to pass. Many broadcasters obliged and there was an upsurge in demand for these kinds of songs. Many patriotic ditties were played by the volunteer Shiite Muslim militias.
One of the most popular songs currently – Ya Sattar by Ahmed Jwed – is played at almost every happy event these days. Ya Sattar is like saying “oh lord” in English. “It's the kind of thing you might say when you see a heavy load, you think “oh lord” but then you go to pick it up anyway,” an Arabic speaker explains. The video is filled with the singer interspersed with clips of the victorious Iraqi army, tanks and guns and polished uniforms.
Another song, Ana Iraqi, is more unusually sung by a female artist known as Shams al-Moslawi, originally from the city of Mosul now occupied by the IS group. She sings about her pride in being Iraqi amid a similar backdrop of soldiers dancing and tanks roaring along.
The patriotic songs have also reached an international audience via social media. It is possible to find videos on Facebook of Iraqis in Europe dancing to the music. Most people living outside Iraq know Iraqi music via Kathem al-Saher, a best-selling Arab artist who has been described as Iraq's ambassador to the world, says Akram al-Atabi, an Iraqi poet living abroad. “But it's not a bad thing that people come to know Iraq through these songs too,” al-Atabi says. “Any song that becomes popular and spreads beyond its birthplace carries a message to a new audience and helps them get to know the culture that produced this song.”
Not everyone is happy with the patriotic songs though and, just as might happen in the West, music critics have derided them as populist and lacking any artistic merit. “They've become popular because the popular mood has allowed them to,” suggests local art critic, Abbas Fadel. “People's taste in music changes all the time. But that doesn't mean the people are going backwards,” he notes. “It just means the Iraqi audience is interacting with these songs because they like dancing to a good melody; they may not actually care that much about the lyrics or about any artistic merit.”