Iraqi Kurdistan: Song of the Shepherd
I never thought in this lifetime I’d be driving through the outback of Northern Iraq in a rental car, but I also never thought I’d fall in love with the 38th “most traveled person” in the world. So here Michael and I were, in Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil, bypassing signs that read Baghad-Mosul-Kirkuk and I realized yet again the uniqueness of the situation.
Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. This was my first time to the Middle East, my first brush with Islam and its sacrosanct mythos.
I had known a bit about the folk history of the ozans, or the traveling singing poets. These musicians were the first troubadours, the upholders of tradition and the the most outspoken politically. The biggest trailblazer of the 20th century was Hasan Zirak, a “free-folk” singer in the 70s who improvised music and lyrics as he traveled through the countryside. He was said to have written over 1,500 songs during his lifetime.
Up until Saddam Hussein's regime the ozans, much like shepherds,walked about freely singing their sensuous, sorrowful ballads that illustrated the Kurdish life- a country of displaced people, struggling for identity, and passionately authentic. They were also some of the first to be punished when Saddam Hussein took power and much of the music went underground.
The region's instruments- the shepherd's flute and tenbar lute- are unique to the region and the style of singing is a soaring sonic departure from traditionalists next door.
As we drove all over the northern part of the region, we met people of the Yazidi faith, members of the Peshmerga and displaced children living in abandoned hotels. We came across shepherds on the outskirts of Halabja, the city that Saddam Hussein notoriously dropped poison gas on and killed thousands of civilians. The mournful ballads of the ozans could have been our soundtrack for this special, spirited land.
It's no doubt that the Kurdish story is special, and the music comes along with it. I'm excited to see what happens with Kurdistan's political identity and cultural revolution in the coming years: as the world embraces Kurdistan, hopefully the music will resurface along with it.