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Who are the heroes, hustlers and innovators of Kurdish wedding music?

In marathon-like Kurdish weddings that can last for days, local wedding singers steer their audiences between folk songs, national anthems and even techno music.

Abdullah Herki wails, “Come out! Where’s the groom?” before his keyboardist blazes into a frenetic solo to get the wedding crowd in Dohuk, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, onto the dance floor. Dancers intertwine their pinky fingers and the line dance snakes around the hall, with the bride’s brother in front, whirling the cushion the newlyweds will later use to consummate their wedding.

Kurdish weddings can last days, evoking a marathon. One wedding guest explained to Al-Monitor, “This is the moment we all wait for. Everything leads up to the wedding.” Given the importance of weddings in Kurdish culture, musicians play a key role in curating a sonic aesthetic for the festivity.

Since Kurds in the Middle East are dispersed throughout different countries, it's more useful to compare the different strains of Kurdish wedding music along linguistic lines (Kurmanji, Sorani, Gorani and Zaza) or topographic lines (plains vs. mountains), rather than national boundaries.

Kurdish wedding music emphasizes collective dancing. However, Kurds proudly point out that men and women frequently dance together. These wedding dances typically begin as simple line dances, but the complexity and speed of the dances build throughout the night. Some dancers break out into expressive fits, either in a circle, semi-circle, a pair or solo. Divisions exist in dances that parallel the linguistic divisions in the Kurdish language. Kurmanji dancers stand erect, hands held straight down at the sides — known as the "Kurdish hand hold" — and hop with sharp movements, while Sorani dancers employ simpler steps, rhythmically moving their shoulders up and down while whirling with the music.  

Wedding musicians have historically been of Dom or Roma heritage, not ethnically Kurdish. In the second half of the 20th century, however, as Kurdish cultural expression was decriminalized and gained more autonomy and notoriety, ambitious Kurds began to participate more directly in wedding music. 

The basis of wedding music traditionally features a player of the zurna, a woodwind instrument, and the dhol, a large cylindrical drum. Building off this template, musicians from different areas favor different types of instrumentation. In Qamishli, Nusaybin and Midyat, along the Syrian-Turkish border, the kemanchah fiddle is used for regional wedding dances, while Kurmanji-speaking Kurds feature the violin. In Iranian Kurdish cities, such as Mahabad and Bukan, the zarb, a goblet drum, is a prominent influence.

Nowadays, the catchiest wedding dance tracks have gone electric, using smoky samples from a drum machine or an elektrobaglama, a stringed instrument akin to the saz or lute. The duzula, a horn of Armenian origin, has been replaced in Sorani-speaking areas by the keyboard, and in communities along the Iran-Iraq border, some wedding bands even feature two keyboardists. Coming full circle, elektrobaglama, tanbur or saz players now imitate the shrill and peppy sounds of the zurna to speed up the tempo.

The band must be able to sense the energy of the crowd to build up the dance tempo. “You want to push the crowd as much as you can,” said Badal Shamsani, who has played the amplified saz since 1988. Interestingly, toward the close of the night, musicians may play popular, non-Kurdish songs that reflect the regional belonging of the crowd; this may be Ankara dance music, Arabesque, or Chobi, the Iraqi equivalent of dabke.

The arena of wedding musicians is competitive. Shorash Baker, who is originally from Afrin in northeastern Syria, spoke about this tight space. “Talent is big," he said. "If you don’t have it, no one will hire you.” He was a big success in Syria, being booked months in advance and sometimes performing at two weddings in a single night. However, since relocating to Germany, he has had trouble making a name for himself among diaspora Kurds 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 jaunty traditional folk songs with a twist for over 20 years. In the last two years, he has started to share his performances on Instagram, and his popularity has taken off. It helped him land his best gig yet a few months ago in Zakho, a city on the Iraq-Turkey border. “I stood on stage and let out a big smile as my musicians began," he said. "Everyone went wild.” He was originally supposed to finish at midnight but performed well past 2 a.m. “No electricity cuts, no screaming kids," he said. "The music and dancers connected. The wedding performance was like a dream.”

Code-switching and versatility are required on the part of the musicians to create an intoxicating experience while not overstepping social and political lines. Musician Omar Souleyman, who has attained international success, began his career performing at weddings in Hasakah, Syria. He employs dual musicality, switching back and forth between Arabic and Kurmanji, depending on the crowd.

But even as they gauge atmospheres and measure audiences, the risks of performing can be substantial. In 2018, two wedding singers were arrested for singing songs in Kurdish at a wedding in Istanbul. The Kurdish language was decriminalized in Turkey only in the early 1990s, leading to a surge in professional wedding musicians.

George Murer, an ethnomusicologist and documentarian, explained how the genre became electrified. “The godfather is Bismilli Zeko," he said. "For the wedding musicians of northwest Kurdistan, his stature is large as far as his contribution in crafting an inspirational sound.”

The cassettes of Seid Gebari 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 heavy rock guitar aesthetics with the specific timbres and phrasing styles of often noisy folk instruments such as the zurna and the kemanchah.”

Herki, a student of Seid Gebari, tries to continuously innovate and perform original songs to stay at the top of the genre. His breakout song, "Habibi Asmar Chokleta," in 2012, wove in a mixture of Arabic, Turkish, Kurmanji and Sorani influences.

Even successful singers must endure a grueling, thankless schedule and a series of challenges. “I once accidentally sang the wrong name when welcoming the father of the groom,” Herki told Al-Monitor, remembering his embarrassment.

But this is nothing compared to being caught up in a fight between members of two families or chasing down a wedding host to receive the agreed-upon rate. Maybe most difficult is being the face of the community during hard times. One singer had to stop his performance and announce the unfortunate news that the bride’s brother had been killed by an Islamic State militant. The festivity then turned into a funeral.

Visas are another obstacle faced by singers trying to build global audiences. Avriki told Al-Monitor that the US Consulate in Erbil has rejected his visa three times. He had been invited to perform at weddings in Nashville, Tennessee, which has a sizable Kurdish population. Murer has repeatedly gotten groups invited to major events, like SXSW, a music festival held in Austin, Texas, but has always failed to secure them visas. “The US Consulate in Ankara does not like giving young working-class dudes, with minimal education and no English, visas," he said, "even if they have been invited to play a festival."

Even as challenges abound, there is still hope a global shift might occur, given the current novelty of this sound. Kurdish singers are influenced by rock, electronic dance music, hip-hop and pop, which will inevitably push world music audiences to develop a deeper appreciation for the creativity coming out of the Kurdish region. While musicians wait for larger and more diverse audiences, there will always be another wedding to perform at.

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