Can this veteran singer save Kurdish people's forgotten tunes?

Kurdish singer Mazhar Khaliqi says the Kurds should use globalization and technology to carry their musical tradition beyond the borders of the Middle East.

al-monitor Iranian Kurdish singer Mazhar Khaliqi at the Sulaimaniyah office of the Kurdish Heritage Institute, which he established in 2003, Iraq, Feb. 2020.  Photo by Tana Deib Menmy.

Feb 27, 2020

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraqi Kurdistan — Age has not stopped Mazhar Khaliqi, the legendary Iranian Kurdish singer who heads the Sulaimaniyah-based Kurdish Heritage Institute, a nongovernmental institute for preserving Kurdish national heritage and music.

The 81-year-old folk singer, poet, composer and folklorist, hails from the city of Sanandaj, the capital of the western Iranian province of Kurdistan. But it was only last year, in July 2019, that he had been able to go back to his hometown to receive an honorary award from the Kurdish Elites Congress (KEC), organized by the University of Kurdistan. He had left Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution because he could no longer sing under the ban on broadcast music.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Khaliqi told Al-Monitor that singing has been part of his life from the age of nine. His strong voice was recognized by his teacher in the second year of primary school in Sanandaj, who offered to give him extra lessons. “We had only one hour of music, so my teacher asked me to stay back on Wednesdays so he could teach me the Kurdish and Persian maqams,” he told Al-Monitor. (Maqam is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Middle Eastern music, often used interchangeably as a music genre.)

Khaliqi was invited to sing on the radio when he was merely 12, and he continued the half-hour broadcast on the Sanandaj radio station throughout the 1950s. His fame grew locally but no records of those broadcasts remain today.

He went to study at Tehran University in 1958, where he received a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in industrial management.

“In Tehran, I went to Radio Tehran [Iran’s state radio at the time] and introduced myself. Fortunately they knew who I was and they offered me a spot on the radio without an audition,” he recalled.

The radio’s Kurdish department encouraged him to sing Kurdish songs, so that was mainly what he did until 1975. It was at Radio Tehran that he learned to collaborate with orchestras. “I sang with the best orchestras in Iran at that time and all my songs were recorded,” he said. “I have recorded nearly 200 songs with different orchestras in Tehran, Kermanshah and Sanandaj. And I worked with famous Iranian composers like Morteza Hananeh and Mostafa Kasravi."

Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Khaliqi was obliged to leave his country and live in exile in the United Kingdom, as the new Iranian religious regime banned singing and music.

“After the Islamic Revolution, singing was banned. But this was the most important part of my life. So I needed to leave my country,” he said. He arrived in London in 1984, where he continued singing and recording albums. Often, his choice of songs reflected his love of Iranian-Kurdish heritage and homesickness, such as “Bari Bayana” ("It Is Dawn") or “Egeremewe Bo Wlatakam ("I Will Return to My Homeland") that were based on the poems of two great Kurdish poets.

“[Before I left Iran] I used to travel to remote Kurdish villages to collect original Kurdish melodies that would [otherwise] have been forgotten, because they had not been recorded,” he said tearfully. “I was inspired by the rich Kurdish folklore and I liked to convey my own messages through my songs.”

“In 1985, I noticed that the peshmergas and even the Kurdish leaders had lost hope and began seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. That was the best moment for me to encourage the Kurds all over the world to resist and keep hope alive. Thus I chose 'It is Dawn,' which is the best poem by Abdulla Goran, the great Kurdish poet [1904-1962], to convey my message to make the Kurds to be passionate and that there is still hope,” he said.

Khaliqi used his songs to call for Kurdish nationalism and development in order “to encourage women to go to school, and farmers to cultivate and not leave their villages.”

“I do not think singing is just a pleasure and jubilation — it is also a reflection of the Kurdish customs and values, as well as remembering the suffering and the massacres,” he added.

Khaliqi’s visit to his hometown in July 2019 to receive an honorary award from the KEC was a way to recognize the collaboration between the Kurdish intellectuals who collaborate to maintain their common identity.

“I decided to participate in the KEC event because they did a good job; they invited many intellectuals from the four parts of Greater Kurdistan and awarded us all,” Khaliqi said. “Although some people opposed the event, I thought it was worthy of appreciation. If they [the countries with a Kurdish population] negotiate with us as equals, we can coexist," he said.

According to Khaliqi, the event brought together different people from across the region and it was a good opportunity to build bridges. "At the event, all participants expressed their love and respect for me and that was a very nice feeling," he admitted.

In reply to a question on how the Kurds can achieve their cultural and political rights within the four countries with a Kurdish population — Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey — Khaliqi said, “Given globalization, it is inevitable that there would be compromises. I do not mean in political terms, but in art and culture. We should not let our traditions fade away in the globalized world. On the contrary, we should use globalization and technology to take our music and our culture beyond the Middle East.” ­­­­­

Khaliqi started traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2003, where he established the Kurdish Heritage Institute to preserve traditional Kurdish musical genres, melodies and other folklore.

“No nation in the world has as many original melodies as the Kurds. Until now the institute has archived more than 20,000 Kurdish melodies. We have collected stories and storytellers from different parts of Kurdistan dating back more than 600 years, which show our civilization and that we were peace-loving people,” he said.

He added that Kurdish music, songs and stories have been a tool for the Kurds to maintain their culture in the face of the states that rule their territory, particularly because some have banned the use of the Kurdish language and schools.

“I think we can pass our own culture to the world through music, which already has established good preliminary steps and foundations. We only need [new] composers and musicians in order to develop the Kurdish music,” Khaliqi said.

He used as an example Kurdish musician Kayhan Kalhor, a Tehran-born virtuoso on the kamancheh (spiked fiddle) who has won many international awards and highlighted the profile of Kurdish music globally.

“Fortunately we have the means to develop our music in southern Kurdistan, but we lack the mentality,” he said.

He also said the Kurds have so far failed to benefit from globalization to promote their music and culture, but simply moved on to listening to popular music at the expense of their own.

“Unfortunately cabaret music and popular music shows currently dominate the music scene in the Kurdistan Region. I am not a politician; however, I learned by experience that many things got messed up here in the Kurdistan Region including music and culture. The Kurdistan Regional Government authorities are responsible for that situation,” Khaliqi stressed. “This is due to two reasons: ignorance and a lack of experience. We [Kurds in the Kurdistan Region] did not succeed in the economy, oil and agriculture; similarly, we failed in preserving our culture, art and language. Nevertheless, there is still hope that we have learned from our past mistakes.”

Khaliqi said he has not quit singing, but he is now busy with saving the Kurdish folklore through research and archives.

“Indeed, I did not quit. I work full-time here as the head of the Kurdish Heritage Institute, which is innovative. We never had such an institute. I think my current job is more important than to sing again,” Khaliqi said.

In reply to a question on how he feels about Kurdish artists whose works were censored or, until very recently, could not sing in their own mother-tongue, Khaliqi said, “This is not only about singing, it is also related to poetry and the message of songs. They [Turkey and Iran] are creating obstacles to the lyrics and the message behind some songs; otherwise, the Kurds can sing freely. But what you sing and your message is the issue.”

Bashdar Ahmad Sdiq, a Kurdish lecturer at the University of Sulaimani, who received a master’s degree in music from Western Michigan University, told Al-Monitor, “In addition to his strong voice, Khaliqi has been an avid researcher who traveled to the Kurdish villages and searched for unique Kurdish melodies. I think his works are major pioneering attempts to preserve our music."

He added, “If you want to understand a country's culture and art, listen to its music. Currently the Kurdish community in Iraqi Kurdistan is in decline in all aspects including music and singing. A key factor behind this collapse is the Kurdish media that is giving priority to showy pseudo-art and neglects the authentic Kurdish melodies. This poses a threat to Kurdish art and culture.”