'It’s like I was the grandson of Mozart or something'

Post-Oct. 7, Israeli band channeling 1930s Baghdad gets a boost from Iraqi musicians

Led by the great-grandson of a foremost Iraqi musician of his era, La Falfula Groove Iraqi personifies the spirit of a bygone age while maintaining virtual ties with the Arab world

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

La Falfula Groove Iraqi. From left to right: David Regev-Zaarur, Itshak Zagzag, Yohani Perez, Alan Alaev, Gavriel Zikhron and Ben Machloof. (Courtesy)
La Falfula Groove Iraqi. From left to right: David Regev-Zaarur, Itshak Zagzag, Yohani Perez, Alan Alaev, Gavriel Zikhron and Ben Machloof. (Courtesy)

On a recent Thursday evening in Jaffa, the band La Falfula Groove Iraqi takes the stage at the East-West House, one of Israel’s premier venues for Middle-Eastern and acoustic music. Wearing tailored suits, floral shirts and sporting sidaras, the distinctive Iraqi version of the Turkish fez, the five Jewish musicians launch into a set of traditional music from the bygone era of pre-World War II Baghdad.

The multi-generational crowd of aficionados claps and sings along as the ensemble, consisting of oud, violin, qanun (zither) and two percussionists, take turns singing songs that were once considered mainstream popular music in the Arab world. A lively dancer — herself an integral part of the group — comes out several times for specific tunes and deftly engages with the crowd, each time marked by a different outfit and dance.

The evening is a record release party for La Falfula Groove Iraqi, led by Tel Aviv native David Regev-Zaarur, whose great-grandfather, Yusuf Zaarur, was one of the most prominent Iraqi musicians of his time.

Yusuf Zaarur, a master of the complicated maqam (scale) system distinct to Iraqi music, was a noted composer and a virtuoso qanun player, which is a kind of large, multi-stringed zither. For his great-grandson David, taking up the same instrument and bringing the music to life again connected him not only to his family roots but to appreciative fans and supporters in Iraq, the Iraqi diaspora and the wider Arab world.

“In 2015, we started the band to do classical Iraqi music. Around this time, I began to upload to YouTube and Soundcloud all kinds of recordings, videos and photos of Yusef Zaarur. I started to have friends from all over the world, it opened a lot of doors to interact with Iraqis and Arabs, musicians and sheiks,” Regev-Zaarur explains to The Times of Israel.

Almost all of this Israeli-Iraqi dialogue revolves around the intricacies and details of Iraqi music, but after the October 7 massacre by Hamas of some 1,200 people and kidnapping of 253 others, Regev-Zaarur was deluged with messages from his friends, “asking if everything was okay, urging us to be careful. Even now, we get messages all the time asking about us.”

In previous years, he had been invited by “rich Iraqis” multiple times to London, where he interacted and played music with an expatriate community of Iraqis and other Arabs. “They brought me there just to meet me and talk about Yusef Zaarur,” he notes.

La Falfula Groove Iraqi at the East-West House in Jaffa, on February 15, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

“It’s interesting, the Iraqi musicians, they had no problems playing with Iraqi Jews. They didn’t talk about politics at all. But the Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian musicians there, they said, ‘You can’t perform with us.’ We could jam at parties or whatever, but not play real concerts. They were afraid for themselves, for their careers. But I never felt for a moment any hate or had problems there” as an Israeli, he says.

Growing up in Ramat Gan, a city in central Israel with a large population from Iraqi-Jewish descent, Regev-Zaarur learned music from an early age and was active in youth orchestras and rock bands. The family had an archive of live and studio recordings of his great-grandfather, “and my father would play them for me. From the age of 10, I would go to sleep listening to recordings. I absorbed it. It’s so emotional and dramatic, the solos… You feel like you are in a story, so many different colors,” he recalls.

Yusef Zaarur’s qanun, on February 15, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

A few years after his army service, while still playing bass in local bands, he met bellydancer Yohani Perez, who encouraged him to explore his Iraqi musical heritage. Zaarur started to learn the qanun himself and, from a relative, eventually acquired his great-grandfather’s original instrument from the 1920s, which he had refurbished and now uses in concert. Perez became the musical producer, dancer and inspiration behind La Falfula, which means “a spirited girl” in Egyptian slang.

The other members come from different Mizrahi Jewish communities, but have learned the music and how to sing in the Iraqi style.

“We receive a lot of love from Iraqis and Iraqi musicians who live outside of Iraq, they think it’s great we are continuing this music. When they understood that I was the great-grandson of Zaarur and I was doing Iraqi music in Israel, a lot of musicians got in touch. It’s like I was the grandson of Mozart or something like that,” Regev-Zaarur explains.

He developed these contacts into a network of experts to trade files and ideas back and forth over the internet. “We talk on WhatsApp, I ask them about lyrics and I get help from them about certain musical aspects,” he says.

“We also have a lot of followers from Iraq on Facebook, and they are excited about what we are doing. They look at it as if we are representing all of Iraq, they see us as a total part of their culture. They really support us,” he adds.

La Falfula Groove Iraqi is dedicated to preserving and continuing a distinct genre of Iraqi-Arabic secular acoustic music that has unique rhythmic and melodic elements. Most of the pieces were originally composed and arranged by members of the Jewish community in Baghdad, who dominated the musical scene in the ancient city before their mass immigration to Israel in the early 1950s.

Baghdad Radio Orchestra, 1936. Yusuf Zaarur is seated in the center. (Image capture used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“My great-grandfather, from the 1920s until May 3, 1951, when he left Baghdad, was a leader, the greatest qanun player in Iraq,” Regev-Zaarur explains. “He also managed the orchestra and the music department at the official Iraqi radio station.”

Most of the community – some 140,000 people – emigrated between 1951-52 to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, leaving almost all of their property and belongings behind. The Jewish contribution to music in Iraq would be systemically erased and Zaarur’s and others’ compositions were labeled “folkloric” or “traditional.”

Yusef Zaarur continued his musical activities in Israel, primarily by performing with other Jewish Iraqi immigrants at private parties, and family stories tell of him learning early Beatles songs as a way to amuse his young grandchildren. He died in 1969 at the age of 67, before Regev-Zaarur was born.

The Iraqi Jewish musicians received a “double blow,” as they “became traitors by moving to Israel and the Iraqi government took the publishing rights to their songs, and then in Israel, they were Arabs and their music was something to be ashamed of,” explains Smadar Ronen, an Arabic-language social media activist of Iraqi-Jewish descent who works for MEMRI, the Middle-East Media Research Institute.

After 2003, when the US-led coalition forces toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, regular Iraqis began to have access to the internet, she explains. Instead of just government-supplied information, “they were exposed to different sources. They suddenly learned that a lot of songs they knew as traditional Iraqi music were written by Jewish people, who had a major part in 20th-century contemporary music in Iraq,” she explains by phone.

Any direct contact between Israelis and Iraqis is “extremely sensitive” for the Iraqis because of various laws against it, but Ronen says that many in Iraq still hope for legal, cultural and economic ties to the Jewish state. “We, as Iraqi Jews, hope to also have connections with the land of our ancestors, like the Moroccans do today. We know it won’t happen soon, but the hope lives.”

The members of La Falfula Groove Iraqi may not be able to visit Baghdad yet, but they plan to continue with their traditional interpretation of Iraqi music wherever it may take them.

“There are many there who want better connections with Israel, even though the government is against it. They tell me they want to come to visit and want us to come there, but it’s not possible for now,” he says.

“We want to promote this music to more and more people so that they will experience this tradition of Iraqi maqam and special Iraqi dances,” Regev-Zaarur says, chatting after the show on the spacious, columned porch of the East-West House. “We want to bring it to the world.”

La Falfula Groove Iraqi’s next public performance is April 11, at Confederation House in Jerusalem.

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