Category: Iraq: Kurdish

The Chakmakchi Story

I’m happy to introduce a guest post today, with loads of photos, by Moneer Cherie. Moneer is an Assyrian from Iraq, born in Baghdad. He collects Assyrian, Kurdish and Iraqi Arabic records. He is a moderator at Qeenatha.com, an Assyrian music website and radio/streaming station. He also was one of the contributors for a 2015 Assyrian discography published in Germany titled Modern Assyrian Music. As he states, “My aim has been to collect original Assyrian records and preserve them for a future archive.”

Images courtesy of the Chakmakchi family relatives. Several also appear in this book:
Malāk, Qaḥṭān Ḥabīb al-. Nās min baladinā. Baghdād : Iṣdārāt al-Malāk al-Adabīyah, [2001]-.

The patriarch of Chakmakchiphon, Haj Fathi Chakmakchi (center), with his two sons.

Haj Fathi (pronounced Fat-he) Yahya Qasim Chakmakchi was born in Mosul (1888-1969). He was neither a musician nor a singer, but specialized in repairing guns that were mainly Turkish made, and used by the Ottoman army during their occupation of Iraq. The Chakmakchi family is Kurdish in origin, from Amêdîyê (ئامێدی). The name means “maker or repairer of flintlock guns” or “gunsmith.”

Haj Fathi Chakmakchi did not realize that his hobby of collecting the limited number of Iraqi shellac discs available at that time would one day lead him to become one of the most important sources of the heritage of Iraqi music and song.

Chakmakchi founded his company in 1918̇, and at its start it was located at Ghazi Street in Mosul. Initially, the business was limited to the import of electrical appliances, especially gramophones (and later TVs). His eldest son Muhammad Aref assisted him until 1940, when Mohammed Aref moved to Baghdad to open a branch of the Chakmakchi business in Ghurairi Square. In 1942, the family moved from Mosul to Baghdad to join him.

Haj Fathi Chakmakchi’s second son Abdullah took over the management of the shop in Mosul in cooperation with his cousin and brother-in-law Mohammad al-Najm, but in 1944 he, too, moved to Baghdad and opened another branch of the company in the Haydar Khana area (opposite Khalil Café) in the middle of Al-Rasheed Street.

Abdullah eventually left Iraq and travelled to England to study music recording and production techniques. After he returned to Iraq he focused on his favorite hobby, which was the recording of Arab and Iraqi singers and concerts, and the import of record players.

Haj Fathi decided to build a recording studio in the mid-1950s and began recording local singers at a time when there was no other recording studio in Iraq except the studio at the radio station. This is roughly when the Chakmakchi 78 rpm label began. He invited top Iraqi musicians to record in his studio, and masters were sent to Greece or Sweden to be pressed, then shipped back to Iraq to be distributed by his local outlets.

Al-Rasheed Street, Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Haj Fathi’s third son Sami opened yet another branch of the family business in 1951 at the entrance of Al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad. This became the famed Chakmakchi shop in Iraq. Haj Fathi and Sami were in charge of the record production side of the business, in addition to building relationships with Arab artists such as: Um Kulthum, Mohammed Abdul Wahab, Abdul Halim Hafez, Muharram Fouad, Sabah, and Faiza Ahmed; with Iraqi artists, such as Al-Ghazali, Hudayri Abu Aziz, Zohour Hussein, and Salima Murad; and with Kurdish singers like Muhammed Aref Jazrawi, Hassan Jazrawi, Taher Tawfiq, and many others.

It seems that approximately 200 78 rpm discs were issued on the Chakmakchi label were produced before the company began manufacturing 45 rpm records in approximately the mid-1960s. Abdullah kept master copies of his recording sessions (including alternate takes, such as one where Um Kulthum made a mistake and repeated a song more than once) as well as his tape recordings of events and concerts, as part of his huge audio library, which is now with his grandchildren. The grandson of Chakmakchi refuses to sell the archive despite large amounts of money being offered to him by wealthy Arab collectors. The family understands the Chakmakchi recordings’ value as a national treasure and cultural asset, and part of Iraqi heritage.

The first recording company in Iraq had for many years survived the winds of change. They could have adapted to new technology and the emergence of digital formats, but the primary reason for the disappearance of the Chakmakchi label was the indifference of officials at heritage institutions that left the company to face various abuses of their copyrights, which forced the family to finally close its doors in the mid-1990s. However, today the name is still embedded in the minds and memories of music lovers and old singers of Iraq, and the entire region.

Muhammad Aref Jazrawi (Mihemed Arif Cizîrî in Kurdish) was born in the Cizîr (Cizre), Turkey, in 1912. He later moved to the city of Duhok in northern Iraq and recorded a large number of folk songs for Kurdish radio in Baghdad, and then for Kurdish TV in Kirkuk. He played the tanbur (tembûr), the long-necked string instrument originating in Mesopotamia. His songs were distinguished by their simplicity of words and the sweetness of the melodies. He died in Duhok in late 1986 and was buried there.

The song featured here is titled “Leh Leh Khafshi” (Lê Lê Xifşê). Khafshi is a small type of deer or gazelle, (a common reference in folk songs to a beautiful girl). The song is in the pasta style, which is a type of metered song that is sung after completing the maqam. It’s in the same key as the maqam and meant to connect harmoniously with it.

Yusef Omar Daoud Al-Bayati was born in 1918 in the Hasan Pasha district in Baghdad. He studied maqam under the best singers of that time, namely Mohammad al-Qubbanchi, and was nicknamed “the prince of Iraqi Maqam.” His first recorded concert was in 1956. He was also featured in films and dramas. He died in 1986.

Maqam is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music. The word “maqam” in Arabic means place or location. Each maqam is a semi-improvised musical recitation of poetry, performed within formal structures that govern the use of melodies, rhythm, and poetic genre. This song is performed in the Iraqi Maqam of Urfa. This maqam is named for the famous Anatolian city, located in modern day Turkey and thus may have Turkish origins.

Muhammad Aref Jazrawi – Leh Leh Khafshi (Pasta)

Yousif Omar Daoud Al-Bayati – Maqam Urfa, Pts 1-2

Chakmakchiphon catalogs:

Chakmakchiphon advertisements:

Muhammad Aref Chakmakchi in their store, 1952, with famed singer Eliyya Baida, and Suaad Muhamed:

The Chakmakchi studio band:

The same photo, annotated:

The company car:

The shop (on right) on Al-Rasheed Street:

The same corner, 1960:

Chakmakchiphon sleeves:

Hesen Cizrawî – Maqam (Khunis)

Sometimes, you have to feel lucky just to own certain records, in the sense they’ve had a life before you that you can only guess at. Kurdish records from the 78 rpm era are precisely that, for me. While listeners and collectors in the west might think this is really exploring the margins of recorded sound, I disagree. Globally, it’s no more on the margins than listening to or collecting Cajun recordings. Though Cajun music is obviously far more popularized here in the US, both are representative of a regional, vibrant culture, where only a finite amount of historic discs exist. In the case of Kurdish recordings, they are representative of the musical traditions of what is commonly called, for better or worse, a “stateless nation.”

Kurdish maqam is slightly different than other types of maqam, in the sense that the term “maqam” doesn’t refer to classical Middle Eastern modes, and instead refers to specific themes or pieces. Horn and Shepherd’s Bloomsbury Encyclopedia poetically referred to the music as “monophonic hymns” – apt, once you begin listening to the emotional and embellished delivery in today’s example. The vocal style portrayed here, accompanied by oud though can also be accompanied by tanbur, is simply riveting, and it’s one that seems to have changed very little.

Iraqi-Kurdish classical singer Hesen Cizrawî (transliterated on this disc as “Hassan Jazrawi,” but also found spelled in innumerable variations), was born in 1917 and died in 1983. Judging alone by the frequency of his name mentioned in books, his later recordings on websites, bootleg cassettes, and on YouTube, as well as the related comments therein, Cizrawî is without a doubt one of the most important Kurdish artists of the 2nd half of the 20th century. There was another singer with the same surname, Mihemed Arif Cizrawî, who was unrelated, but an important and well-known singer that recorded as early as the 1930s. Hesen seems, in a way, to have a more resounding voice to my untrained ears. Not necessarily more artistic or subtle, but certainly a bracing voice that will jolt you upright. Here, he is accompanied by Dawud Al-Kuwaiti on violin, and Saleh Al-Kuwaiti on oud.

Most texts don’t even address Kurdish recordings before 1970. Some, like the aforementioned encyclopedia, openly admit to having no clue. Well, we can put an end to that mystery here and now. The first documented recordings (so far) of Kurdish music were made in Turkey and issued by the Orfeon label sometime before 1920 – a grand total of 7 records. These would remain the only Kurdish recordings made in Turkey for decades, as there was a strict ban on the Kurdish language – just a sample of the difficulties Kurds experienced. Kurdish 78s made in Iraq or Iran, for example, would have to have been smuggled into Turkey for sale to Kurds through the black market.

It was a different story in Iraq and Iran. From the late 1920s through the late 1930s, small batches of Kurdish records did appear on Polyphon, Parlophon, Baidaphon, and even Sodwa, the short-lived 78 label based in Aleppo, Syria. In the late 1930s, a series of over 20 discs were made in Iraq and pressed by HMV in Pakistan, primarily featuring Meryem Xan, and the elder Cizrawî. After World War II, Columbia began a series of Kurdish discs also featuring the Cizrawîs, among many others. This was one of them – recorded February of 1948 in Baghdad. Further recordings were made by local labels, such as Chakmakchi Phon, and for more on those recordings, let me take you back in time

Hesen Cizrawî – Maqam (Khunis)

Notes
Label: Columbia
Issue Number: GIA 26
Matrix Number: COF 93

Thank you to Bill Dean-Myatt, Ahmad AlSalhi, Amir Mansour’s work, and collector friends.