It is a bitter thing for an artist to suddenly descend from stardom to obscurity through no fault of his own. When Daoud al-Kuwaiti and his brother Salah were forced to leave Iraq for Israel in 1951, along with 120,000 other Iraqi Jews, they went from being musical giants honored by the royal court to being… grocers.
By the time of his death in 1976, Daoud had become so discouraged by the deadening combination of a tedious day job and near total lack of recognition for his music that he explicitly forbade his children from becoming musicians. A few months after Daoud’s death, a grandson was born who would ignore that proscription and restore some of the luster to the family’s musical heritage.
Dudu Tassa, one of the biggest names in Israeli rock, grew up hearing stories of his maternal grandfather and great-uncle. When he exploded into stardom at age 13, the shades of those two musical monarchs must have been smiling, and when Tassa takes the stage at the Museum of Jewish Heritage March 12, they will be laughing out loud, because their grandson is reviving their music in a new form.
Tassa’s eighth album, “Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis,” is a collection of 11 of the al-Kuwaiti brothers’ best-known songs reinvented for the new millennium. Tassa has taken their sinuous, occasionally mournful Arabic sounds, and adapted them for his own hard-rocking group. He has done so respectfully and with few changes other than, most prominently, a ferocious backbeat from drummer Barak Krem and bassist Nir Maymon. Actually, Tassa’s guitar may be the most foreign element; Arabic music didn’t use guitars in the 1930s and ’40s, the brothers’ heyday.
The result is a highly intelligent and very danceable reworking of powerful material. In the documentary film about this project, “Iraq ‘n’ Roll,” by Gili Gaon, there is a running joke about the mournful nature of Iraqi popular song. That music was created in no small part by the al-Kuwaitis and is at once a reflection of the rich Arabic literature of longing for lost love and the Jewish sense of displacement and oppression. Although he is by his own admission somewhat stymied by Arabic, which he sings in for these songs, Tassa sounds pretty authentic to these American ears; and with his passion fueled by his sense of debt and gratitude to his family, he sings with great feeling.
And the band just smokes! With numerous guest rockers like Berry Sakharov and Yehudit Ravitz and an indelible contribution from Yair Dalal on oud, “Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis” is a definite must-hear for anyone interested in Middle Eastern music, the Jewish-Iraqi cultural heritage or Israeli rock.
Perhaps Daoud al-Kuwaiti will forgive his grandson for choosing to follow the family tradition against the older man’s desires.
Dudu Tassa and the al-Kuwaitis will perform at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Place, on Wednesday, March 12 at 7 p.m., in conjunction with the exhibition “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.” For information call (646) 437-4202 or go to www.mjhnyc.org. The album “Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis” is available on the Hed-Arzi label, and can be purchased on-line from most music websites.