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Music

Israeli rocker reconnects to a lost legacy

Dudu Tassa has been exploring the music  of his late grandfather and grand-uncle, the Kuwaiti brothers.

AVI NISHNIVER

Dudu Tassa has been exploring the music of his late grandfather and grand-uncle, the Kuwaiti brothers.

When the Israeli rock singer and guitarist Dudu Tassa immersed himself in a body of 300 classic Arabic songs from pre-World War II Baghdad, his intention was more than just historical inquiry, or cultural curiosity.

It was personal.

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Tassa was searching the catalog of Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti, two brothers who wrote much of Iraq’s popular music during the golden age of the 1930s and 1940s, for material to reinterpret in a modern style, adding Western instruments and harmonies.

The grandson of Daoud al-Kuwaiti, Tassa wanted to engage the musical legacy of his ancestors and the world that they inhabited — and largely shaped — before they abruptly left Baghdad, like many other Iraqi Jews, to settle in Israel in 1951.

The ensuing 2011 album, “Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis,” broke the mold for Tassa, previously a stalwart guitar rocker: it featured traditional instruments like the oud and kanoon along with Western strings, merged into modern arrangements adding bass and electronics. Archival tape of the Kuwaiti brothers features prominently, sometimes in long stretches in the clear, sometimes with Tassa and guest singers accompanying.

Tassa, who plays crowded rock gigs back home, is currently touring small venues in the United States with the Kuwaiti project. They visit Johnny D’s on Thursday, as part of the monthlong Boston Jewish Music Festival.

Exploring his grandfather’s and great-uncle’s work was a private project first, Tassa says by phone from Tel Aviv, adding that the album’s warm reception in Israel surprised him.

“I didn’t expect it to become so popular at the national level,” he says. “Even the Israeli Army radio played it a lot. It was surprising to hear them play Arabic music.”

But the time was right for a rediscovery of the Kuwaiti brothers, who were born in Kuwait — hence the name — and made their career in Basra, then Baghdad, before events took them to Israel, where they landed in relative poverty, making new lives in semi-obscurity as shopkeepers in a lower-class section of Tel Aviv.

Their songs, which the great Umm Kulthum once traveled to Baghdad to learn from them, lived on. They are part of a great heritage of Arab music from the mid-20th century, played by elegant orchestras and on the radio in Cairo, Beyrouth, and beyond.

But the brothers themselves suffered a double erasure. New governments in Iraq, animated by anti-Jewish sentiment, took their name off the music, rebranding it as folk songs. Meanwhile, in Israel, bias against the Sephardic community limited their platform to a two-hour radio show and small, private events like weddings and bar mitzvahs.

“It was a very sad situation,” Tassa says. “You could feel their longing for something, for a lost world. You could feel their nostalgia.”

The brothers instructed their children not to go into music, so they would not know the same loss. Tassa, however, never knew his grandfather, who died in 1976 while Tassa’s mother was pregnant.

“I didn’t know him, but I am named after him,” Tassa says (Dudu is short for Daoud, or David). “My mother said that I came out sad — my music is quite sad — because she was crying so much during her pregnancy.”

Saleh al-Kuwaiti died in 1986. But the brothers’ music continued to be played around the house, forming the soundtrack to Tassa’s early years. And by the time Tassa emerged into stardom himself, the cultural climate in Israel had shifted. A new generation was becoming curious about its roots, including the heritage of Sephardic communities.

“Tassa’s music is an example of a trend that has grown in Israel,” says Jim Ball, cofounder of the Boston Jewish Music Festival. “There are several other artists now who have been adding Arabic and North African music, instruments, and even musicians to present a wider spectrum of what the music of the region sounds like.”

The pop star Idan Raichel has worked with Palestinian, Yemeni, and Ethiopian musicians, for example. And singer Ravid Kahalani’s Yemen Blues project retrieves nearly-lost sounds from the ancient Yemenite Jewish legacy.

“There’s a great deal of historical research and revival,” says Ball, whose festival covers a broad spectrum of Jewish music, from cantorial and klezmer to pop, avant-garde, and cross-cultural projects like Tassa’s. “It’s a very rich time for Jewish music and programming.”

In recent years, the Kuwaitis have begun to get their due. Academic studies and conferences have been devoted to their work. In Tel Aviv, a street was named after them. Even in Iraq, they are beginning to be credited again for their massive contribution to the country’s artistic history.

Tassa’s contribution to this revival is probably the most intimate.

Poring deeply over the al-Kuwaiti oeuvre to select the right songs to remake, he learned, he says, that they were even more brilliant composers than he had imagined.

He even enlisted his mother, Carmela, to sing on one of the album’s songs.

“It was very emotional for my mother to go through this,” he says. “It took a long time for her to believe that I could become a musician and not get hurt, because her father was so hurt.”

Now, as Tassa sings together with his grandfather, present by way of old tape, the duet represents a longtime rupture repaired, for a family and also for its community.

“When I sing with my grandfather it’s a special feeling,” Tassa says. “As if I was really doing a project with him. Knowing him.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.
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