09 January 2023
Recording of the week: ‘Wayn tkhallīnī’ by Iraq’s Rashīd al-Qundarjī
This week’s post comes from Hazem Jamjoum, Audio Curator for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme.
Rashīd al-Qundarjī (1886-1945) was one of the early recording artists of Iraq's Maqam repertoire. In musical contexts, the Arabic word maqam usually denotes melodic and rhythmic modes. In Iraq, however, the word is also used to describe a genre and form of musical suite that has come to be consecrated as the art music of Iraq’s urban centers, Baghdad in particular. In 2008, UNESCO added Iraqi Maqam to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Al-Qundarjī’s father was a bead-maker who died when the musician was still eight years old. The young boy, Rashīd ibn Ali ibn Habib ibn Hasan, apprenticed as a cobbler. Kundarji is the Turko-Arabic word for cobbler, and that is how the singer got the name by which he became famous. He studied Maqam with Ahmad Zaydan (1832-1912), one of the great masters of the Maqam tradition in Baghdad, and was reportedly chosen by Zaydan as his successor.
By the 1920s, al-Qundarjī was known throughout the city as a master in his own right, a status he held when this song was recorded in 1925. Such recordings only enhanced al-Qundarjī’s reputation, so much so that Iraq's King Ghazi (r. 1933-1939) became one of the singer’s great admirers. This admiration undoubtedly contributed to al-Qundarjī’s appointment as the official expert on Iraqi Maqam at Radio Baghdad from its inauguration in 1936 until the singer’s death a decade later.
Al-Qundarjī was widely regarded as a traditionalist amongst Maqam aficionados; he sang in the high-pitched register prized by nineteenth century listeners, and insisted on the use of the chalghi ensemble - composed of santūr (hammer-plucked zither or table harp), joza (bowed spike fiddle), and dumbak (hand drum) - for his accompaniment. He generally performed and recorded with the same chalghi accompanists we hear on this recording: ʻAzzūrī Hārūn on the santur, Sāliḥ Shumel Shmūlī on joza, Shāʼūl Hārūn Zangī on dumbak, as well as the pestaji (backing singer) Makkī al-Ḥaj Ṣāliḥ. In the 1920s, when this song was recorded, the chalghi ensemble came to be challenged by the takht ensemble (‘ud, qanun, and violin) favoured by Egyptian recording artists, and championed in Iraq by the Maqam moderniser Muḥammad al-Qubbānjī (1904-1989).
The era in which this recording was produced is significant in other ways. In the mid to late 1920s, record labels that had mostly concentrated their activities in Egypt and Greater Syria began trying to expand their operations in the Arab world to Iraq and the Persian Gulf. This recording is one of Baidaphon's early attempts at recording Iraqi artists to expand their reach into the Iraqi market. This and other recordings made around the same time were so successful that by the mid-1930s, many recording companies had set up recording studios in Baghdad.
Though Maqam specialists regard al-Qundarjī as a traditionalist, he did introduce new pieces into the established repertoire. Indeed, the choice to record this song is somewhat of an innovation in itself. The song is a pesta, a form that was not strictly speaking a central part of the Iraqi Maqam suite, but rather a piece sung near the end of the suite by a pestaji, the lead backing vocalist to the main Maqam singer. A highly melodic form, the pesta is sung in the same melodic mode as the Maqam suite itself, and would offer the lead Maqam singer a chance to rest his or her voice. On the recording, the pesta is delivered as a kind of call-and-response duet between al-Qundarjī and pestaji al-Ḥaj Ṣāliḥ, each singing a variant of the pesta’s simple lyric “wayn tkhallīnī, wayn trūḥ” (where are you leaving me, where are you going?). Given the length of a standard Maqam suite, and the very short duration possible to record on 78rpm shellac discs of the era (around 3 minutes), al-Qundarjī's choice of a pesta was a way of adapting to these technological limitations. It proved to be a pioneering one as more Iraqi artists recorded pestas, and many songs in that form have come to be known and loved as stand-alone musical pieces ever since.