Ilham al Madfai

Born in 1942 in Baghdad, Iraq, Ilham al Madfai is a true pioneer, having been the first musician to introduce modern rock instruments in the playing of Arabic music when he formed his first band “Twisters” in 1961 in Baghdad.  Little did he know then that his work would be recognized as ground-breaking in the context of Arabic-World music crossover (a term coined some 25 years later).  To this day, his compositions, together with his unique guitar-playing and singing style that weave Western flamenco styles with traditional Iraqi music, continue to bring him great reverence and popularity throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America.

Having studied guitar from age 12, Ilham’s “Twisters” modernised traditional Iraqi song, giving it a new wider appeal and a freshness that catapulted it into modern music.  The band’s “new wave” Arabic music wasn’t universally embraced, with local media and others criticizing his innovation and modern interpretations as being “eccentric” and destroying long-maintained musical traditions.  Ever the pragmatist, Ilham relocated his band to Kuwait where they played for a number of years before Ilham departed for London to study architecture.

In London he soon became a regular at “Bayt al Baghdadi”, better known as “Café Baghdad” and frequented by a distinct audience including Paul McCartney, Georgie Fame and Donovan, as well as many of the great jazz players of the time.  He was the first Iraqi artist to cross borders in this way and reach out to a cosmopolitan audience with his unique mixture of Western and Eastern influences.

Returning to Baghdad in 1967, Ilham introduced flamenco guitar rhythms to Iraqi folk songs, thus appealing to a new and younger audience which catapulted him to becoming Iraq’s most popular artist throughout the 1970’s.  However, this fame was cut short with the rise of Saddam Hussein to power in 1979 and, refusing to join the Ba’ath Party, al Madfai left his homeland, his fame, and most significantly his music, behind. 

For the next decade he sojourned throughout the Gulf working on major engineering construction projects before returning to his beloved homeland in 1990 and beginning to turn back to his music and performances.   Again, luck was not with him as only months later, the invasion of Kuwait led to the first Gulf War.  Admired by both Saddam and his sons, Ilham spurned their friendship even as he was forced to perform for the ruler and his family.  After being denied numerous requests, he was eventually allowed to leave again in 1994 and took up residence in Amman, Jordan where he still lives.

There is a contrasting element of permanence and change in Ilham’s songs, even as each has its own unique story to tell.  He sings of love – for his homeland, for its fruit, and of course, its women.  Al Madfai has certainly played a hugely significant role in the development of his country’s rich musical heritage through his unique new arrangements of Iraqi folk songs which has conserved them for generations to come.  His songs bring the nostalgia of a more innocent Iraq home to Iraqis both within the country and around the world.  For them Ilham is a hero, with both young and old joining in the singing and dancing at his performances even as they cry with raw emotion. Or, as Ilham himself describes it: “Oriental sobbing”.  As a spokesman for the Mesopotamia Club in California stated following a performance “Though Ilham’s home remains Baghdad, his real home is in the hearts of his fans in every corner of this planet.”

Ilham al Madfai continues to tour around the world delighting his audiences with his unique fusion of Iraqi folk and traditional music with flamenco influences and a mix of Western and Oriental instrumentation.  In recent years his UK performances have included London’s Union Chapel, Ronnie Scott’s, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Lyric Hammersmith, WOMAD Festival, and even Glastonbury.  Having signed with EMI Records in 1999 his most recent release is entitled Dishdasha (the traditional white robe worn historically by Iraqis)