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On the Ground in Kurdistan With Musicians Shaping a New Nation

In the rapidly transforming oil-rich region, two musicians navigate the divide between Western culture and Islamic traditions.
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My dream has always been to travel the world and tell stories of change through music. I came to Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in the north of Iraq, because few places in the world are changing more rapidly.

I’d read about a rich musical tradition carried out under the most brutal conditions. Singers traveled on foot and kept the Kurdish language and culture alive despite the best efforts of Saddam Hussein. During that regime, the very act of singing in Kurdish was political, and many musicians caught doing it were punished with death.

But in the Kurdistan of 2014, I found a musical void. The old musicians were gone. They were dead, or living abroad, or they had simply taken other jobs and forgotten how to play. The ouster of the old dictator came with the side benefit of new oil money. Those who once sang sad songs of the Kurdish past now found themselves preoccupied with more capitalist pursuits. The Kurds may be ignoring the music of the past, because for the first time in recent history, they can afford to imagine a future.

Through Raw Music International, I traveled mountain villages and dusty cities and found almost no one who could play an instrument. In Kalar, a conservative, religious desert town, 18 year-old Mohammad described his situation to me: “I crave art, but my family says make money. My mother burned my books. They don’t understand.”

Or perhaps they do. The Kurds are so accustomed to suffering that for many I spoke with, this moment of prosperity feels like it must be temporary. Everyone is trying to make as much money as quickly as possible before history crushes the Kurds like it always has. And yet -- there’s always music. In my time there, I met Helly Luv and Iraj, two amazing artists from opposite ends of the socio-economic scale, trying desperately to make it in the new Kurdistan.

Two months after I left, Iraq plunged into chaos yet again, and Kurdistan is on the verge of independence. The frenzy and anticipation of change has reached a new level. I may have arrived too late to meet the legendary singers of old. But I was just in time to meet the young musicians shaping a new nation.

-- Cyrus Moussavi is a journalist and filmmaker. You can learn more about Raw Music International at and follow his travels on Twitter and Instagram: @CyrusVJ