Tag Archives: Ilham Madfai

Baghdad Boy: Ilham Madfai

ilham madfai

I’ve mentioned before (on the old Washerman’s  Dog site) the time 22 years ago I worked for the UN in Iraq. I was assigned to lead an international team in providing humanitarian and protection support to recently returned Kurds in the northeast part of the country.  As we waited for our travel permits to be authorized by the government (the first Bush War against Saddam had wound up a few months previously, but the situation was still tense), we passed the days in the Sumer Hotel, doing not much. Days were spent swimming in the pool, afternoons ambling through the shops. Nights passed slowly.

In the hotel room there was no satellite or cable. Obviously, the Sumer was not a CNN hotel. National Iraqi TV broadcast old Egyptian and sometime, Indian movies, and lots of propaganda about the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure post 10 years of war. In between shows were a sort of Ba’ath MTV. Singers, garbed either in smart but slightly weird ‘modern’ clothes, or traditional Arabic robes, sang songs that apparently extolled their love for the Supreme Leader, Saddam Hussein.  As the singers went through their paces photos of Saddam or his family would flash on the screen, often holding a shot gun or in full military regalia. Naturally, the singer and the song paled into insignificance.


During those 6 months I never heard of Ilham al Madfai, the subject of tonight’s post.  My conception of Iraqi music was held in complete thrall to those dictator-adoring singers.  When my wife returned from a second period of work in Iraq in late 2002 she came with a CD or two of Ilham’s music.  When I popped one on, not expecting too much, I was completely blown away.  And ever since, Ilham’s been a favourite artist. I  have all his records and hope he keeps recording though he is getting a bit long in the tooth after forty years of making fantastic music.

Ilham Al Madfai was born and raised in the early forties in Baghdad, Iraq.

His musical talent began developing at the age of twelve. He was and remains until today a guitarist at heart. He formally started his musical career when he formed his first band Twisters in 1961, compromising of electric guitar, bass guitar and drums. It was the first band in Iraq and probably the Arab world to use modern rock instruments in playing Arabic music. He pioneered Arabic-World music crossover.

Ilham modernized the traditional Iraqi song giving it a new wider appeal and a new freshness placing it in the modern era. The band created a new wave in Arabic music but Ilham was heavily criticised by the public and media for being an eccentric and for destroying long maintained musical traditions. Further more, his family, who enjoyed a high profile at the time, some of them holding high governmental positions, were not only strongly against his musical style, but also against his involvement in music in general. They were very concerned about their son Ilham developing a socially inappropriate career. mdfat A few years later, Ilham left for England to study Architecture. The young student played with a group and performed at Bayt Al Baghdadi in London, probably better known as Café Baghdad. Ilham attracted a special distinct audience including Paul McCartney, Donovan and Georgie Fame along with many Jazz musicians. Ilham was probably the first Iraqi artist to cross the borders and reach out to a cosmopolitan audience.

When Ilham returned to Baghdad in 1967 he formed his well known band: 13 _. This time Ilham introduced Spanish guitar rhythms from Andalucia to the Iraqi folklore song, appealing to a new, younger audience. He reached the peak of his popularity in Iraq throughout the 70’s, the time of the oil boom, in which Iraq enjoyed international relations. In 1979 when political problems in Iraq began, like many other Iraqis, Ilham left behind his homeland, his wealth, his popularity, and most unfortunate of all – his music. He travelled to different countries trying to pursue different careers, occasionally having music concerts.

When the Gulf war started in 1991, Ilham returned to Baghdad, and decided to restart his musical career forming a band he called Ferqet Ilham (Ilham’s band). They played primarily at Khan Marjan, a popular venue in Baghdad. Ilham, like most of his fellow Iraqis, had to struggle to re-establish his life during the 90’s, he earned his living from the concert circuit around the world, from North America to Europe to South Korea, mainly re-uniting with his faithful Iraqi audience from over three decades – sharing his longing and nostalgia for the homeland. Ilham has worked with many western and oriental musical talents. He has played with talents as diverse as Donovan, Art Blakey, Johnny “Ace” Harris, Munir Bachir, Tommy Aros, Nazem El Ghazaley, Glen Fisher, Chico, Sabah, Hollis Gentry, Aboud Abdel Al, and collaborated lyrically with the likes of Nazar Qabbani, Bedr Shakir El Sayyab, Ilyya Abu Maadhi, Abdul Qassim Al Shabi, and Abdel Wahab El Bayati.

Throughout this period Ilham continued to experiment in fusing different musical styles, mainly Oriental, Latin, and Jazz. He also re-recorded his most popular songs with a new feel and spirit – in different places, with different people, and at different times. There is an element of permanence and change in Ilham’s songs. There is a story behind every song. Ilham has played a significant role in the development of his country’s rich musical heritage through his unique new arrangements of classic Iraqi folklore songs. He has conserved them for present and future generations. 
His songs will continue to live among the many Iraqis at home and all over the world. Ilham is a hero for them – young and old are gathering in his concerts – singing, dancing, crying with emotion. As a spokesman for the Mesopotamia Club in California stated “Though Ilham‘s home remains Baghdad, his real home is in the hearts of his fans in every corner of this planet.”


Dishasha is his 4th commercially available album.  In this outing he brings the Andalusian flavor to the fore, especially on the sweet opening number.  While not quite as strong as his other works this is a fine record and full of enjoyable, foot tapping melodies and rhythms. His cover of the old Sinatra hit, Fly Me to the Moon, sung in English, finishes the record off on a high note. Dishdasha Track Listing:

01 Ya Bunaya

02 Hroof El Hobb

03 Sayeb

04 Babouri

05 Dishdasha

06 Habibi Rah

07 Bein El Asser W El Maghreb

08 Ma Muqtinea Beek

09 Marina

10 Wein Rayeh Wein

11 Fly Me To The Moon