War kept Naseer Shamma away from his homeland of Iraq for years. Now, the famous musician hopes to rebuild his country with performances and projects to support culture and education.
Shamma performed last week at the Iraqi National Theater. The crowd was on their feet cheering as Shamma played classic Iraqi and modern songs. He played with an orchestra, as well as young women musicians, who played traditional instruments.
“We will work on lighting the stage, to get out of the darkness into the light,” he told the crowd.
The 59-year-old Shamma is considered a master oud player. The oud is a pear-shaped stringed instrument similar to a lute. The instrument is central to Arabic music.
Born in the southern city of Kut, he received his first oud lesson at the age of 11. He later graduated from the Baghdad Academy of Music in 1987.
He fled Iraq in 1993 during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. He eventually gained international fame, performing around the world, and receiving many awards. In Cairo, he started the House of the Oud, a school for teaching the instrument to new generations.
Shamma currently lives in Berlin, Germany. He returned to Iraq for the first time in 2012 for a performance supported by the Arab League. He said he was shocked and felt great sadness to see what had become of his country. Iraq had been through repeated war and violence after the U.S.-led war that defeated Saddam.
He returned several times since, most recently in 2017. At that time Iraq was torn apart in its battle with Islamic State group militants who had captured much of the north.
This was Shamma’s first time back to a country mostly at peace. But it is in the middle of an economic crisis. He said the city is more at ease and the audience more responsive.
“The audience’s artistic taste had changed as a result of wars, but last night it was similar to the audiences of the ’80s. I felt as if it was in an international concert like one in Berlin,” Shamma said after a recent performance. It was the first of four concerts he is holding in Baghdad this month.
The concerts aim to bring attention to Iraq’s worsening education system. The education system has suffered under years of conflict, government carelessness and corruption.
The World Bank says that education levels in Iraq are now among the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa. They were once considered one of the highest in the area. Money gained from the concerts will go toward improving the Music and Ballet School in Baghdad.
“In Iraq, there are still schools made of mud, and students don’t have desks, they sit on the floor,” Shamma said. “Education is the solution and answer for the future of Iraq.”
Shamma is known for using his fame to support causes that help people, children, and art. A few years ago, he led an effort that rebuilt 21 destroyed main squares in Baghdad. He is also a UNESCO peace ambassador.
Shamma said he hopes he can return to Iraq permanently soon. He has several other projects in mind for the country’s reconstruction.
Fatima Mohammed, a 55-year-old Iraqi woman, attended the Friday concert. She said the event was a message to everyone that Baghdad will never die.
“I felt as I witnessed the women playing that Baghdad is fine and will return despite all the pain that we carry with us,” she said.
“I will come tomorrow also to listen to music, it gives me hope in life.”
I’m Dan Novak.
The Associated Press reported this story. Dan Novak adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
orchestra — n. a group of musicians who play usually classical music together and who are led by a conductor
master — n. a person who has become very skilled at doing something
responsive — adj. reacting in a desired or positive way
audience — n. a group of people who gather together to listen to something
concert — n. a public performance of music
mud — n. soft, wet dirt