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Songs to Heal: Yazidi Refugees Celebrate 7,000-Year-Old Musical Culture

Yazidi musicians performs for Prince Charles, patron of the AMAR Foundation, at his Clarence House residence in central London, Feb. 5, 2020. (Courtesy: Robert Cole/AMAR Foundation)
Songs to Heal: Yazidi Refugees Celebrate 7,000-Year-Old Musical Culture
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When the Islamic State (IS) group moved across northern Iraq in 2014, its forces tried to destroy the Yazidi people.

Yazidis are an ethnic minority in Iraq. They had lived in the mountains of Kurdistan for a thousand years.

IS fighters killed thousands of Yazidis and enslaved many women and girls. The Yazidi culture was threatened with genocide.

Now, the British-based AMAR foundation is leading a project that aims to teach young Yazidis the ancient music of their ancestors. The aid group also hopes to create a permanent record of their culture.

The British government is providing financial support to the project.

Yazidi music is thought to be between 5,000 and 7,000 years old. However, it has never been written down or recorded. Traditional Yazidi musicians hand down the music from one generation to the next. Musicians memorize up to 500 individual pieces of music.

There are three kinds of music: traditional folk music, which is linked to agriculture, ceremonial music, and religious music.

Now, these sounds are being heard far beyond the homeland in northern Iraq. British violinist Michael Bochmann is leading the AMAR program. This month he invited the musicians to perform at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London.

“The music of the Yazidi people is…essential to their culture,” he told VOA. Only a small group of people, the Qawals caste, are permitted to sing the music. “There are only 16 of them left,” Bochmann added. He said he knew it was important to record the music for future generations.

AMAR has made over 100 recordings in northern Iraq. Some were produced at Lalish, the 4,000-year-old spiritual home of the Yazidi. Sound engineers and musicians are also visiting refugee camps, where tens of thousands of Yazidi people still live after the IS campaign.

Hundreds of young Yazidis are learning to play the instruments of their culture. They include a stringed instrument known as a tabor, and a kind of drum known as the daf.

Among the Yazidis visiting London were several women who had been held captive by Islamic State. Among them was Renas, who was only 14 when IS forces captured her village. She says she faced abuse every day. Renas was later released after her family paid money. She was forced to leave behind the daughter she gave birth to while held captive.

Renas says the music project helps her forget the past.

“I want this support to continue. Thanks to this project, our people did not lose hope. And if they will continue to help us, we will not give up,” she told VOA.

IS targeted musicians and destroyed instruments in an effort to destroy Yazidi culture. Now, the recordings will be stored at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the Mosul and Dohuk libraries in Iraq.

During their trip to London, the Yazidis performed for Britain’s Prince Charles. Ancient Yazidi music, once nearly destroyed, is now sung in a celebration of survival.

I’m Susan Shand.

VOA’s Henry Ridgwell reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

folk – adj. a of or relating to the common people of a country or region​

beyond – adj. on or to the farther part or side

violinist – n. one who plays the violin, which is a small stringed instrument

essential – adj. important

caste – n. a division of society based upon differences of wealth, rank, or occupation

drum – n. a musical instrument that is made with a thin layer of skin or plastic stretched over the end of a round frame and that is played by hitting the skin or plastic with sticks or with your hands