Thursday, January 12, 2012

NYJFF ’12: Iraq ‘n’ Roll

Due the her neighbors’ violent hostility, we rarely think of Israel as a Middle Eastern country, but in many respects, its aesthetic tastes are very much in line with the wider region. The debate whether Sephardic Jews or Lebanese Arabs invented Hummus is a case in point. For decades, Israel was home to Saleh and Daud al-Kuwaiti, two greatly esteemed Jewish-Iraqi musicians. Decades after their deaths, the latter’s rock musician grandson revisits their music. His genre and generation spanning project is documented in Gili Gaon’s Iraq ‘n’ Roll (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Nationally recognized, the al-Kuwaitis often played command performances for the Iraqi king, a fact that suggests they were probably right to immigrate to Israel before the 1958 coup. Though they had regular gigs in Israel, including on the Voice of Israel’s Arabic language radio station, their concert hall days were essentially over. Indeed, the film makes much of this comparative scuffling, but is it really so scandalous that the general Israeli populace was not fully versed on the Iraqi music scene? Arguably, it might be easier for musical reputations to travel in this age of interconnected worldwide media, but globalization is still a bad thing, right?

Dudu Tassa readily admits he simply did not get his grandfather and great uncle’s music for years and when he did, he was intimidated by its rich complexity. Finally dialing up his confidence, Tassa reaches out to some of the duo’s old associates and well as a few of his own colleagues to create a fusion of traditional Iraqi music and grungy rock.

The resulting sessions and concerts are in fact quite agreeable. Favoring the old world sound of his forefathers, Tassa largely adds the electric as an additional layer into the aural mélange. It is quite evocative, if not absolutely transcendent. In contrast, Roll falls rather flat attempting to portray Israel as a less then welcoming society. Frankly, Israel is the truest nation of immigrants, whose new arrivals have always struggled as a result the unwarranted isolation and existential threats the country has endured. Indeed, many also started new lives in Israel with absolutely nothing, but achieved better or worse results than the al-Kuwaitis.

Clearly, Roll is best when it sticks to music. Although less artfully produced, it has a similarly nostalgic appeal as Mahmoud Kaabour’s far more charming and scrupulously apolitical Grandma, a Thousand Times. Pleasant sounding, but hardly essential viewing, Roll screens during the 2012 NYJFF as part of a double bill with Lost Love Diaries this coming Monday (1/16) and Wednesday (1/18) at the Walter Reade Theater.