Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1931: Siddiqa El Mullaya


This week I'm thinking about Iraqi singer Siddiqa El Mullaya's 1931 recording "Retha'a Mohsen Essadune."

The British transliteration on the label of HMV 30-8286 obscures the accurate translation of the Arabic title, which would be something like "Lament of Muhsin Al-Saadoun," a reference to the four-time Prime Minister of Iraq during the 1920s, whose attempts to conciliate both the British imperialists propping up the corrupt government of post-Ottoman Iraq and the nationalists who wanted to throw over the British yoke entirely ended with his death by self-inflicted gunshot in November 1929. I don't have a full transcription of Siddiqi El Mullaya's lyrics, and I don't speak Arabic even a little, so the above is the extent of my knowledge about the song's lyrical content.

But Siddiqa's voice, raised above the violin, qanun (zither), oud, and percussion, is worth listening to for its own sake. She doesn't have the the magnificent control or expressiveness of a more famous contemporary like Egypt's Umm Kulthum, but Iraqi musical traditions are different enough from Egyptian ones (though obviously related) that she's very much working in her own lane. Her interplay with the instrumentalists, especially on the second half of the two-sided disc, is especially worth paying attention to: although Muslim female singers were only allowed to perform in women's-only spaces in colonial Iraq (which would generally be spaces for religious ceremonies), she clearly has a rapport with the unidentified players, and indeed what I can learn of her career suggests that she had been recording for at least three years when she made this record.

The bulk of my understanding of this record comes from the British Library archive of the recording and an essay on the Qatar Digital Library site giving background on its musical genre, pesta. I am very much a novice at understanding and appreciating Middle Eastern music in the context of its time and place, rather than just as a series of reproduced sounds, so rather than try to parrot other people's actual understanding I'm giving you the links.