Bridging cultures
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Bridging cultures

Iraqi musician Ahmed Moneka's new album blends African, Arabic and Sufi musical traditions

John Clewley
John Clewley

In 2011, Iraqi musician, actor and writer Ahmed Moneka was working as an artist and actor. He studied at Baghdad's Institute of Fine Art and, according to Canada's The Globe And Mail, he was the first black TV presenter in the country. His father, also a well-known comedy actor, was the pioneer. Moneka went into the "family business".

Moneka is part of Iraq's black population, who are of African Zanj heritage, and are historically located in the southern port city of Basra. The origins of their history dates to the 9th century during the time of the Arabic slave trade in the region. Moneka's descendants come from the coastal Bantu regions of East Africa.

One of the interesting aspects of Moneka and his descendants is that they have maintained their Zanj healing rituals and Sufi traditions. Percussion, drums and voice feature in their traditional music.

But back to Moneka's story. In 2011, Moneka helped write and acted in a short black and white drama, The Society, about two gay men who hide their sexuality. This did not go down well with local militias in Baghdad and when he went to Canada in 2015 to screen the film at a festival, Moneka's father told him that he should stay there as a refugee as he had received death threats.

With no English language skills, music was Moneka's way into Toronto's social scene. He found friends in the multi-ethnic Kensington Market and began to perform -- going on to work at the Canadian Opera Company and the Toronto Jazz Festival.

Nearly a decade on, Moneka and his friends have released a debut studio album on LulaWorld Records, Kanzafula – Afro Iraqi Sufi Music. In recent columns I have written about Sufi music in Pakistan and Nigeria, and Moneka's music is yet another thread in the rich tapestry that is Sufi music.

The liner notes say that Moneka's music "blends elements from three continents, his birthplace in Iraq, his ancestors from Kenya, and his journey from Baghdad to Toronto", and the music certainly reflects this with its roots in Sufism, and Arabic and African music along with lots of funk, jazz and soul. There are also some amazing guest musicians, especially the singers, and their approach to creating a conduit for all to reach a higher spiritual plane reminds me of the work of Qawwali singers in Pakistan, like the late great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who once told me that his work was to provide a bridge between the secular world and God, and anyone was welcome to make that journey, regardless of creed or ethnicity.

The new album kicks off with the rocking Aman, which means safety in Arabic and was written by Moneka to stress the importance of choosing safety and enabling people to find safety, even for those we do not know. This song segues into a slow burning Arabic-style groove that features some wonderful call and response -- it has an infectious vibe that draws the listener in (one of my favourite tracks).

Moneka also bases some songs on the Islamic maqam (chant), as on the urgent Oh Mother, which has a similar sound to North African rai music. The maqam also features in two fascinating versions of Chil Mali Wali, a political song written in the 1920s and originally sung by Youssef Omar as a protest against the cruelty of British Imperial rule. Chil Mali Wali (Roots) features voice and delicate oud (Arabic lute), while the second version features a more modern sound. The chorus is chilling: "Woe has befallen me/ between the shore and the water like a duck you hunt me."

There are also west Asian classics on this excellent album that are given a new treatment, such as the whirling Khitar. But perhaps the most surprising song is the searingly beautiful song between two lovers, which the liner notes say is an example of a "psychedelic Afro-Iraq song".

This is an album crafted with love and the power of three continents. For those interested in Sufi music for the 21st century, this album is highly recommended.

John Clewley can be contacted at

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