Life & Culture

Dudu Tassa defies grandpa’s ban to bring the music back home

The Israeli musican and his band are playing Womad on Sunday


He’s been called “the Bob Dylan of the Iraqis”, a flattering enough label and one that does encapsulate the brilliant songwriting talent, charisma and origins of Dudu Tassa. Another similarity is that Tassa, while being almost half Dylan’s age, is also attracting international audiences of all ages, from 20-somethings to grandmothers reliving the music of their youths.
Born in Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah quarter, Tassa, 45, was already one of Israel’s best-known singer songwriters when he and his band The Kuwaitis won two shiny gold tickets: being invited to support British rock heavyweights Radiohead on their US tour, and to open at the prestigious Coachella arts and music festival in California, both in 2017.
The matter of a world pandemic notwithstanding, he and his band’s star has continued to rise since those twin peaks — and they hit another peak this Sunday when they take their distinctive music, dubbed “Iraqi and roll”, to Womad to perform at the world music, dance and arts festival which turns 40 this year.
It’s been said no band in the world has a story like Tassa and his group and it all starts with his Mizrahi-Jewish family background and musical roots, which are deeply intertwined. Tassa’s grandfather, Daoud, and great-uncle, Salleh, were the famed Al-Kuwaiti brothers, hugely popular in Baghdad from the 1920s and seen as creating modern Iraqi music. But after the brothers emigrated to Israel post-1948, their success all but disappeared, because their songs were written in Arabic and didn’t translate well. Later on, back in Iraq, their music was banned by Saddam Hussein — without any acknowledgement that they were Jews.
Tassa grew up steeped in his talented forebears’ plight, and faced a ruling by his heartbroken grandfather that no family member should sing or make music. Luckily, he defied this, and followed his passion for music, even making an album at 13. He was soon a solo star.
But then around 13 years ago, he stumbled on a box of records by the Al-Kuwaitis and was inspired to rework the songs, adding spiky rock treatment and impassioned heartfelt singing.
He was happy to prove you can make a song writer disappear, “but you can’t make a song disappear”. Having formed his band The Kuwaitis in 2011, he plays guitar and banjo, singing in Arabic, with Adel Jubran on cello, Ariel Qassus on qanun, Barak Kram on drums and percussions, Loay Naddaf on violin, Nir Maimon (producer and bass guitar), and Nissren Kadre on vocals.
The band has ignited audiences in ways Tass never anticipated: “Something amazing happened… The Kuwaitis’ albums sold more than all my Hebrew albums, and when we play concerts in Israel there are three generations coming,” he says.
His profile has also been raised by parts in Israeli films such as Everything is Broken Up (2016) and Red Fields (2019).
El Hajar, their third album of 2019 and the first released outside Israel on CD and vinyl, was a game-changer in upping their game as was the Radiohead link.
Tassa is good friends with the band’s guitar hero Jonny Greenwood, who guested on Tassa’s hit single What A Day, from the album At The End You Get Used to Everything, and that no doubt played a part in their being asked to support the band.
Of course it never hurts to have friends in high places, but now Dudu Tassa and The Kuwaitis are more than making it in their own right, and Womad is one of those milestones. “In my wildest dreams I never dared to believe that the Kuwaits project, that was based on songs of my grandfather and his brother from the 1930’s, would reach the entire world, spread out and bring so much love and happiness all around.," says Tassa. "Without a doubt, the biggest moment of all will be playing at the Womad festival. Performing on this prestigious and dignified stage alongside incredible artists would be a moment I will carry with me for my entire life. Can't wait!”
So what might Grandfather Daoud have made of Tassa’s defiant act in taking up music in spite of his rule against it?
“He’d have thought that I’m crazy… but I think, I hope, he would be proud.”

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