Even if you don’t know the back story, Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis is a great album and a fabulous surprise. On it, one of Israel’s best-known rock musicians updates the classic songs of the Al-Kuwaity brothers, Jewish-Iraqi entertainers from the 1930s and ’40s whose vintage recordings are still treasured throughout the Arab world.
That the 37-year-old Tassa’s résumé includes writing the theme music for Star Born, the Israeli equivalent of American Idol, is strange enough. But the fact that he’s the grandson of Daoud Al-Kuwaity, the singing and oud-playing half of the original brother act, makes this new venture even more poignant and unusual—especially as the older musician was so embittered by exile that he wouldn’t let Tassa’s mother play an instrument.
Prior to the establishment of Israel, Saleh and Daoud Al-Kuwaity were the toast of all Baghdad. And then, for reasons well beyond their control, things went sour. Iraq turned hostile to Jews, and the Al-Kuwaitys fled to the new Promised Land. There, Daoud was reduced to selling eggs for a living—a horrible comedown for a singer whose voice had once brought sultans to tears.
He’d probably be shocked to discover that the grandson he never knew is a musician, and pleased beyond description that his songs are enjoying an unanticipated second life.
According to Tassa—speaking in Hebrew and English from Tel Aviv, with his agent Yvonne Kahan translating when necessary—his family’s musical heritage was not initially a source of pride.
“When I was born, my mom was very sad because her father died when she was pregnant,” he recalls. “So she didn’t play that music in the house until about six, seven years later. She started listening to the music, but only when she was alone at home, and mostly crying. I remember that as a child, that my mom was crying a lot over the music.
“The fact that I started to play guitar as a young child was not necessarily because of my grandfather,” he adds. “It was more the Israeli environment that I was listening to and living in. The connection with my grandfather and his music came later.”
Asked what triggered that rediscovery, Tassa has a simple answer.
“I was bored!” he says. “I came to a certain point where I had done my career very well in rock music, and I was known in Israel, and I was bored by myself a little bit. I wanted to do more research into myself and into my roots. That’s how I discovered it.”
Assembling his new band—a small string orchestra with violin, cello, and kanun, or Arab zither, in addition to bass, percussion, and his own electric guitar—and recording Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis wasn’t easy, Tassa admits. First, he had to learn Arabic, then adapt the songs to his own voice. “I translated the Arabic music into western music,” he says, adding that he has yet to master the intricacies of the Arabic maqam, or melodic modes, that would have been second nature to his grandfather. He’s “a rockist”, not an ethnomusicologist, he insists.
Even so, there’s no denying that he’s managed to plug into the sinuous, sensual side of the Al-Kuwaity repertoire, while connecting with his grandfather’s helpful ghost.
“I felt like I was kind of working with him as I was listening to the recordings—crying with him, singing with him, and feeling him very close to me,” Tassa says. “We were sort of creating the record together.”