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There are stories and there are stories. Tales that simply have to be told, that beg to be heard, stories filled with outrageous hope. But every story needs someone to tell it. Dudu Tassa is a musician, one of Israel's biggest star for well over a decade. He's not a storyteller, but he does have a tale to tell, that of his grandfather and great uncle. And on his eighth album, Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis, he tells it with striking, personal passion.
Tassa brings this passion to the US, performing his most recent repertoire, which digs deep into his Iraqi Jewish roots, from NYC (at the Jewish Heritage Museum) to California this March, including showcases at SXSW in Austin.
Tassa had grown up hearing about Daoud and Saleh Al Kuwaiti from his mother, Daoud's daughter. The brothers were Iraqi Jews and among the most popular Arabic composers and performers of the first half of the 20th century. They appeared all across the Middle East and North Africa, from Baghdad to Palestine and Morocco, and their songs were huge popular hits. Then, in 1951, like all the Jews in Iraq, they were forced from their homeland with no more than they could carry. The Al Kuwaitis settled in Israel and opened a grocery store to survive. Caught between two cultures, with hardly anywhere to play, their music withered.
"My grandfather died a few months before I was born," Tassa says. "But when I was young, my mother would sing me their songs, and I heard about them all my life. But when you're young you don't listen. You want to be modern, to be Israeli, not stuck in the past. You're trying to find your own identity."
Everything changed when he took a traditional song the Al Kuwaiti Brothers had performed and re-worked it for a film soundtrack. He updated it, bringing in guitars, bass and drums.
"It was interesting to do," Tassa recalls. "I was ready for something new. I was bored with Israeli pop music. And this struck something in me. I asked my mom for recordings of her father and I went to Israel radio to see what they had. Honestly, it wasn't easy to listen to them - my ears weren't used to such sad music and the melodies were difficult."
In the end, he listened to over 200 pieces of music by the brothers for his Al Kuwaiti project. His choices turned out to be pieces he knew.
"I connected to those songs my mother sang when I was a child. I'd listen and I knew them I picked songs that I thought I could take to the West, where I could imagine harmonies in the music."
That was the start of the process of digging deep to his musical roots. Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis took two long years to make, all documented on the DVD Iraq n'Roll. He needed to arrange the material so it made sense to young ears. To add the harmonies that don't exist in Arabic music, to find the balance between older instruments like oud and qanun with the rock sound that moved him. And he needed to master the lyrics. For that he sought out people who'd known Daoud and Saleh.
"My Arabic isn't good. They helped me and they told me about my grandfather. I tried to see him in their eyes. They told me about his concerts, hearing him on the radio. I'm grateful I got to know them."