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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    A musical journey like no other: Iraqi composer survives ISIS and brings ‘The Curve’ to NL

    Ameem Mokdad (Moyasser Nasseer)
    Ameem Mokddad in rehearsal for “The Curve” with members of Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet and the New London Community Orchestra (Submitted)

    Over the phone, his voice, with its Arabic accent, is gentle and thoughtful. He’s answering questions about the development of and inspiration for a musical song-cycle called “The Curve,” and it could be any artist talking about a project that was difficult to create but ultimately rewarding.

    But Ameen Mokdad, a violinist/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist, differs from most composers.

    “Difficult to create,” for example, is a relative term.

    For one thing, Mokdad started writing music while hiding in his family home in Mosul, Iraq, as ISIS forces took over the city. For another, the music was determinedly completed only after ISIS troops discovered Mokdad and destroyed his collection of musical instruments.

    Finally, in a manner of speaking, he can thank the perception of demonic possession that he wasn’t executed.

    “I’d expected all along they would find me and probably kill me,” says Mokdad, whose compositions were protesting the physical and intellectual brutality of the Islamic State.

    “Day by day they were taking houses and murdering innocent people who were protesting in various nonviolent ways,” Mokdad days.

    After a year and a half of hiding, ISIS troops did find him. On the first day, they interrogated him and, as part of a religious crackdown on art and music, destroyed his extensive collection of musical instruments. To his surprise, they left.

    On the following day, though, they came back and, Mokdad says, “I was even more convinced they would kill me — and by that point, I was sort of OK with that. But it turns out they thought I was crazy. They thought the music meant I was possessed by a demon.”

    Mokdad says ISIS troops openly discussed slicing his fingers so the demon would “bleed out” through the incisions but, in the end, for reasons he still doesn’t totally understand, they left him alone in his “lunacy.”

    Mokdad invented and built his own instruments and continued writing, recording and performing music. He’d sneak through the streets to an uncle’s house where there was a forbidden internet connection from which he’d broadcast his work. Or he'd play from the roof or atop the rubble of destroyed buildings.

    A survivor’s perspective

    Mokdad, now 34 and in Connecticut on a two-year visa, performs “The Curve” Thursday in New London’s Garde Arts Center with the Cuatro Puntos Ensemble, an outfit with whom he’s collaborated for years. Also performing will be Middletown’s Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet and the New London Community Orchestra.

    It’s the final stop on a state-wide tour of 10 performances, all of which have sold out. In a humble tone of appreciation, Mokdad expresses how he could never have imagined this happening.

    “I never thought I’d live to see people listen to this music and dance to it. It’s unbelievable to me,” Mokdad says. “Or maybe I should say I always believed in the music but never imagined this moment. I thought people would listen to it and appreciate it and be moved by it, but I thought I would be dead.”

    In early 2017, Iraqi forces liberated Mosul from ISIS and, a year later, Mokdad traveled to Turkey and went to work at a children’s music festival. His roommate turned out to be Kevin Bishop, a Norwich resident and director of Hartford’s Cuatro Puntos Ensemble, a a classical quintet dedicated to uplifting and performing the work of musicians who’ve been silenced, persecuted or underrepresented. Mokdad and Bishop hit it off.

    Birth of a fortuitous friendship

    “Ameem started telling me stories that were both crazy and inspiring,” Bishop remembers. “They were intensely crazy stories of oppression under the repressive ideology of the Islamic State — and inspiring of how he continued to compose and record despite the constant threat of persecution.”

    After Bishop heard the material Mokdad has written during the occupation, the pair decided to arrange the music for the Cuatro Puntos Ensemble. They selected 18 songs and then recorded “The Curve” album, which was released by Arkadash Records.

    Bishop resolved to bring Mokdad to Connecticut — a visa process that took five years. In 2021, they were successful and, on arrival, Mokdad and Bishop partnered with Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet, whose director, Elisa Scroth, choreographed the musical story.

    It’s an ambitious undertaking in the best ways. “The Curve” is an album as musically remarkable as its history; despite the instant accessibility of the mostly instrumental pieces, it’s very difficult to describe within the context of a style or genre.

    The songs have great emotional and musical range. The title track is frenetic and riff-pulsing, while “Sognatore the Third” is a powerful spoken word piece in which Mokdad seethingly spits threats at ISIS in their own vitriolic terminology. “From Her” is a gentle lullaby, while “A Dream” is a heart-wrenching lament about loss after Mokdad witnessed ISIS kill a friend in front of his own children.

    Autodidactic chops

    Mokdad’s lack of formal training removed any structural constraints when contemplating and expressing the experiences and thoughts that inspired “The Curve.”

    “I didn’t study music. I’m completely self-taught,” Mokdad says. “There was no chance for young people to study music where I grew up, but I was listening to all kinds of music — and that variety pushed me to go different places with my own music.”

    He got his first violin when he was 9 and by 10 knew he wanted to be a composer — even if he had to invent the process on his own. By his late teens, he was running a group of musicians that would perform in art galleries or public spaces throughout Mosul. Mokdad says he had a sort of benefactor who would support his efforts, and in turn Mokdad would teach music.

    “It was a wonderful time and we played in any situation we could,” he says. “We won some prizes and contributed to the growing community of musicians — at least until ISIS.”

    Channeling his rage

    Mokdad describes an occasion when, shortly after ISIS took over Mosul, he became so angry by what was happening that he took a cello onto the roof of his building and played “Back in Black” by AC/DC.

    “That was my first reaction,” he laughs. “I thought AC/DC was appropriate. (ISIS) ruining my country and I wanted angry music.”

    He also uses that example to illustrate the variety of influences that contributed to his own style.

    “I love the harmonies and energy of Western music and combined that with Middle Eastern scales and rhythms,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to be anyone else, I wanted to be myself. If you take spices from very different places and you put them together, you make something distinctive,. You might not be sure what genre or ethnicity you’re hearing — but at the same time you’re drawing all these influences together. It’s a way to connect.”

    As might be expected, Mokdad’s wide-ranging musical inspirations were channeled for “The Curve” through the ISIS experiences.

    “We always tend to think about surviving in a physical way,” he says, speaking slowly as he reflects on his words. “We don’t think so much about mental survival in the moment — but that’s the most important. That and spirituality. When you experience something (like the ISIS occupation), you experience things that make the heart different.

    “Great art is true art when it channels your innermost feelings and if you’re willing to listen to those feelings.”

    Of Mokdad’s experiences Bishop says, “Ware brings deep grief and trauma to the population it affects. I believe Ameen is able to tell his story in the way he does because he is one of the few that can see above the traumatic events of war and, instead of succumbing to pain and desperation, is able to heal himself and others by creating music and by sharing it with other musicians and audiences.”

    A Garde bonus

    The Garde performance differs a bit from the tour’s previous “Curve” concerts. While those shows featured Mokdad, the Cuatro Puntos Ensemble and Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet, the Garde date includes the New London Community Orchestra — Bishop is their director and conductor — with symphonic arrangements of the material. The orchestra has been rehearsing the music since January, and Mokdad has been on-site for practices since April.

    “We’ve had multiple people — people we’ve never met before this — attend three or more live performances,” Bishop says. “They’ve followed the show to different cities and audience members are routinely moved to tears by the power of the story, music and dance. And the Garde performance will be even more powerful with 30 musicians instead of six.”

    Mokdad says the tour has been similarly moving for him, as well.

    “Sometimes I cannot listen to my music because it reminds me of something painful,” he says. “In this music, I was trying to capture the (ISIS) oppression, how they completely deny humanity. People who hear and see this will react differently, of course, but that’s as it should be. Obviously there’s a deep personal connection for me. It’s what artists do. We’re not manufacturing art for the sake of it, like in a factory. We create art when we NEED to create art.”

    If you go

    What: “The Curve”

    Who: Ameem Mokdad with the Cuatro Puntos Ensemble, Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet and the New London Community Orchestra

    When: 7 p.m. Thursday

    Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London

    How much: $24-$35

    For more information: gardearts.org, (860) 444-7373

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