Harmony Amidst Ruins: A Musical Odyssey in Mosul
A personal story by Tony Overwater about a cultural and musical journey to Iraq, specifically to Mosul, highlighting the experiences of the Rembrandt Trio involved in the Mosul Music Heritage Festival. It covers their travel, interactions with Iraqi musicians, the state of Mosul, and the profound impact of the visit.
Magic Can Happen
“Would you like to participate in the Mosul Music Heritage Festival in Iraq?” was one of the most intriguing and exciting invitations that I had received in a long time.
I had traveled to many Middle Eastern countries before, but I never thought it would be possible to visit Iraq anytime soon. Iraq, once one of the important centers of modern civilization, science, and culture, had fallen into pieces during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. After his removal from power by the Americans, the country was overrun by Islamic extremists, plunging it into even more despair. In recent years, the country has been making efforts to get back on its feet. The Goethe Institut, in collaboration with UNESCO and the European Union, is trying to help by setting up cultural programs that bring together the diverse groups of people in Iraq and musicians from Europe to develop a healthy cultural dialogue.
I have been traveling to the Middle East since 2001 and have collaborated with musicians from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. I initiated a project called Salon Joussour, where I brought together musicians from the Middle East and Europe to foster a dialogue about music and culture from the MENA countries (Middle East and North Africa) to enlighten audiences, musicians, organizers, and artists about the beauty and complexity of this art form. So, this invitation to the Mosul Music Heritage Festival is very close to my heart.
While more than 20 years have passed since I first became interested in this music and culture, many things have changed. Wars started and ended, terrorist attacks destabilized the world, epidemics and refugees left their marks on history. Some countries I used to travel to frequently, like Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, were suddenly declared unsafe. As for Iraq, this mythical place in my mind, I never considered the possibility of going there. And yet, here we are, cramped up like three sardines in a small Turkish Airlines plane, on our way to Baghdad. ‘We’ are the Rembrandt trio: pianist Rembrandt Frerichs, drummer Vinsent Planjer, and myself, bassist Tony Overwater. We share a deep interest in the music from the Middle East and Iran and have collaborated on numerous projects with star players from the region, including Kayhan Kalhor, Hossein Alizadeh, Mohammad Motamedi, and Rima Khcheich, to name a few.
Until just one day before our departure, many uncertainties loomed, and we had no idea if we could travel or not. Visas, tickets, instruments, and logistics were all arranged at the very last minute. As a representative of the Goethe festival said, in Iraq, everything remains uncertain until the last moment, but then magic can happen. And so it did.
Weddings, Not Funerals
I must admit I am nervous, not knowing what to expect. What doesn’t help is that the Dutch government still issues a negative travel advisory for Iraq, deeming it too risky. However, on the other hand, the German Goethe Institut, UNESCO, the European Union, and many other European embassies consider it safe enough and even worthwhile to organize this festival. After careful consideration and discussions with documentary makers and artists from the Netherlands, Turkey, and Iraq, we decided to go.
The festival is in Mosul, but to reach Mosul, we first need to go to Erbil. We will take a car from there to cross the border from Kurdistan into Iraq. But to get the necessary stamps to go from Erbil to Mosul, we first need to travel to Baghdad. We will go through customs, get the stamps, spend one day in Baghdad, and then fly to Erbil the next day. There, we will be met by the organization and brought to Mosul.
After two flights, we arrive in Baghdad. After waiting for visas for about an hour and a half, we are finally officially in Iraq. We are picked up by a driver who takes us to two armored SUVs, each with one driver and one guard wearing bulletproof vests and carrying Kalashnikovs. It is supposed to make us feel safe, but for now, it feels quite intimidating. Fortunately, they had warned us in advance. In fact, they thought it would be reassuring to know that we would always be well-protected this way. It’s a reality I haven’t experienced yet, but it reminds me of the time I was in Lebanon right after the most recent war with Israel. I was in a hotel on a Friday night, fast asleep when I heard what I thought were gunshots or explosions. Looking outside, I saw empty streets. After it stopped, I went back to sleep but was still shaky the next morning. When I told my friends what happened, they smiled and told me that what I heard were fireworks from the weddings that take place on Friday nights.
Every Iraqi Has a Story
We spent the day in Baghdad, waiting for our connecting flight that night to Erbil. The same cars and drivers guided us around this remarkable city. Baghdad possesses its unique character, yet it also evokes memories of other cities in the region—the flow of the Nile through Cairo, the scars of wars on buildings like in Beirut, and the organized chaos of traffic in Tehran. As we explored a souk, admired the Tigris River, visited an old tea house, and even stopped by a church, the echoes of these cities resonated within us. We engage in conversation with a young Iraqi employee of the Goethe Institut. I ask him about his experiences during the long years of war in Iraq. “Every Iraqi has a story,” he replies. He shares his own story of losing his mother to an Al Qaeda attack at the beginning of the war. Yet, he continues, “Everyone here still dreams of better times.” Showing us that Iraq is on its way back, and through our stories us showing others, is one of his missions that motivates him to work for the Goethe Institut.
Erbil presents a different narrative. This city is located in Kurdistan, a region situated between Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. It’s a relatively new state whose existence is not recognized by some countries, but it has been the ancestral home of the Kurds for centuries, even millennia. Since the Iraq war, they have achieved independence and built a rapidly developing modern state. The atmosphere is more relaxed, and the people are determined to make it work; they extended a warm welcome to us.
From Erbil, it’s a two-hour car ride to Mosul, our final destination. This once-beautiful city suffered extensive destruction during past wars, especially the most recent one waged by ISIS. UNESCO is working diligently to rebuild the old city, and amid the rubble, beautifully restored houses and mosques are emerging.
Throughout this immense human tragedy, also other, seemingly insignificant infrastructure was destroyed. Musical instruments were among the casualties, as ISIS made efforts to destroy all of them. This has made it nearly impossible to find instruments like pianos and double basses. Almost impossible… Fortunately, we were lucky to discover a piano in excellent condition at the home of a university professor who graciously agreed to lend it for the festival. So, for our trio concert, we hope to have a genuine piano at our disposal. The professor’s house is a museum of its own—a place of quiet resistance. Every detail in the house is music-related, from the ornaments on the door to the guitar-shaped lamps and the figurines of musicians, even the piano keys on the coffee cups that served us Nescafe. The professor’s sons treated us to a quatre-mains piano performance, and we engaged in meaningful discussions about how to contribute to the music scene in Mosul. It’s no easy task.
“You Have Beautiful Eyes”
During the first few days, we shuttled back and forth between Erbil and Mosul. Erbil falls within an orange zone, which comes with some travel restrictions, but it is considered safer than Mosul, which is in the red zone. Our driver, an intriguing security expert, enjoyed entertaining us with stories about his connections throughout society. He even showed us his office in Mosul, complete with fortified doors to every room and some imposing German Shepherds. He was an intense driver, overtaking vehicles with his heavily armored V8 SUV from every conceivable angle and shouting at anyone in his way.
Our primary safety concern, the reason for our back-and-forth trips between Erbil and Mosul, was up for reevaluation. The city of Mosul and our travel route there made us feel relatively safe. We were traveling with a group of musicians from both Iraq and Europe, and we always stuck together. In our assessment, the chances of encountering a traffic accident or worse while traveling between the two cities exceeded the likelihood of a terrorist attack in Mosul. Additionally, the lengthy travel time made it impractical. The 80-kilometer journey between Erbil and Mosul, theoretically taking an hour, stretched to two and a half hours due to checkpoints on both sides and the chaotic traffic in Mosul—a city still undergoing reconstruction. This meant we were spending almost five hours per day in a car.
The checkpoints themselves were intriguing. Thankfully, our well-connected driver ensured that we passed through swiftly, with a wait of only 15 to 20 minutes at the dusty roadside for passport checks. Fortunately, our Dutch passports didn’t pose any significant issues. On our last trip, with a different driver—one of the six sons of the security expert—we encountered an even more relaxed checkpoint experience. The military guard at the checkpoint looks with interest at our passports and peeks in the car looking at us. He says he understands we are in a hurry to perform. Five minutes later he is back. We are a little nervous. He looks at me, hands me my passport and says, ‘You have beautiful eyes.’. The very last thing I would aspect from a man in bulletproof vest and Kalashnikov on his shoulder. ‘Good luck with your performance!’. We are all flabbergasted and as the door of the car closes we can laugh out our suppressed giggles. What a place this is.
Back on the School Bus
In Mosul, we had the opportunity to meet the other artists participating in the first Mosul Music Heritage Festival. Among them was Frederik Köster, a wonderful trumpet player from Germany with whom I had the pleasure of collaborating several times before at the Morgenland festival. Also, there was the wonderful saxophonist Theresia Philipp from Cologne, a bright and energetic improviser. From Iraq, there were the young musicians from the Somriyat ensemble, led by Maestro Alaa Majeed. These young women were forming a classical Iraqi music group, all in their early twenties or younger, and they were a delightful bunch. Within Mosul, we traveled around in what appeared to be an old school bus. During each trip, one of the girls acted as the DJ next to the driver, and we sang and clapped along to popular Arabic songs. You can imagine the looks on people’s faces as we drove through town, a town that hadn’t heard music for a long time, where women had been deprived of rights and sold as slaves. Yet, here were these young girls singing as if nothing had happened, bringing their happiness to every corner of the country. Witnessing their resilience and positivity while driving through a largely destroyed town, where remnants of blown-up cars and bombarded houses and mosques were everywhere, brought tears to my eyes.
Maestro and the Collective Approach
Maestro Alaa Majeed did an excellent job leading his ensemble, consisting mainly of young women with a few men playing some instruments. The first Iraqi female bass player had yet to surface. The repertoire mainly featured classical Iraqi songs played in unison, leaving little room for improvisation. While we were invited to play with the ensemble, after one rehearsal, it became clear that it wasn’t the reason we had come to Iraq. We were improvising musicians who preferred a more collective approach, allowing each player to utilize their unique qualities to contribute to the music. As a result, we decided to start a separate group while also participating in the ensemble. The new group, the Mosul Collective, comprised three Iraqi players from the ensemble, two Kurds, three Germans, and three Dutch musicians. We had some wonderfully brief but effective rehearsals and played a composition called “Baghdad” by Munir Bashir (which was actually the very first song I learned from my Iraqi friends over 20 years ago when I started playing with Arabic musicians), two of my compositions, and two by the talented Iraqi singer-songwriter Yusr, who was part of the band. It was a wonderful experience working together like this and reminded me of Salon Joussour, where “Joussour” is the Arabic word for bridges—two-way bridges where we learn from each other’s musical cultures while maintaining our individual identities.
The Mystery of the Missing Pedal
On the third night in Mosul, we performed our trio concert. The piano we found at the professor’s house was on stage in the scorching afternoon heat of around 40 degrees Celsius. The piano tuner, the only one left in Mosul, was a friendly older man who gladly showing of his particular fondness for Chopin. When we arrived, he had already been tuning for an hour and anticipated needing another two hours to complete the task. By the time the piano was tuned, it was fully dark, and the audience had arrived.
The concert is wonderful, despite the challenging instruments—the piano for Rembrandt, my double bass—and perhaps the most biggest challenge of all for Vinsent. These drums, still wrapped in plastic, looked promising, but a crucial part was missing: the bass drum pedal. We discovered this the day before the concert, and a replacement pedal was supposed to be sent from Erbil (as there were no drums available in all of Mosul). However, it somehow mysteriously got lost along the way, and Vinsent had to play the concert without the pedal. He compensated admirably by covering the floor tom on his right with a cloth to muffle the sound, mimicking a bass drum, and played his foot patterns with his right hand.
In any case, playing jazz, especially the way we do, always allows us to adjust our music and playing style to the occasion. For concerts in the Middle East, we make sure to include songs with clear Arabic references. As the concert progressed, we could adapt our repertoire and playing styles based on the audience’s reactions. This is why I love playing jazz so much; it’s always new, always in the moment, and always creative.
Although the audience loved our music and listened carefully, they were also a little puzzled, as we learned afterward. They were waiting for a singer to arrive or for one of us to start singing. Instrumental jazz was a new experience for most of the audience members. I admired the openness of the audience. After years of no live music, no radio, and no instruments, they were eager and willing to listen and enjoy.
Mosul Makes Big Men Weep
Our first-world problems, like missing bass drum pedals, stiff upright pianos, and stubborn basses, evaporated the next day as we embarked on a tour of the old town—a town that was completely destroyed by ISIS only a few years ago. As we set off on this guided tour, we were still happy and lively. However, as we ventured deeper into the city, all of us—both the Iraqi and European musicians—became more and more somber. We walked through the ruins of what was once a beautiful city, with most houses reduced to rubble. We peered into the remnants of rooms, where shoes and clothes still lay strewn about. On some doors, we saw marks in Arabic, signs of where Christians had lived. Like the Jews during the Second World War, they had been taken away or killed. Newer writings on the walls read ‘Safe,’ indicating that these houses had been checked for booby traps and grenades. In one of the houses we entered, our guide pointed out a grenade on the floor, thankfully marked. UNESCO had begun rebuilding some of the old houses, and we visited one that allowed us to climb to the rooftop. The view from there was heart-wrenching, with nothing but ruins as far as the eye could see. It was Friday (Sunday in the Islamic world), and we heard prayers emanating from loudspeakers all around town. Most of us broke into tears, and a profound silence surrounded us. Being so close to destruction, to the real evil of mankind, was a moment of both fear and hope. Fear, or rather deep sadness, that humans were capable of such gruesome actions, not only here but still in many places around the world; hope, because there are always new generations willing to rebuild on these ruins and dream of a better world.
We departed from Mosul with heavy hearts, returning to Erbil to catch our plane to Istanbul and then onwards to the Netherlands. The armored car ride brought us back to reality after spending what felt like a dreamlike time driving around Mosul in a school bus with all our new friends. We had been humbled once again. That’s what traveling does to me. It makes me realize that I may have an idea of what the world is like, but the world is always even more complex, diverse, ugly, and beautiful than I ever thought. This was perhaps the most profound trip I’ve taken so far.
We owe our heartfelt gratitude to the Goethe Institut for extending the invitation to this event. Germany is one of the few countries that maintain such an active cultural program, and as a Dutch group, we are grateful for their support. Everyone involved went above and beyond to make this an unforgettable experience—our armored drivers, the local employees of the Goethe Institut, the European Parliament member and journalist who joined us on many days, and the wonderful head of the Goethe Institut Iraq. Of course, we are also grateful for the fantastic fellow musicians from Iraq, Kurdistan, and Germany. They will always hold a special place in our hearts. While the Dutch embassy couldn’t officially support us due to travel restrictions, both the Embassy in Baghdad and the consul in Erbil provided us with information and were willing to discuss our trips, for which we are also very thankful.