LONDON - When the Islamic State terror group swept across northern Iraq in 2014, they tried to wipe out the Yazidi people, a minority ethnic group that had lived in the mountains for millennia. Thousands of men were killed, and women and girls were forcibly enslaved. The ancient Yazidi culture was at risk of being eradicated.
The Yazidi music is estimated to be between 5,000 and 7,000 years old. However, it has never been formally written down or recorded. Yazidi tradition dictates that the songs are handed down from one generation to the next, with musicians memorizing upward of 500 pieces.
The music is divided into three different genres: folk music, which is often linked to the seasonality of agricultural traditions; ceremonial music and religious pieces.
Now, these unique sounds are resonating far beyond the homeland of the Yazidi in northern Iraq. Leading the AMAR project is violinist Michael Bochmann, who this month invited the musicians to perform at London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
“The music of the Yazidi people is absolutely essential to their culture,” Bochmann told VOA. “Only one section of the people, the Qawals caste, are allowed to sing the music. There are only 16 of them left, and so we thought it would be essential in case another genocide took place, or anything else horrific, that we lodge this and record it.”
AMAR has made over 100 recordings in northern Iraq, including at Lalish, the 4,000-year-old spiritual home of the Yazidi. Sound engineers and musicians are also visiting refugee camps, where tens of thousands of Yazidi people still live after the IS siege.
Hundreds of young Yazidis are being taught the techniques and instruments of their culture, including a sacred stringed instrument known as a tabor, and the daf, a type of frame drum.
An estimated 10,000 Yazidis were killed or kidnapped by Islamic State in 2014. Women and girls were forced into slavery, and suffered horrific sexual and physical abuse. Several members of the choir that traveled to London were held captive.
Music to heal
Among them was Renas, who was 14 when IS fighters captured her village Aug. 3, 2014. Over the course of the next three years, she was held captive and sold to three different militants, who abused and raped her on a daily basis. She gave birth to a daughter but lost two other babies through miscarriages. She was released after her family paid a ransom in 2017, but her captors refused to let her take her daughter.
Renas said the music project helps her forget the brutality of her recent past.
“I want this support to continue. Thanks to this project, our people did not lose hope. And if they will continue to help us, we will not give up,” she told VOA.
IS targeted musicians and destroyed instruments in an effort to wipe out the Yazidi culture. Now, it’s hoped the recordings will give permanence to the ancient music. The material is being archived at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the Mosul and Dohuk libraries in Iraq.
During their trip to London, the choir also performed for Prince Charles, next in line to the British throne. Ancient Yazidi music, once on the verge of extinction, is now sung in a celebration of survival.