Gilded Serpent presents...

Iraqi Dance and Its Unknown Dance Styles

Saad El Yabiss, Iraqi legendary percussionist

Khashaba Music and Dance

by Assala Ibrahim
photos property of Mr. Karim El Issa and Juliane Krappe
Text edited by Emma Howard, Jo Hirons, and GS Staff

posted July, 15, 2016

IraqIn a country almost entirely landlocked, the southern city of Basra city is Iraq’s only gateway to the seas and oceans of the world. Over time this unique city developed its own style of music and dance which became known as El Khashaba. El Khashaba is so deeply-rooted in local culture and traditions that it has become synonymous with the identity of the region itself.

As is often the case with folkloric and traditional art forms, no one knows for certain when the Khashaba style first began to be heard, or when the cultural life of the city began to take notice. The earliest written sources yet found suggest an origin as recent as the 1930s, but some authorities, such as historian Dr. Mohamed Mahdi el Basier, claim that the roots of the Khashaba rhythms can be traced back to the time of the Thawrat al-Zanj, the Zanj Rebellion of 869–883CE.

During the early 9th century, Southern Iraq had seen a series of great floods and failed harvests, causing widespread devastation and saltwater poisoning of the land so that the people who traditionally lived there were forced to seek safety elsewhere. The Abbasid Caliph took this as an opportunity to reward his favourites and supporters with vast tracts of land and gave them the power to raise taxes throughout the South in order to purchase black slaves – Zanj – from East Africa. The appalling treatment of the black slaves, the near-starvation of the local Basrawis, and the new landowners’ further contamination of Bedouin land and water-sources led to the Zanj Uprising in which all three disaffected peoples came together to rebel against the injustices of the Abbasid Caliphate and many thousands died. Basra City was the centre of their revolution and the Zanj rebel leader, Ali ibn Muhammad, claimed descent from the family of the Prophet, just like the Abbasid Caliph, and whilst he remained in power he behaved like the lord of a rival Caliphate.

Just like the Caliph, the Zanj leader demanded entertainment, but the musicians amongst the Zanj were not all trained to play musical instruments in the established maqqams. Instead, they performed with percussion instruments only, and included East African drums and rhythms alongside more traditional fare. Even today, the traditional maqqams are still sometimes performed in Basra with percussion only.

The word Khashaba comes from the Arabic “Khashab”, meaning “wood”, and it is thought that the first performers were boat-builders and ship’s carpenters. They would take a break from work to sing and make music, using just the wood from the shipyards and workshops, together with handclaps, and earthenware water-jars for improvised percussion. The traditional work-songs often made allusions to the history of Basra, and the time of the Zanj is not forgotten. As El khashaba music developed and moved away from everyday work to evening entertainments, other instruments were introduced, such as the explosive khishba and kassur drums, which are now essential to Khashaba; the oud, violin and qanun were also introduced, and became major instruments as microphones advance. These new and foreign instruments enriched the repertoire of El Khashaba and gave it a unique voice easily distinguishable from both traditional and modern Iraqi music.

A recent performance
A recent performance

As with many port cities, Basra has always been a place where foreign ideas and arts are easily accepted and merged with the local music and dance. This is why El Khashaba has also adopted and adapted the popular music of other Arab countries: it has been influence by the songs of the famous Egyptian Singer Umm Kolthoum, and by those of legendary Lebanese stars Fairouz and Wadiah el Safi. This fusion of foreign Arabic songs with the native Khashaba rhythms helps create a distinct style of music, and as the music developed, the associated dances became more sophisticated and refined, whilst still retaining a perfect harmony with the Khashaba spirit, so that, together, they form a magical fusion of energy and popular entertainment. The El Kawliya Gypsies of Iraq have also gradually brought Khashaba music and dance into their performances, but it should be noted that when the Kawliya perform Khashaba songs and dance their interpretation will have a different mood to a performance by non-gypsies. Their gypsy spirit adds an exciting additional take on an already multi-faceted art form.

Assala (author) and Sajda Obied performing Khashaba at the International Gypsy Festival 2015 (Switzerland)

Khashaba music and dance began to be recognised and became popular throughout Basra city in the early 20th century, and, with the advent first of recorded music and then radio, the pioneer generation of singing stars emerged, together with musical ensembles and dance companies.

Some of the most popular early musical ensembles were women-only groups, such as those led by Umm Ali and Um Karim, who were adored by many.

This may have been originally because women’s voices were easier to record in unsophisticated studios, and the women’s groups were cheaper to hire by recording companies than established male bands. Whatever the reason, these early performances set a precedent which has continued today. Women were also able to perform Khashaba dance in public, although, historically male Khashaba dancers dominated the stage. This all changed in 1976 when the government began to officially support Iraqi dance and founded the first national dance companies. Women were allowed to join these dance troupes and started to appear on stage performing El Khashaba in public with the protection of official government approval.

Abo Aouf

Abo Aouf is one of the pioneers of the Khashaba

At the time of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, there were more than 50 Khashaba music groups (“shada”) in Basra City alone. Each shada contained 20-30 members, including singers, musicians, dancers and a chorus (“Riwadiyd”). The Basra National Khashaba Group performed in more than 70 countries. They won many prizes in international music festivals, including the prestigious Leone d’Oro, the Golden Lion achievement award in Venice.

Since 2003, with the increase of austerity and religious intolerance, female musical ensembles have completely disappeared, and very few male musical ensembles still actively perform Khashaba in present day Iraq. Those who do exist struggle with a lack of financial support; and find it difficult, or near impossible, to rent rehearsal space and meet day-to-day running costs. Recently, Al Sada Net Magazine carried out an interview with one of the oldest and most famous female Khashaba dancers in Basra. For safety reasons she remained anonymous, publishing only her initials Z.H. In the interview, she explained:

“These last years have been the worst of my life. Each day I think this will be my last day alive. When I would to go to a rehearsal, or performance, I covered myself with a black long dress and a black hijab. Every time I took a different route in order not to attract the attention of the fanatical armed Muslim groups. They had already killed dancers less famous than me. I still hope for a better time when we can be free to dance.”

Despite Iraq’s troubles, the arts of El Khashaba continue to advance, albeit slowly, and despite war and political upheaval, they now flourish throughout Iraq and the Gulf States. This is due in no small part to the great efforts of generations of Khashaba artists who have brought this style the recognition it deserves, and gladly and passionately spread their precious knowledge. Among them are, the director of the Basra National troupe, the legendary khisba player, Saad el Yabis, and the well-known Iraqi composer, Kazem Gazar, who both play a vital role in keeping El Khashaba traditions alive. Special mention should also go to Karim el Issa, a freelance journalist from Basra, who for many years has contributed greatly to the survival of this beautiful art-form by carefully following and documenting the progress of Khashaba music in Iraq and abroad.

. El Khashaba Music and Dance Company

El Khashaba Music and Dance Company rehearsing



Saad el Yabis

Saad el Yabis and Karim el Issa

Saad el Yabis with his

Saad el Yabis and his band


NYC flyer

I will give lecture and workshop about Khashab dance
in New York in May 2017

  • Author will give lecture and workshop about Khashab dance in New York in May 2017 for Sharifwear.
  • Author’s bio page

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