Gili Gaon’s documentary focuses on Israeli musician Dudu Tassa’s discovery of his family’s musical heritage. Tassa is the grandson of the Iraqi-Jewish musician Daud al-Kuwaiti, who collaborated with his brother Saleh in one of the most successful musical acts in 1930s Iraq. The al-Kuwaiti Brothers were so popular that they performed for Iraqi’s monarchy, and they were credited with creating the nation’s distinctive modern music sound – which, in turn, influenced popular music throughout the Middle East.
But the al-Kuwaiti Brothers’ fortunes changed dramatically after the creation of the State of Israel. They emigrated from Iraq in 1950, but were forbidden from taking their substantial earnings with them and arrived penniless in a Jewish state where Sephardic Jews faced discrimination and Arabic-language performances were discouraged. They lived the remainder of their lives in near-obscurity, ill appreciated in their adopted homeland except for those who tuned into the Arabic channel of the Voice of Israel radio broadcasts. (Ironically, they were still revered in Iraq – the film includes a fascinating 2003 clip from Iraqi television that honored the siblings’ contributions to the nation’s culture.)
Despite its facetious title, “Iraq n’ Roll” is a serious examination of how contemporary rocker Tassa pieces together the al-Kuwaiti Brothers’ life story and discovers their rare recordings from a half-forgotten archive, which he later incorporates as inspiration for his innovative music compositions. The film provides a compelling and often troubling glimpse at Israeli hostility to the Sephardic cultures – a problem that has not abated, as witnessed in the film’s opening sequence by the angry response displayed by some Israelis at the ceremonial renaming of a street in honor of the al-Kuwaiti Brothers.