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'Music is a need for me': Violinist discusses composing an album under ISIS

(SOUNDBITE OF CUATRO PUNTOS AND AMEEN MOKDAD'S "FROM HER, SCENE NO. 203")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On the album "The Curve," musician Ameen Mokdad plays lots of instruments, except on one track, there's percussion in the background, sounds he did not make. The song is called "A Day In The Prince Kingdom." The rhythmic patterns in the background don't come from any kind of a drum. You are about to hear the machine gunfire and bombs that were falling outside of his house in Mosul, Iraq, where he composed this music under ISIS occupation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUATRO PUNTOS AND AMEEN MOKDAD'S "A DAY IN THE PRINCE KINGDOM")

AMEEN MOKDAD: It's the city sound during the war. We know nothing about it. We cannot go out or look from the window. We just hear that. And you have to assume who's killing whom.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. There's very clear gunfire, and there are booms of, presumably, airstrikes. Why did you want to include this along with the music that you had composed?

MOKDAD: Because this is what we had to live with. And every single person under war would live with that. And it's not OK. And sometimes we forget it, but it leaves wounds in our memory.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUATRO PUNTOS AND AMEEN MOKDAD'S "A DAY IN THE PRINCE KINGDOM")

SHAPIRO: Ameen Mokdad taught himself to play the violin and many other instruments after that. When ISIS took over the city of Mosul in 2014, he had to play in secret. Even though he could have been killed for it, he kept making recordings and uploading his music to the internet for the world to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUATRO PUNTOS AND AMEEN MOKDAD'S "TEARS OF FLOWERS")

MOKDAD: I wanted to send a big statement also to everybody who judged Muslim people and said, all Muslims are terrorists; just kill them all, because that was a big public opinion, even in the country, in Iraq, you know? Yeah, they just supported - just kill everybody. And I was like, no, there's innocent people.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUATRO PUNTOS AND AMEEN MOKDAD'S "YOQAAL")

SHAPIRO: One day, ISIS found him. They interrogated him for hours, searched his house, and found his stash of musical instruments. ISIS smashed every one of them.

MOKDAD: Two violins, one cello, one guitar and one - something called zippy zither.

SHAPIRO: And what did those instruments mean to you? What was it like seeing them taken away from you?

MOKDAD: Well, every single instrument I had started with. I mean, I was a student, and the economy situation really bad, and I had to save every single penny. It wasn't a fancy instrument, but it's my instrument, like, my babies. Like, for instance, the cello has a name. It was Peter. So they just...

SHAPIRO: Peter was the name of your cello.

MOKDAD: Yeah, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Can we hear a little of Peter the cello? Do you have those recordings?

MOKDAD: I do. I do.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MOKDAD: All the cello parts in my 25 compositions heard on "The Curve"...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MOKDAD: ...Is all recorded with this.

SHAPIRO: OK, let's listen to a little of Peter the cello.

MOKDAD: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Without his beloved musical instruments, Ameen Mokdad slipped into a deep depression. So one day his cousin said, why don't you make an instrument?

MOKDAD: And I went to the market, and I bought sheets of wood. But we faced a problem, and some material like the strings were a big problem because...

SHAPIRO: What did you make the strings out of?

MOKDAD: So there's this specific string they use in Mosul, one of the cities who create soap. So they use this string to cut the soap.

SHAPIRO: Oh. Is it, like, a metal wire or...

MOKDAD: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: OK. So you get the wood. You get the string. And you've never built a musical instrument before.

MOKDAD: No, no.

SHAPIRO: But you build this...

MOKDAD: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Just out of your imagination.

MOKDAD: But when we had the instrument, we were like, oh, this is a big problem. We literally felt we made a mistake, just like having a baby in the wrong time, in the war.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MOKDAD: Like, you are...

SHAPIRO: How will you keep it safe?

MOKDAD: Exactly. You are barely surviving your life. And not only that. This baby is a curse because if they came and find this instrument in this house and if they had in their brain to forgive you for your past sins...

SHAPIRO: They see you've done it again.

MOKDAD: Again.

SHAPIRO: But you didn't destroy the instrument.

MOKDAD: No, no, no, no, no.

SHAPIRO: It has 44 strings. He plucks it on his lap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: He needed to give the instrument a name. Mosul was a city of gates, doors that led to the ancient city of Nineveh. ISIS bulldozed those archaeological treasures.

MOKDAD: So one of the doors called Attar (ph) - and it's the thunder god. So it's like, they wanted to destroy the door and the name and the history of it. Why don't we just piss them off and call this instrument Attar?

SHAPIRO: So it lives on.

MOKDAD: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: And you filmed yourself playing this instrument on the ruins.

MOKDAD: Of Attar.

SHAPIRO: Was this after ISIS was driven out of Mosul?

MOKDAD: Yeah, it was after liberation.

SHAPIRO: Where is that instrument now?

MOKDAD: In Baghdad.

SHAPIRO: It's in Baghdad.

MOKDAD: Yeah. I wanted to bring it here.

SHAPIRO: Here meaning the United States. After composing an entire album shut in his house under ISIS occupation, Ameen Mokdad is now free to travel the world. When we spoke, he had just spent several months composing and performing music around the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUATRO PUNTOS AND AMEEN MOKDAD'S "FROM HER, SCENE NO. 203")

SHAPIRO: I think many people view music specifically and art generally as a pleasure, a convenience, a luxury, a hobby. For you, it is so clearly something different from that, something more than that. What is it for you?

MOKDAD: It's a need. It's definitely a need. I cannot imagine any healthy life without art. You could live without vitamins, but you will have problems. I'm not saying you cannot live without music or art. You could live, to be honest. But it's not a healthy life. So if I decide to live, I want to live a healthy life. So music and art is a need for me. It's something I would die for.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUATRO PUNTOS AND AMEEN MOKDAD'S "FROM HER, SCENE NO. 203")

SHAPIRO: Earlier this year, Ameen Mokdad got some good news. Wesleyan University accepted him to the school's master's program with a full scholarship.

MOKDAD: Like, full tuition. I was like, wait a minute. What? I'm very excited, though, very excited.

SHAPIRO: And perhaps as a sign of how essential music is to Ameen Mokdad, he showed up in our studio with a violin. And when I asked whether he wanted to play it for us, he said, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMEEN MOKDAD'S "TRAIN")

SHAPIRO: He told us he has composed a new album during his time in the U.S. This song from it is called "Train."

MOKDAD: I always feel my life is a train. You have stations to stop at. There's no way back. You always have to go to the front.

SHAPIRO: Well, Ameen Mokdad, it's been such a pleasure talking to you.

MOKDAD: It's a big honor.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

MOKDAD: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: The album that he composed under ISIS occupation is called "The Curve." He recorded it with the ensemble Cuatro Puntos. And his newest album is titled "Bicycle Baghdad."

(SOUNDBITE OF AMEEN MOKDAD'S "TRAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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