How Coachella act Dudu Tassa, an Israeli-Iraqi-Yemeni Jew, resurrected his ancestors’ music (and toured with Radiohead)
Israeli musician Dudu Tassa, who opened Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival with a Friday afternoon performance backed by his band the Kuwaitis and will do the same this weekend, has deep roots.
As an Israeli-Iraqi-Yemeni Jew born in Tel Aviv who plays the music of his once-celebrated ancestors — the Jewish-Arabic composer-brothers Saleh and Daud Kuwaity — Tassa’s influences are arguably more ancient than those of Future, Tove Lo or Lorde.
For the last half decade, Tassa has been remaking Saleh and Daud Kuwaity’s songs for new generations as a way to reclaim their glorious musical past.
“When I was young I didn’t know my grandfather was so big — he passed away three months before I was born,” says Tassa, through his translator (and manager), during a phone conversation.
“I was a little bit ashamed that friends were coming to the house and my mother is listening to Arabic music,” he added.
An acclaimed solo musician in Israel, Tassa has earned a lot of new followers this year while touring America with Radiohead, which invited him to tour after playing with them in Tel Aviv.
They were likely drawn to the mesmerizing band’s rhythms and energy, which maneuvers and swirls in ways similar to Radiohead. But beneath the music and the language barrier, Tassa’s music touches on ideas that were nearly extinguished.
Starting in the 1920s, Tassa’s Iraqi grandfather and uncle were considered some of the greatest songwriters in the region and are credited with helping to create modern Iraqi music.
They were instrumental in founding the Iraqi Radio Orchestra and they performed for royalty as respected members of the cultural elite.
After World War II, the brothers, like tens of thousands of other Jews, emigrated to the new nation of Israel. But because their songs were written in Arabic, the brothers’ musical success didn’t translate. And back in Iraq, authorities erased the Kuwaitys’ music authorship because they were Jewish. Songs were credited as being written by Arab composers or simply listed as generic “folk songs.”
Frustrated and at a loss, the brothers opened a retail shop in Tel Aviv and, while occasionally performing, removed themselves from the musical life. They even forbade their children from learning to play instruments.
Flash-forward to when Daud Kuwaity’s grandson, freed of the prohibition, took up music in the 1980s and found that he’d inherited the gift. Tassa released his first album when he was 13.
“After I felt comfortable with my Hebrew rock music, and I found my place in the music scene in Israel,” Tassa, now 40, says, “I felt the confidence and the calm to take those materials and to say, ‘I want to hear them, and I want to try to do something with them, to sing them like I want to.’”
The result was the 2011 album “Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis,” which adapted his relatives’ work by merging Arabic and Hebrew lyrics. . Among musicians, historians and advocates of cultural diplomacy, the album resurrected a whole history.
He and the band issued a follow-up album in 2015. Performances have been memorable, he says.
Earlier this year at the Womex festival in Spain, for example, “there was a girl from Lebanon and she came to us actually crying,” Tassa said. “She told us that in the middle of the show she called her mother in Lebanon and said, ‘Hey Mom, I’m putting you on speaker phone — you have to hear it. It’s your music!’”
On the band’s YouTube and Facebook pages, fans from across the Middle East leave comments.
“We have a lot of fans from Iraq, from Lebanon, from Syria. And it’s amazing, because we don’t have any other way to communicate to people from those countries,” Tessa said.
He added: “That’s the power of music. We wish we could come to Baghdad and to all those places and play for them — but I don’t think they will accept our passports right now.”