We published this interview last year in our December Party Issue. It was so good, we had to publish it here again for you guys to enjoy.
There’s a theater to fighting. Be it two young men swinging fists in a ring, or thousands of people shooting at one another in the ruins of a city, there is an undeniable human drama that plays out. Maybe that’s why music is intrinsically linked to war—powerful drama needs a powerful soundtrack.
In Syria and Iraq, this human drama is once again playing out with a unique score, as various forces struggle to dislodge Islamic State fighters from their stubbornly held ground. Soran Qurbani is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist who’s been on the front lines of the war on ISIS almost a dozen times since late 2014. Over the years, he’s been compiling footage and interviews for a documentary about the music of this conflict. We talked with him about how it’s helping in the fight against ISIS.
What sort of things do people listen to on the front lines? Are we talking traditional music, modern Middle Eastern, or Kanye West?
Sometimes you come across Western rap when they are driving. I remember I was at the Hasakah front line in Syria, and they were playing one song, “Come Baby Come.” And there were a bunch of fighters behind the pickup [truck], all of them shouting. So, from time to time, you come across these things, but mainly they play traditional music, folk music, or primitive… It’s not classified; it’s just music, just relief.
When I was in Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq, most of the time we were driving [from] place to place, so they played music on the radio through these USB sticks. I noticed most fighters had one USB stick in their pack because they don’t have mobile phones or computers or iPads or whatever. Whenever they find an opportunity, they put the USB stick on so you can hear some music. It was mostly Kurdish music or, from time to time, some Turkish or Arabic music, because some are Arab or Turkish fighters. But the majority of it was revolutionary tracks. [The songs] talk about the revolution in Kurdistan in general — talk about oppression, talk about uprising, talk about martyrs. That sort of music I really found nice because of the atmosphere, the circumstance [of] where we were, was matched with the moment. Because, imagine a fighter going from one position to another and only has a short time to listen to music. He or she uses the opportunity to listen to this track, and maybe the next day they’re not alive anymore. It’s a kind of thing that works with the situation.
Photo: Hunda listening to traditional folk music while she waits for the enemy / courtesy of Chris Shearer
Apart from mp3s, some fighters bring their own instruments to the front lines, right?
Yes, some of them have some skills in playing an instrument. Of course, carrying instruments to the front line—the conditions make it not a good idea because of the weather, all they have to carry, and the fighting. So all of this makes it harder, but I saw some. We have this instrument called a tembûr, a kind of stringed, fretted instrument. It’s very popular because it has a very primitive, nostalgic sound. So some have that, some have drums. They play these from time to time at the front because, you see, fighting is not 24 hours a day, so they have a lot of spare time. So they are gathering, they sing, they dance. It’s very useful. It brings them to a different level, mentally.
I guess when you have the time, music is one of the few comforts on the front.
Yes, yes, exactly. At that time it works perfectly. When some people have skills like that, even when they don’t have an instrument but a nice voice, they can sing. It’s [the] kind of thing that relieves, so they can enjoy being together. Music plays a great role, I think, in that circumstance.
There was one guy they nicknamed “Rambo,” who carried a daf, a kind of drum. It’s actually a religious instrument. They had just liberated a town called Shyukh, on the east bank of the Euphrates, so they were super happy because the operation was well done, and the town was strategic. For all of them, it was kind of symbolic and a nice moment. They were tired, and he was sitting in the shade of a tree, and he played his daf. He was playing this same rhythm, all the time, and fighters were dancing, and he was making [up] a song by himself. “We are fighting here, Daesh [a more recent name for ISIS] is running away.” It was kind of funny, with this religious instrument. And all of them were enjoying it.
[Rambo] could play everything he said. He was telling me a story about the siege of Kobanî. During a battle, they had a few wounded comrades next to them, Daesh was attacking them. He said it was a moment where all of them were broken. He said, “I tried to find a solution, what can I do?” He saw a tembûr and grabbed it and started playing. “And I played and I played crazily,” he said. “And all of my comrades stood and said, ‘Let’s fight back,’ and we defeated ISIS that night.”
She was waiting for the enemy to move, to hit them, to hunt them. She was an excellent sniper.
It gave them a kind of courage to continue?
Yeah. He was saying that it was effective. Music is a kind of magic. He was talking about how it can affect people’s morale. That night it worked perfectly. He said, “We defeated ISIS that night because of my music. Otherwise, all of us would have been killed.”
It’s pretty common for athletes to get themselves in the zone with music before performing, but do soldiers also use music to pump themselves up before a fight?
I haven’t seen it in reality, but I’ve heard on the Peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdish militia] side, because some of them have mobile phones, [that] some listen to music during clashes. But I haven’t seen it myself. But I came across a sniper in Sinjar named Hunda. She was hiding in a small room, a basement, and there were a couple of holes in the wall. She was waiting for the enemy to move, to hit them, to hunt them. She was an excellent sniper. One day she let me go with her to witness what she’s doing. And so we went there, and she brought out a little speaker, and she put a USB stick on it. The first thing she did was put on music and then she prepared her things.
It was very calm, kind of folk music. I supposed she might listen to other music, modern music. But it was very old folk music, like 60 to 70 years old. And she was listening to that, and she started to wait. And wait. Hours of waiting. This music kind of went parallel with her waiting. It was about traditional love. Very sad music somehow. Very slowly written, old guys’ voices. And she was waiting behind her Dragunov [sniper rifle].
She spent the time with that music. Otherwise, if it was just silent, it was unbearable. With music, she made it shorter. She was enjoying it at the same time. Sometimes she was singing along and waiting for the enemy. It was the moment I saw music has a different function for her. It was slow, and the battle was slow. Together she made a combination of the music and waiting for the enemy. It was very nice.
When I think about war and music, my mind keeps wandering back to that helicopter-assault scene from Apocalypse Now, where they’re blasting “Ride of the Valkyries” because Kilgore thinks it freaks out the Viet Cong. Have you seen anyone try to use music as a psychological weapon like that?
Once we went to Makhmur in Iraqi Kurdistan, southeast of Mosul. I was with the Iraqi Army in a Humvee, driving to a village that was just liberated. It was a very dangerous and risky place. It was possible that ISIS would counterattack. And they had amplified speakers, the soldiers were carrying them, and they were playing Iraqi songs in Arabic [about] about how the Iraqi army is brave and how they defeat those enemies, that kind of thing. It was very loud, so probably ISIS could hear it. So it was to send a message, like propaganda. On the other hand, ISIS also uses those kinds of things.
I thought ISIS prohibited listening to music? One of the guys that helped found their ultraconservative interpretation of Islam in the fourteenth century even wrote that “music was the alcohol of the soul.”
Yeah. They produce their own music of this sort. Religious music. A few times I found these USB sticks that belonged to ISIS fighters, and I checked what they had inside them. Apart from many photographs, selfies, memories, there was music. It was all about Allah. I felt it had the same rhythm as reading the Quran, plus music. I couldn’t listen to that, because the words were all about heaven, paradise, Allah, God, this kind of thing. But there was music in the background. So they probably listen to this stuff during battle. I [heard] some — one was probably in Chechnyan, one was probably an Asian language. So they had different sorts of music — different versions, different languages. In every society, music plays a great role. Everywhere you go, you can listen to music, everywhere around the world. So those kids that join ISIS also grow up in that atmosphere, so that’s why they have to do something with music. They can’t live without music.
It soothes, it energizes, it focuses.
Yeah. Think: Without music, what can be? Then we can understand the importance of music. Because when fighting is very tough, like what I saw last time in Manbij, every day they lost friends and fighters, so there was silence. That kind of silence was very heavy for them; it was very tough. You’ve been with someone and today he or she is gone. But when music came, this atmosphere completely changed. People were traveling with that music somehow. They were not in the same mood. Especially those songs that were revolutionary, talking about martyrs. Immediately you could feel it, the relief. It was a kind of [aspirin] to relieve the pain. This music worked like that. There’s no decision about that, no “Let’s play music together to relieve the pain.” It just happens. But at the same time, they sometimes play music to express their happiness. If they can’t find music, some would sing. I saw this many times in Iraq and Syria.
There have been rumors for months now that the battle for Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State caliphate, is going to start by the end of the year. Let’s say it starts tomorrow. What music would you take to the battle?
I would pick a track called Mem û Zîn. It’s kind of The Iliad or The Odyssey in Kurdish—two lovers who have never met. It’s very soft, very sad at the same time, very nostalgic. I think most of the soldiers live with this nostalgia for their entire lives. Doesn’t matter which soldier, I think most soldiers have a lot to tell, and music might tell this in a different way. I’d like to have Pink Floyd over there, but I think it wouldn’t work. The fighting rhythm would change. [Laughs]