Iraq’s top musicians play on despite unpaid wages

Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat leads musicians during a rehearsal at Baghdad's School of Music and Ballet. (AFP)
Updated 15 August 2018
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Iraq’s top musicians play on despite unpaid wages

In a dusty Baghdad dance studio, conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat tries to fire up the musicians of Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra, whose enthusiasm has been dampened by eight months without pay.
An aging air conditioner fights to beat back the summer heat in the cramped space at the capital’s School of Music and Ballet as the 57-year-old maestro leads the group through a rehearsal of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”
The shaggy-haired Ezzat and the 40 musicians surrounding him are gearing up to perform at Baghdad’s National Theater on Saturday, but the group’s morale is at an all-time low.
The ensemble has lost more than half its members since the start of the year, when the government issued a directive barring state employees with two jobs from receiving two salaries.
The anti-corruption measure was suggested by the World Bank and should affect only about a third of the orchestra’s musicians, but because of delays in carrying out the reform wages have been withheld from the entire group.
“The orchestra is in great danger,” Ezzat said. “Some don’t have enough money to come, and others are disappointed by the impact of politics on the orchestra.”
Officially created in 1970 after several unsuccessful attempts, Iraq’s national orchestra has survived decades of upheaval.
It has survived wars, an invasion, a 12-year international embargo and a devastating three-year battle against Daesh militants, which came to an end last year.
But this may be the last straw for the outfit, a collateral victim of Iraq’s “war on corruption.”
“Not being paid for eight months has had a terrible psychological effect on the musicians, but we’ll continue to resist peacefully with our music,” said Ezzat, who became the orchestra’s first Iraqi conductor in 1989.
“We’re on the precipice but sure that we won’t jump.”
When all its salaries are tallied up — including the maestro’s $1,200 a month, peanuts for a major conductor — the orchestra costs the state about $85,000 (€73,000) a year.
The sum is a pittance compared to the exorbitant figures siphoned off by ministers and high officials who have either fled or been arrested.
The conductor, his daughter Noor, a timpanist, and his sons Hossam and Islam, who play the cello and viola respectively, have all been without a salary since January.
But according to Raed Allawi, the head of administrative affairs at Iraq’s Culture Ministry, there is no reason to panic — the wages will soon be paid.
“The Finance Ministry has asked for a regularization of contracts. Verification measures are underway and this explains the late payment of wages,” Allawi said.
“The orchestra is one of the country’s cultural showcases (and the ministry) respects its artists and their talent.”
For the symphony’s musicians, however, these are empty words they have heard already.
Saad Al-Dujaily, a professor of medicine and a flutist, thinks the measure is regressive. “I’ve been an obstetrician and a flute player since I was very young,” he said.
Because of the directive, the 57-year-old practitioner — who teaches at Baghdad’s Al-Nahrain University and plays in the national orchestra — is now entitled to only one salary.
“In Iraq, we’re proud to have more than one job, to have more than one love, to practice two professions with the same love and passion,” said Dujaily, who plans to continue with the orchestra to help preserve its quality.
Further along into the rehearsal, the studio’s electricity cuts, a common occurrence in a country plagued by power outages.
The orchestra cannot afford the diesel to fuel the building’s generator.
But the musicians play on in the windowless room, using their cell phones to illuminate the sheet music. “There have been crises in the past, but this is the worst,” said Doaa Majid Al-Azzawi, an oboe player.
“Especially since my father and I are musicians. We don’t know what will happen, but if the orchestra has to stop, it’s culture in Iraq that will be dealt a deadly blow,” the 25-year-old said.
When the studio’s lights eventually make a flickering return, so too does the players’ enthusiasm, and the music swells.
“As long as we live, music will live. It’s our culture,” said Noor, the conductor’s daughter.


Nicki Minaj shows off her quad biking skills in the UAE

Nicki Minaj recently released a new album. (AFP)
Updated 25 September 2018
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Nicki Minaj shows off her quad biking skills in the UAE

  • Nicki Minaj just hit the sand dunes in Abu Dhabi
  • She was just in Milan attending Fashion Week

DUBAI: Pop superstar Nicki Minaj just hit the sand dunes in Abu Dhabi and posted a string of photos on Instagram to show off her skills.

“Ride wit Minaj (sic),” the rapper-singer captioned a snap on the social media site, showing her astride a dune buggy in the desert.

She also posted a video in which she can be seen speeding through the desert with her loose hair streaming in the wind. Earlier in the evening, she posted a video in which she runs along a beach in the UAE at night and talks in a British accent, saying she wants her fans to “see the water.”

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Ride wit Minaj

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Before her trip to the Gulf country, Minaj sat front row at the Versace show at Milan Fashion Week.

She sat alongside Leona Lewis, Rita Ora, model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, actor Luke Evans and Italian influencer Chiara Ferragni in an enormous industrial space in the modern CityLife neighborhood where the runway show was held, according to Reuters.

“I’m so proud of you @donatella_versace You’ve never missed a beat. So tiny, but so powerful,” Minaj posted after the runway show.

“Loved the show tonight. Thank you for my gorgeous flowers & for playing like 75 percent of the Queen album at the show,” she added, referencing fourth studio album, which was released in August to mixed reviews.

Minaj also took a front row seat at the Fendi show in Milan, taking a turn for fans on her way in decked out in a Fendi puffer jacket and matching leggings and cropped top.

Other front-row celebs included Ferragni with her rapper husband Fedez, leaving home their much-Instagrammed infant, Leone, but trailing television cameras as they toured backstage.

While the front-row celebrity attire was highly branded Fendi streetwear, the runway collection by Karl Lagerfeld was more elegant and subtle, the Associated Press noted.

The artist is fresh off a bout of controversy involving US rapper Cardi B, who infamously tried to attack Minaj during a scuffle at a party held on the sidelines of New York Fashion Week earlier in September.

Minaj and Cardi B were the center of attention as A-list guests reportedly huddled around their phones to watch footage of the fracas.
A person who witnessed the incident, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Minaj was finishing up a conversation with someone when Cardi B tried to attack her, but Minaj’s security guards intervened, the Associated Press reported.
Video footage that circulated on social media at the time showed Cardi B lunging toward someone and being held back. Cardi B reportedly threw one of her shoes at Minaj.

Here’s to hoping Minaj has a more enjoyable time in the UAE.