Ilham Al-Madfai: The ‘Baghdad Beatle’  

Ilham Al-Madfai: The ‘Baghdad Beatle’  
Madfai performs at the Damascus Al-Assad Hall for Culture and Arts during International Refugee Week in June 2010. (Supplied)
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Updated 12 November 2022

Ilham Al-Madfai: The ‘Baghdad Beatle’  

Ilham Al-Madfai: The ‘Baghdad Beatle’  
  • For this week’s edition of our series on Arab icons, we profile one of the Arab world's most popular stars
  • The Iraqi legend’s son explains how his father has managed to reinvigorate and preserve Arabic music 

DUBAI: As one of the first musicians from the Middle East to marry Western instrumentation with Arabic music and poetry, Iraqi singer-songwriter Ilham Al-Madfai has been dubbed “The Baghdad Beatle.” 

“When we talk about Ilham, we’re talking about a school of music. He created his own path and style of music. Without Ilham Madfai’s music, most of the old Arabic songs would have disappeared,” says the singer’s son (and manager) Mohamad, in an interview with Arab News. 

“What Ilham Madfai did during the Sixties — the revolution he created when he recreated those old Arabic songs on guitar — it made the old music popular for the young generation and helped them be proud of their culture and music.” 

Born in 1942 in Baghdad, Al-Madfai formed what was reportedly Iraq’s first rock and roll band, Twisters, when he was just 19. Although almost universally shunned by music purists and critics, Iraq’s younger generation were, it turned out, ready to embrace this new style. 

“In Arabic, the instrumental intros are endless and the melodies sad,” Al-Madfai told AFP in an interview in March 2021. “Me, I shortened the opening and chose the instrument which adds an upbeat rhythm and stays in the listener’s ear.” 

The lyrics of most of Al-Madfai’s songs, apart from those he writes himself, come from ancient poetry and Iraqi folk music. “I interpret them by mixing in musical influences that I’ve discovered,” he explained. “All I’ve done is reinvent old Iraqi songs so that they can survive the passage of time.” 




Madfai in the ruins of the Amman Citadel in the Jordanian capital on March 6, 2021. (AFP)

Al-Madfai moved to London to study architecture as a young man, following in the footsteps of his siblings. He soon became a regular at Bayt Al-Baghdadi, better known as Café Baghdad — a hangout frequented by many notable UK musicians of the time, including Beatles’ co-founder Paul McCartney, jazz star Georgie Fame, and Scottish folk singer Donovan.   

“At that time, the youth of Iraq were fans only of Western music,” Mohamad says. “And then Ilham came along, and people began getting into this vibe of having Arabic songs played on guitar, and they started dancing to the songs. And that’s why the world called him The Baghdad Beatle — because he presented Arab music in a different way. And his contribution to the world of Arabic music is so immense, because today we have millions of musicians that are influenced by Ilham — and not only when it comes to playing guitar, but even by the style of performance,” said Mohamad to Arab News. 

When Al-Madfai returned to Baghdad from London in 1967, he began combining flamenco guitar rhythms with Iraqi folk songs, and his popularity continued to rise throughout the Seventies. However, his fame — and his musical ventures — were halted by the rise and later rule of Saddam Hussein. Unwilling to join the Ba’ath Party, Al-Madfai left his home and went on to work in a number of different Middle Eastern countries as an engineer. It would be years before he broke his musical silence again.   

When he returned to his country in 1990, the first Gulf War began soon after. And while Al-Madfai was greatly admired by Saddam and his family, he spurned their friendship at every opportunity, at great personal risk turn. After four years of trying to leave his country again, Ilham was allowed to go to Jordan in 1994 and make a home for himself and his family in Amman, where he still lives. 




Ilham Al-Madfai in the 1970s. (Facebook)

“We’ve all left our country for a variety of reasons. It’s true that I live in Jordan but I remain an Iraqi — attached in every way to my native land,” Al-Madfai, who also holds Jordanian citizenship, said in his AFP interview. 

Al-Madfai’s talents are not limited to music, according to his son.  

“When I was a kid, he raised me on sports,” Mohamad says. “Loving sports, loving football, loving music... He knows everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything. He has a great background in architecture, engineering, science, politics, sports, and, of course, music and art. He paints and he designs, he did the interior design for our house in Amman and our houses in London and Abu Dhabi.  

“I’m very lucky to have a talented dad like him. Even until this moment, he is a school to me. Every single day, I learn something new from him, from his experience in this world, and for sure, from a great musician,” he continues. 

At heart, Al-Madfai is a performer. From Glastonbury Festival to London’s Royal Albert Hall to the COP27 event in Egypt last week, he has always been a tireless entertainer, never missing a chance to perform for his legion of fans. 

Mohamad recalls a concert attended by none other than the UK’s new king, Charles III (who was then a prince): “Charles said to (my father), ‘You reminded me of the great old days of Baghdad and Iraq, which I used to love to visit. And you remind me of the trees of Baghdad. Your style is amazing, and you’re the best ambassador for Arab music.’” 


US director Oliver Stone explores Saudi film scene at Red Sea International Film Festival  

US director Oliver Stone explores Saudi film scene at Red Sea International Film Festival  
Updated 03 December 2022

US director Oliver Stone explores Saudi film scene at Red Sea International Film Festival  

US director Oliver Stone explores Saudi film scene at Red Sea International Film Festival  

JEDDAH: Lauded US director Oliver Stone took part in a roundtable discussion at the ongoing Red Sea International Film Festival in Saudi Arabia on Saturday.  

When asked by Arab News if he would consider filming in Saudi Arabia, he said: “My time is limited, I’m 76 years old. What do you want me to do, come down here and learn a whole different culture? No, I don’t think that’s possible. I have one project in mind, which I can’t tell you because nobody knows about it and if I can get that done, I would be very happy.” 

 

 

“The Middle East has tremendous potential, economically too. People are putting money here, no question,” he added.  

When commenting on film’s ability to act as a cultural bridge, he said “I imagine cinema has played a huge role, but on the other hand cinema is also very violent and revenge-motivated — those stories always seem to work — so you could say that’s not a good example for the world… so it’s double-edged, it depends on the movie.” 

 

 

Stone’s latest documentary “Nuclear” is screening at the festival on Sunday.  

Prior to his private discussion, the “Scarface” director and RSIFF jury president took to the stage at the opening ceremony of the festival on Thursday to share his views on Saudi Arabia.  

Stone said the country is “much misunderstood in the present world – people who have judged too harshly should come and visit to see for themselves.” He also noted “changes” and “reforms” taking place in the Kingdom, which he said make it worth a visit.  

Commenting on the 15-strong competition slate, the Oscar-winning director said: “These films stick to very basic ideas of survival, migration, suffering. There’s a real spirit here, which is growing,” according to Variety.  

The event will continue until Dec. 10 under the slogan “Film is Everything.”  

The festival is set to showcase 131 feature films and shorts from 61 countries, in 41 languages, made by established and emerging talents. Seven feature films and 24 shorts from Saudi Arabia will also be shown. 


Review: Red Sea title ‘Shimoni’ is both devastating and meaningful  

Review: Red Sea title ‘Shimoni’ is both devastating and meaningful  
Updated 03 December 2022

Review: Red Sea title ‘Shimoni’ is both devastating and meaningful  

Review: Red Sea title ‘Shimoni’ is both devastating and meaningful  

JEDDAH: “Shimoni (The Pit)” — part of the ongoing Red Sea International Film Festival — was written and directed with a lot of feeling by Kenya’s Angela Wamai. It is a devastating look at what happens when a community fails to care for a fallen man. Wamai's ability to tell a story through long silences add to the tension, aided by some wonderfully neat editing. The use of light and shade to take us through the moods of the moment to create a fantastic feeling, and our hearts go out to Geoffrey (Justin Mirichii), who suffers through a childhood trauma and a punishingly long jail term.  

Wamai's writing presents an authentic picture of this deeply religious churchgoing village, where the pastor's word is the law. (Supplied)

Released from prison seven years after being charged with homicide, Geoffrey shudders when he is asked to live in the village where he grew up and where horrifying memories torment him. Once a brilliant English teacher, the former convict is uneasy when he is asked to do farm work. His boss is a talkative woman, Martha (Muthoni Gathecha), who is displeased with him.  

The village priest has his own agenda — he wants Geoffrey to repent for his sins and gives the fallen man a sermon every night. But when the pastor insists that the young man meet with the victim's family, the uneasiness is excruciating.   

What ultimately proves to be a tipping point is when village gossip becomes unbearable for him. Beatrice (Vivian Wambui), just about to get out of her teen years, is another source of irritation for him, when her curiosity pushes her to play with fire. 

Wamai's writing presents an authentic picture of this deeply religious churchgoing village, where the pastor's word is the law. The only person who appears outside this circle is Martha, who loves playing the sleuth. Interestingly, the script offers a lovely view of the relationship between her and Geoffrey — their meetings are both tense and witty and the movie, set in the Kenyan countryside, goes to underline the trauma of an individual when he has had a run in with the law.  


Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jessica Alba among chic guests at RSIFF 2022- Women in Cinema gala  

Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jessica Alba among chic guests at RSIFF 2022- Women in Cinema gala  
Updated 03 December 2022

Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jessica Alba among chic guests at RSIFF 2022- Women in Cinema gala  

Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jessica Alba among chic guests at RSIFF 2022- Women in Cinema gala  

JEDDAH: International movie and TV star Priyanka Chopra Jonas made a glittering entrance at the Women in Cinema gala at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah on Friday night. Other glamorous guests included the likes of Jessica Alba, Frieda Pinto, Tara Emad, Lucy Hale, Sharon Stone, Gurinder Chadha, Salma Abu Deif, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja and more. 

“Quantico” star Chopra Jonas looked resplendent in a lavish gold gown by Lebanese designer Nicolas Jebran. Hollywood actress Alba — famously seen in movies like “Sin City” and “Fantastic Four” — also supported Middle East labels by opting for an elegant, embellished gown from Lebanese couturier Elie Saab. 

Meanwhile, on the opening night of the film festival, stars took to the red carpet and shone a light on Saudi designers. While stars like Sharon Stone, Shah Rukh Khan, Oliver Stone, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and many more graced the red carpet in striking fashion looks, Saudi designers also had their moment to shine at the event. 

Brazilian supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio dazzled in a blue jumpsuit from Jeddah-based designer Yousef Akbar. She completed the look with a gold bangle and matching stud earrings. The model has often sported creations from Arab designers. Last month, she wore a lime gown by Lebanese couturier Zuhair Murad to a holiday brunch in Mexico.  

Jomana Al-Rashed, the first Saudi woman to be appointed CEO of the Saudi Research and Media Group, was spotted posing alongside Hollywood star Sharon Stone, wearing Saudi label Loodyana. 

British actress Jacqui Ainsley, known for her role in the 2017 film “King Arthur: legend of the Sword,” took to the red carpet wearing US-based label Dazluq, founded by Saudi designer Salma Zahran. Ashley is married to British filmmaker Guy Ritchie, who was also in attendance. 

Julianne Hough at the Women in Cinema gala dinner. (Getty Images)

Honayda Serafi, founder of the Saudi label Honayda, represented her own brand in a striking green ensemble. “Delighted to be attending the opening ceremony of the second edition of the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, surrounded by successful talents from around the world and celebrating Arab artists. A grand event bridging cultures from West to East, bursting (with) creativity and beauty,” she posted on Instagram, along with shots of her outfit. 

Lebanese influencer Nathalie Fanj was seen wearing an ethereal mermaid black gown from designer Tima Abed. She completed the look with dangling, heart-shaped earrings from Chopard. 


British filmmaker Guy Ritchie envisions bright future for Saudi film industry

British filmmaker Guy Ritchie envisions bright future for Saudi film industry
Updated 03 December 2022

British filmmaker Guy Ritchie envisions bright future for Saudi film industry

British filmmaker Guy Ritchie envisions bright future for Saudi film industry

RIYADH: British filmmaker Guy Ritchie, most famous for his hit gangster films, the "Sherlock Holmes" franchise and his live-action "Aladdin" adaptation, said that Saudi Arabia is ripe for building a successful film industry, at the Red Sea International Film Festival. 

The director was speaking to Arab News on day two of the film festival in Jeddah.

Guy Ritchie at the photocall at the Red Sea International Film Festival on Friday. (Getty Images)

"What's interesting about (Saudi Arabia) is that there's such an explosion of enthusiasm. It's young and it's creative. And there's a high desire to express creativity. That makes it very interesting. So it's trying to couple the inexperience with the enthusiasm, because you have the enthusiasm and the means. And now you've just got to develop some form of experience and sub-structure," said Ritchie about the developing and nascent film industry in Saudi Arabia.

"I don't like making movies in the UK anyway. So I'd rather make movies outside of the UK. We worked in Jordan for 'Aladdin.' And that worked very well for us. We were in Spain for the last film and in Turkey for the film before that. There's no need to get out of the UK but I'd much rather work in in new and exciting environments. And for that really you just need a sub-structure in order to facilitate the ability of making movies. And I'm sure that will happen," added the filmmaker, who is attending the film festival along with his actress-wife Jacqui Ainsley.

Ritchie with his wife Jacqui Ainsley at the opening gala of the Red Sea International Film Festival on Thursday. (Getty Images)

In a separate 'In Conversation' segment on Friday, Ritchie address this topic again and said, "I think I'm very interested in this part of the world. And I think creativity should find its way into this part of the world. That's why I'm here. Really, what we're after is a fusion and the integration of cultural collaboration."

Ritchie went on to explain that for a healthy film industry to be built, incentives and subsidies for film productions are the way to go. "I can't shoot in the UK anymore because it's too busy to shoot there. That's how busy it is. And they've been able to do that because of incentives. So once you have incentives, then the other thing you need is to make a few movies here in Saudi Arabia. So other filmmakers look at the filmmakers that have gone before and then they just trust that," said Ritchie. 

Ritchie first made headlines and found international acclaim with the 1998 British black comedy crime film "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," which he wrote and directed. In an In Conversation panel at the Red Sea International Film Festival on Friday, Ritchie talked about how the film almost didn't get made. 

"This was the hardest film. I mean, it's not coal mining. So you've got relativize it within the world of how hard it is to scratch a living. But the film fell down a 1000 times before it was resurrected. And even when it came to a redistribution, you know, it was out and in and then it was out. And then it came down to, suddenly, there was one particular guy called Chris Evans, in the UK, who saw it and he loved it. And at the time, his show was the most watched show in the UK. And he pulled me on for the next week. That's really what made it a hit. He made a fuss about it, then everyone else would come," said Ritchie.


Sharon Stone gets emotional during Saudi Arabia visit

Sharon Stone gets emotional during Saudi Arabia visit
Updated 02 December 2022

Sharon Stone gets emotional during Saudi Arabia visit

Sharon Stone gets emotional during Saudi Arabia visit
  • ‘Basic Instinct’ star is attending Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah

DUBAI: Hollywood star Sharon Stone was visibly emotional during an In Conversation panel discussion at the Red Sea Film Festival on Friday.

Talking about why she decided to visit Saudi Arabia, the star of “Basic Instinct” and “Catwoman” said: “I’m an envelope breaker, my success is to break the envelope, just like coming here. Everyone said to me, aren’t you afraid? And I said, ‘I’m afraid not to know. So why don’t I go, see how it really is and I’ll tell you?’

Sharon Stone at the opening gala on the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah. (AFP)

“What I’ve learned is that what everybody tells you isn’t always the way it is.”

Stone added that it meant the world to her to be at the festival.

“I’m just a kid from Pennsylvania. I grew up with Amish people who drove into my driveway in their horse and buggy. There was no possibility for me to come to Saudi Arabia to meet you.”

Meanwhile, a clip of her awestruck reaction to being seated next to Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan at the opening night of the festival on Thursday has been doing the rounds on social media.