Song of the Day: Munir Bechir and His Quartet “Souk Harag”
Very recently I had a conversation with a client with family from Lebanon. He requested some traditional Lebanese music at his event and Munir Bechir (1930 – 1997) immediately came to mind. Just a few weeks ago I acquired the beautiful Babylon Mood album and was eager to share it at an event. A masterful innovator on the oud, a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument with 11 or 13 strings grouped in 5 or 6 courses, plucked with a reesha, “commonly used in Persian, Greek, Turkish, Byzantine, Arabian, Armenian, North African, Somali and Middle Eastern music.” The music he makes is exotic, vital, and melodically and rhythmically rich.
Recorded as Munir Bechir and His Quartet, “Souk Harag” is taken from the Babylon Mood album, released on Parlophone Records in Lebanon in 1972. Backed by percolating percussion rhythms, Bechir’s talent for the oud — and his supreme mastery of the maqamat scale system, seldom heard outside of Iraq — are on display on this short instrumental.
Munir Bechir was an Iraqi Assyrian musician who enjoyed huge fame throughout the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century. Born in Mosul in northern Iraq in a family of musicians and poets, Bechir was exposed to a rich musical history, coming into contact with Byzantine, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkish, Persian, and traditional Abbasidian music. From the age of six, he studied at the then-newly founded Baghdad Conservatory, devoting himself to preserving traditional Iraqi musical forms.
He eventually relocated in Beirut, Lebanon in the early 1950s, where his reputation (and exposure to western music) grew. He settled permanently in Budapest, Hungary in the early 1960s, where he engaged in the preservation of traditional Hungarian songs in collaboration with Béla Bartók. This meshed well with Bashir’s vision and passion for the traditional folk music of his home country.
In 1973, the Iraqi ministry of information appointed Bashir to its culture committee. Because of his international popularity, the apolitical Munir Bashir was well-suited for representing the different ethnic, religious, and political groups of his home country. But Bashir rarely spent time in Baghdad; he finally left the country after the First Gulf War in 1991. He toured Europe extensively and enjoyed an open-minded audience. Most of his recorded catalog was also recorded in Europe. Towards the end of his life he focused on making his son Omar his musical successor. Father and son recorded a duet in 1994 that is considered to be a classic in Bashir’s catalog, masterfully blending traditional folk material with improvisation.
Sadly, Munir Bashir died of heart failure in 1997 in Budapest at the age of 68, just before launching a Mexican tour.