In Iraq, heavy metal goes to war!

When I saw a blog entry on a documentary about Iraq’s first heavy metal band, I was absolutely intrigued.  Does the music sound Middle Eastern?  Are the harmonies western, eastern or a combination of both?  What does the group look like?  How could a band play the “devil’s music” in of all places – Iraq?  So I rush ordered the DVD…

In today’s world of pseudo-revealing-behind-the-scenes-access, and fake “tell all” exposes, the movie documentary Heavy Metal in Bagdad dramatically stands apart.  The story documents the tumultuous, dangerous and depressing struggles of Iraq’s only heavy metal band “Acrassicauda” (Latin for “Black Scorpion”), which formed in a Baghdad basement in 2001.

Finding it nearly impossible and life threatening to even perform in Baghdad, the band eventually began receiving death threats from insurgent groups and religious fundamentalists accusing them of Satan-worship because of merely playing heavy metal music.

The film shows the band going through a run of really hard luck:  their rehearsal space was hit by a scud missile, living through debilitating poverty, and having to flee Iraq to stay alive.  Unlike Paul McCartney merely singing about being in a band on the run, Acrassicauda literally became the real band on the run.

Originally learning to speak English from listening to records by their heroes such as Metallica, Slayer, and Slipknot, the young band members possess an odd blend of world weary jadedness, which is juxtaposed against adolescent naiveté.

I understand their naiveté, as all of us who intend on “making it” need to have it.  When we start our dream to be in a band, we must enter into a somewhat delusional realm:  “I’m going to be the biggest rock star in the world!”  Acrassicauda has that attitude.  “Rock stars, yeah,” they say about themselves while standing on a war torn and ravaged Baghdad street.  To make a record and tour with Metallica – that is their plan, and they mean it!  Yes, they would have to mean it, if they ever hope to have a shot of making their dreams come true.  And of course it is sad, poignant, and touching.

During their years of struggle before hitting it big, The Beatles had a ritual for this.  When times were tough, the morale of the band was low, and they all felt hopeless, everyone would look to John Lennon, and ask: ’’Johnny, where are we going?”  “To the toppermost of the poppermost,” Lennon would reply!   If someone looked at them back then, they might have scratched their heads and wondered if they were clinically delusional.  The same thing could be said of Acrassicauda, and practically anyone gunning for the big time.  No matter what level you are at in your career, you must keep that resolve if you hope to be a contender.

Acrassicauda has that kind of resolve.  When speaking of someone threatening to kill them one by one, a band member interjects and states that they must die together!  These guys would truly die for their dream to play heavy metal, grow their hair long, and do it their way.  I get that part too.  When my life and my band’s was in danger, I was unfazed – never thinking for a minute of backing down.  To me, it was well worth dying for!

But in the real world, where very few of us truly hit it big, people will mock those dreams, and flatly state, “Yeah, right buddy, get your head up out of your ass, wake up and get a real job.”  So either you stay with the blind audacity of your dreams with the ever present hope of making it and let others laugh at you, or you cave in and assimilate into the suffocating and imprisoning nine to five world.

Besides their naiveté, Acrassicauda comes across with a sense of jadedness, and it’s obvious to me where all of that comes from.  It is clearly based on them having lost touch with family and friends, seeing others killed, having no sense of freedom in their country, and knowing that they could literally be taken out at any minute.  From the relentless and debilitating pounding of danger, no options, poverty, and death, one learns to shut down – desensitization is the term.  In actuality, there is a chemical that shuts down in the brain as a way of not going into overload.  So after so much horror, one learns to numb the emotional shock and turn it all off as a survival mechanism.

I understand their sense of jadedness, and could certainly relate to it, as I have experienced it in my own career as well.  In the early to mid 1990’s, I was still teaching music to children in a government granted Suzuki Music program at the YMCA in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago.  Within the YMCA, senior citizens were housed, and my former Skafish band keyboardist Javier Cruz ran the program.  I always dressed bizarrely, and oddly, the seniors, of all people, loved it.  I was sort of like the crazy fun court jester, and we’d always talk, and I’d buy them snacks from the vending machines, as they were poorer than me.

Since the neighborhood was always quite rough with gangbangers and violence, many folks had a cynical and jaded edge regarding violence and danger.  It was a way of life – like the day when I was teaching and one of my 13 year old students got shot right in front of the YMCA.  Then, in another shooting, a bullet intended for someone else went through a senior’s eye, and left them blind.  No one really made such a big fuss about any of this.  Sure, it was talked about, but there was not the predictable horrific reaction most would expect.  Exposure to repeated actual violence really shuts people down, so when Acrassicauda spoke in such matter of fact terms about not being alive tomorrow, it made complete sense to me.

With all of the drama regarding the “story” of Acrassicauda, one might wonder about the real issue here – their music.  From a musical point of view, the best musician in the band is Tony, their lead guitarist, who is quite accomplished by metal standards.  Marwan, the drummer, and bassist Firas are competent, and through more performing, would tighten it up a bit.  The singer, Waleed soon fled the country after the war began in 2003, which left Faisal, the rhythm guitarist, to be the new vocalist.  Their songwriting is already formidable, and if they ever had the ability to rehearse, write, perform and record freely, they might be able to become international contenders on the metal scene.  With all of the life and death danger they live with daily, one might wonder how the band can even keep this thing going at all.  It certainly has been a rough path to travel…

From 2001 to before the war started in 2003, the band was only able to play a measly three shows – and that wasn’t easy at all.  Then for a while after the war began in 2003, things seemed like they might just be looking up – as if real freedom could be within their grasp!  But that soon proved to be illusive, as the bloody insurgency began ravaging through Iraq and ripping apart the band’s hopes and dreams.  From 2003-2006, they were only able to perform three more shows, while struggling to stay together and stay alive.

Feeling like they had ran out of options and fearing for their safety, they relocated to Damascus, Syria where they lived as refugees for a year.  They then moved to Turkey, largely based on international donations they’ve received.

In their long hard seven years as a band, they have managed to perform a total of only 6 concerts in Baghdad, 2 in Syria, and 1 in Turkey.  Most bands would never be able to hang in there and stay together that long with such limited results.  For most people who are in a band, the main concerns are making sure there is enough gas to get to the gig and the hope of earning a few bucks.  For Acrassicauda, their main concerns are the fear of being blown up or shot on the way to a show, and wondering if the venue will have power that will actually work.  At one such Baghdad performance shown in the movie, the power repeatedly went out.  The stop and start was absolutely frustrating for the band and the audience.

Acrassicauda started out as a band with a dream, but the war has all but destroyed that dream of expressing themselves in the way any of us in the “free world” merely take for granted.  In seeing the Iraq war through the eyes of the American media, I never realized just how indescribably horrible it seems to be over there.  I learned more about the state of affairs in Iraq from this single movie than from all other sources so far. Why?  Because simple hand held cameras capture it all, with no political propaganda in mind.

It’s right there to see: While the band is standing on the street, guns and explosions go off nearby.  They don’t panic – this is just the way it is.  Entire streets of bombed out buildings line the city…not being able to stand in one place for more than five minutes, as one could get killed – and nowhere to turn for help.  The film crew is given bullet proof vests to wear and asked if they know how to use a gun.  They have a few Iraqi shooters with them to fire back if and when they are shot at.  Literally, Iraq seems to be in utter disarray on every conceivable level possible – like actual hell on earth.

The band knows that hell all too well, which is why they first fled to Syria, then to Turkey, where they are still living by the end of the film.  Tony, the lead guitarist speaks in a teary-eyed way of how meaningful it would be for him to leave Turkey and go back to his home country.  Living in Turkey has been alienating and isolating, so the band laments about a dream – but is it all in the past now?  Will Iraq ever be able to be “home” to these guys again?  If they go back, they could be killed for leaving the country, the music they’ve been playing and the international publicity they’ve received…

As the movie ends, there is no clear direction or semblance of resolution in sight; but there is one thing for sure:  Acrassicauda changed history by being Iraq’s first heavy metal band.  No one will ever be able to take that away from them, and the doors they broke down through the blind courage it took to risk their lives will most certainly pave the way for other metal bands to emerge there.  They really do make all the other metal bands out there today look like mere posers.

Followers are a dime a dozen – leaders and pioneers, who almost always go unrecognized, are few and far between.  In a world of conformity and false risk takers like artists who pointlessly act out in public, attack people, do something as foolishly self destructive as drugs, and get arrested for thug level crimes, Acrassicauda went where no one had ever gone before.

To be a pioneer is risky business, especially if you care about making it all work from a materialistic point of view.  Doing anything “first” hardly ever lines your pockets.  I know that all too well from my own many “firsts” as an artist – and it is a pill that no one would ever want to swallow themselves.  Yet so many people are rather cynical about the woes of unrecognized innovators, as if their suffering is meaningless, capricious and self serving.  (Most people choose to only empathize with others who have suffered in ways that they can personally relate to.  This “empathy” is based on shared and common experiences.  How many people have suffered as musical innovators and pioneers?  Those are a rare breed – thus, the lack of empathy.)

Musical pioneers and innovators hardly care about money – the desire for money could never begin to motivate the drive, passion, raw courage and transcendent genius that must be ever-present to facilitate the REAL forging of new territory – where no has gone before.  Add Acrassicauda to that list of those who went there – and this movie shows all too clearly, painfully, and dismally that to “go there,” you risk your life, give up your life, and you may actually lose your life in the end anyway…

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