Decades after warrior-king Sheikh Mahmud’s overthrow, Kurds keep on fighting for a homeland.
Sulaimania, Iraq – “Give that boy 25,000 dinars [$20]! He helped me bring in the flowers,” said the man in the navy blazer and beige chinos. “And dim the lights, lower the music.”
Chalak Salar lit up a cigarette and invited his guests to sit down. As Iraq’s war grinds on, he has been running the newest hot spot in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimania. There are daily reports of atrocities committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and as political squabbling continues, investors are packing up and locals are paying thousands of dollars to join the queues in Europe for asylum.
But Salar, the 42-year-old proprietor of the first and only jazz bar in Iraq’s Kurdish region, is unfazed.
“I get tip-offs from my friends in the security business from time to time,” he told Al Jazeera, with a shrug of his shoulders. “They tell me, ‘We hear there may be trouble, be careful.’ So I ask the staff to be extra vigilant.”
After the ousting of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, the country’s northern Kurdish region became a boom town, as investors, NGO workers, diplomats and consultants began pouring in. But aside from a handful of tea houses and kebab joints, there were few places for them to hang out during off-hours.
Several years in the making, Uptown Jazz finally opened its doors in September. Salar acknowledges that with the continuing threat posted by ISIL, it was not the ideal time to launch a business.
Sulaimania has developed a lot in the last few years, and the locals here are famed for liking to try new things.
“It’s not a good time, but I am not worried,” Salar said. “It’ll get better.”
Located on the top floor of the Copthorne Baranan Hotel in the city’s lively Sachinar area, Uptown Jazz is already starting to become a fixture on Sulaimania’s entertainment scene. The club’s wood-panelled interior features a lacquered piano, traditional Kurdish instruments and posters and films of famous jazz bands.
Although this is the first jazz bar in the Kurdish region, it is not the first of its kind in Iraq: Many older Iraqi exiles still remember the night, 52 years ago, when Duke Ellington and his band played in Baghdad on the eve of the 1963 Baathist military coup.
As the cultural capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, Sulaimania was a plausible – even natural – location for the country’s second-ever jazz club. Still, the road to opening night was not as smooth as Salar and his team had hoped.
“Coming up with the concept to opening night took about three and a half months,” Nuha Serrac, an Iraqi Kurd from the United States hired by Salar as a project manager, told Al Jazeera. “It was very difficult to find the right mix of staff with good hospitality experience and who could understand what we are trying to achieve with the venue. At one stage we were really panicking. Even getting the chefs to understand the international menu was difficult, but we got there eventually.”
Most of Sulaimania’s social clubs and hotels offer live music at least once a week, but it is usually Kurdish, Arabic or Western pop songs. Jazz is so uncommon that many residents of the city are not even familiar with the style.
Finding a jazz band was not easy either, Salar said. With the help of some friends, he has been able to bring together some of the city’s up-and-coming musicians to develop a jazz ensemble, and brought in a jazz singer from Colombia to add a female presence to the group.
Listen to a clip of live music from Uptown Jazz:
“Sulaimania has developed a lot in the last few years, and the locals here are famed for liking to try new things; it excites them,” Salar said. “We also have a large number of expats working here, and they are familiar with jazz, so I think the combination will work.”
Not everyone agrees. Darya Ibrahim, a 27-year-old resident of Sulaimania, told Al Jazeera that while residents of the city do like to try new things, the novelty soon wears off and they lose interest.
“For sure, people will go out of curiosity – perhaps even two or three times. They may even get a small group of regulars, but even those regulars will eventually get bored and stop going,” Ibrahim suggested.
For some, the problem may be financial: With the average cocktail priced upwards of $10, it is well beyond the budget of an average Iraqi Kurd. And with foreigners leaving the city in droves due to the economic downturn and deteriorating security conditions, the bar may have to rely a lot more on luring local clientele.
Serrac concedes it will take time to educate the local public about jazz.
“There are plans in the future to also have performances where Kurdish instruments are used to help broaden the appeal,” she said. “[Still], it may take time for locals to understand what jazz truly is. One friend asked me if it was a new dish on the menu!”
On opening night in September, Uptown Jazz drew a mix of the city’s business elite, students from the nearby American University, local artists and musicians, and a handful of foreigners. Around 150 people attended throughout the evening, putting the bar close to capacity.
The mood was generally positive, with patrons saying they liked the venue and the jazz music, but some felt the prices were too high, noting it was somewhere they would visit only occasionally.
Although the playlist may need some fine-tuning, Salar is convinced the venture will succeed over time.
“Of course, jazz is a new concept here; it will take time… For the moment, I just want people to come and enjoy the experience.”