The only way to describe the opening of Uptown Jazz in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimania last September, is to call it an act of rebellion.
In a country where the typical live music cafés feature Middle Eastern crooners and kebabs served on laminated tables, Uptown Jazz was seen by many as absurd.
he dimly lit space, the melancholy music, the eclectic menu choices — from Mexican nachos to Indian curry — hit the scene as a challenge to the status quo.
But its owner, Chalak Salar, knew that if his jazzed up version of rebellion had any chance to succeed, it would be in Sulaimania, a city known as the hub of great cultural and political movements throughout Kurdish history.
Back in the years following the U.S.-led war in 2003, as the Kurdish region became a boomtown, anything seemed possible. International fast food chains crowded local copy-cats such as Madonal, Burger Queen and Costa Rica Coffee. Shining glass towers replaced crumbling stone buildings.
Salar, a 44-year-old Kurdish entrepreneur and bon vivant from Kirkuk was certain that jazz, an unconventional music genre that took Europe by storm during World War I, would catch on in Iraq’s war-weary Kurdistan region.
A Kurdish Touch
“I thought the city needed a different kind of lounge, a calm place where one can go and forget all that’s happening in the rest of the country – a place that offers soothing jazz music, a place that has an American vibe but with a distinctly Kurdish touch,” he says.
“The people of the Kurdistan region tend to be fans of Turkish, Arabic and Persian music. So I thought, let’s try and give them something new. To do this, we had to get our band to infuse some Kurdish sounds and beats into the jazz repertoire.”
Armen Torosian, an Iraqi-Armenian drummer and vocalist from Baghdad, moved to the Kurdistan region in 2007, after receiving death threats from a gang in Baghdad. “They put bullets in my car, and sent me letters threatening to harm my children if I didn’t pay them the money they asked for,” Torosian tells Newsweek Middle East.
“This type of music is new for the people of the Kurdish region. Kurds are used to their own traditional music. So what’s happening here, it’s a revolution – a new style,” says Torosian, 55. “People come here expecting to hear Kurdish songs and they are surprised when they hear us play real jazz. But we ease them into it slowly.”
Has it worked? Well, like a good jazz melody, there have been high notes and some low notes, and maybe even the occasional bum note.
Salar insists that he is no businessman, saying he doesn’t do it for the money alone. Besides, he knew it would be a risky venture, much like the rest of his life.
A Wanted Man
Salar fled his hometown of Kirkuk in 1992. At the age of 19, he says, he was already a wanted man.
“Saddam’s regime was cutting off the ears of anyone who refused to serve in the military,” he says.
“I had managed to avoid it for a year, keeping a low profile. But it was dangerous for me to stay on. So I fled to the Kurdish safe haven, and then left the country.”
In 2000, he moved to London, where he first heard jazz at a café in Camden Town. He says the music just “spoke to me” and so he became a regular there. In London, he eventually opened his own café in Finsbury Park. But it wasn’t long before he grew restless. He watched from afar as foreign investments poured into the Kurdish region and the local hospitality sector developed to meet new rising standards. Two-star hotels, accustomed only to visiting delegations from neighboring countries, now had to cater to a clientele with higher expectations.
In 2010, American fast food chain Fatburger opened in Erbil, followed by the popular Lebanese restaurant franchise Al Safadi on the Hundred Meter Road in 2014. That same year Pizza Hut entered the market. A year later TGIF, KFC and Hardee’s put up their neon logos. The Rotana Hotel opened in Erbil in 2010, followed by the upscale Turkish hotel Divan and then in 2013 in Sulaimania, the Copthorne. Finally, in March 2014, local telecom tycoon Farouk Mala Mustafa – reminiscent of Orson Welles’ classic portrayal of Citizen Kane – unveiled the Grand Millennium Sulaimania, setting the gold standard for hospitality in Iraq.
By 2013, Salar was convinced it was time to return home. Long gone was the “paradise Kirkuk” of his youth. And so, he began with a cafe called “Chalak’s Place” in Sulaimania. The dark smoky setting with fireplace and original artwork recalled an underground European intellectuals’ salon from the 1920s. The antique door of his parents’ old Kirkuk house added a touch of home. It was an instant hit, drawing the wealthy, the bohemians, and the foreigners.
Hot on the heels of that success, Salar pushed the envelope some more and, with the help of a friend, Uptown Jazz was born. The lavish interior, wood-paneled ceiling, VIP booths, rare antique musical instruments and memorabilia on display, came at a hefty cost – $1.5 million.
“We did very well in the beginning – for about six months,” he says. “We had to overcome a degree of ‘cultural opposition’. Some people were offended by the concept. They couldn’t really understand it, so their instinct was to condemn it. Others disapproved of serving alcohol.”
Shvan Kaban, 25, a Kurdish guitar player and vocalist from Sulaimania, takes a more philosophical approach.
“I believe that if you do something well, people will love it no matter what. And so far, the reaction has been positive,” he says. “Jazz began as music for slaves in America, for slaves to express their agony. Now, the Kurds are in a similar situation. We are crying out for freedom from oppression, for our rights.”
But just as things were starting to come along, the problems with Daesh worsened, and the local economy began to tank.
Salar recounts how most of his customers decided to cut their losses and leave the Kurdistan region, arguing it was no longer safe or profitable. Those who stayed — and could afford to dine at Uptown Jazz — felt it wasn’t “appropriate” to be seen spending money at an upscale bar when many in the city were starving.
“The war with [Daesh] is affecting every single business. Even Chalak’s Place has been affected. The economic situation – people haven’t been paid their salaries for months,” he says. “The whole nation is depressed, and this is what I see on every single face every day – artists, film makers, teachers, or high ranking officials. They are all depressed. The ones who have money, they’re lucky. They travel more often. The poor are getting poorer.”
Salar says he is “losing money big time.”
“We are earning 50-60 percent less than last year…. To own a restaurant is a nightmare, but imagine owning one with a war going on down the road!” he says.