Monday, 16 April 2012

Chapter 36: The Du Kakas

The scarcity of entertainment in Northern Iraq gave rise to some unexpected and unusual surprises. Members of the small international community would often come forward to offer whatever talent or knowledge they had to inject some form of normality into the daily lives of each individual. Karate lessons became available, weekly aerobic sessions and even Thai cooking classes for the gastronomic enthusiasts amongst the populace.

My forte was music having played piano for pleasure for most of my life. I was aware that my manager had an acoustic guitar in his possession so I put the idea to him about forming a band.

Upon receipt of his enthusiasm towards the idea I instructed my driver to take me into the markets of Erbil to search out a keyboard. It wasn’t long before we pulled up outside a dusty shopfront which looked no different from its neighbours. My concerned look was greeted with a reassuring nod from my driver and we ventured inside to be greeted by a cluttered collection of worn, broken instruments. My heart sank although buoyed on by my driver’s limitless optimism we went in search of the shopkeeper.

In a side room we found a young, overweight shop attendant hunched over the most respectable keyboard I had seen in the shop thus far, skilfully belting out elaborate Arabic music with massive doses of enthusiasm and energy.

My interest suddenly waned at the limited supply of quality instruments on offer and I moved towards the door to retreat but my driver persisted and conveyed my request. The music stopped abruptly and within a few brief moments a tired looking keyboard with an unfamiliar brand name, Alesis, appeared and was presented to me for inspection.

The shabbiness concealed an instrument which I soon discovered retained its full functionality intact and after learning it had journeyed from Iran under dubious circumstances I decided to give the little keyboard a go.

And so the rehearsals began. Every Friday afternoon following the marathon walk I would carry my new found companion the short distance to my manager’s house and we practiced ten popular songs whose chords were downloaded off the internet. We continued until the songs were completely memorised. As well, in the privacy of my bedroom, I composed a solo instrumental piece to lead into the first song.

After several weeks we thought we were ready for an initial gig at the UN club in Ankawa. The club’s management was consulted and our half hour performance was booked into a slot before the commencement of recorded dance music on the ever popular Thursday night.

News of the gig spread quickly and whilst sitting in my office on the Thursday afternoon prior to our debut performance a colleague stopped by to ask if I was going to the concert at the club that night. After he left I crossed the corridor to my manager’s office with weakened knees and informed him that I was going home to practice.

The gig proved a disaster. My keyboard could not be heard over the din of the club and we barely drew anyone’s attention. It was clear we lacked one vital piece of equipment - an amp.

Another trip to the music store in Erbil produced one together with some leads and we booked another gig for the following Thursday evening. By now word had spread throughout the entertainment deprived expat community of our revamped band and anticipation rose exponentially throughout the week.

On the night, the club filled to capacity with expectant patrons eager to experience what was probably the first ever concert by a western band in the north, as we set up our equipment. A quick sound check adequately confirmed our presence and the atmosphere tightened. I noticed people who would normally retreat to the quiet privacy of their houses on a Thursday night were amongst the revellers and seated directly in front of our stand was the Programme Director - a highly unusual and rare visitor to the club. All this expectation and we didn’t even have a name.

Just as I was about to put nervous fingers to keys to perform my introductory composition an audience member seized the moment and stood in front of us to provide an impromptu introduction to our band. He finished by referring to us as the Du Kakas (Kurdish for Two Men). We finally had a name and the band was born.

For half an hour the club rocked liked never before. Our faithful amp pumped song after song out to a grateful audience eager to sing and dance to the music. We captured their hearts and their passion. For half an hour live western music burst forth from the club and rang out through the streets of Ankawa. For half an hour we were rock stars.

By the time the gig ended we had become Ankawa’s first celebrities. Drinks appeared in our hands, accolades flowed from each and every direction and “high fives” were executed at every turn in the crowded club. A young local boy working at the club volunteered to be our “roadie” and dutifully packed away our equipment.

As the night turned into the early hours of the morning the club gradually emptied. Finally I walked home with our “roadie” and as he retreated back into the night I was left standing alone in the kitchen pumped full of adrenalin and wondering when I had ever been more awake at 3 o’clock in the morning. The feeling was euphoric and indescribable. We had pulled off a unique event in spectacular fashion. The Du Kakas had become an integral part of the community.

In the months that followed, the Du Kakas became a regular fixture at the UN Club in Ankawa performing a live show every Thursday night to a packed house. During the week when our work called us away to Sulaymaniyah we took our show on the road there also. We even attracted a small gathering at each rehearsal.
As word of the band spread across the Kurdistan governorates, Dohuk was also added to our touring schedule.

The band was set to expand. We were approached by a drummer who began scouring Erbil for anything that resembled a drum kit and an avid electric guitarist promised to bring an instrument in with him when he next returned from leave.

But the fate of the Du Kakas slowly fell into the hands of George W Bush as the darks clouds of war loomed on the horizon.

Inevitably the evacuation order came and we were withdrawn from the region with heavy hearts. I left my precious keyboard and amp with my driver - maybe we would return. And the highly anticipated tour to Dohuk was cancelled. The future of the Du Kakas looked uncertain.

The Du Kakas played a final gig in Amman, Jordan, to a dwindling group of Kurdistan veterans. A venue was selected and I was lent a keyboard by a fellow expat. But the vibrancy was gone. The audience was subdued and the songs didn’t quite sound the same.

At the close of our set a taxi was waiting to take me to the airport for my final flight to Moscow. As we negotiated the darkened streets with the feeling of rock stardom slowly retreating I sat quietly and reflected on the Du Kakas. We would probably never play again but in the short space of the band’s existence I found comfort in the thought that the Du Kakas achieved something not even the Beatles had. We toured Northern Iraq.

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