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Out of Baghdad: Rock Culture In and Out of Islam?

Posted in: General,Politics,Practices by Tom Beaudoin on November 25, 2009

I recently watched the engaging documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, originally released in 2007. It follows the metal band Acrassicauda from its origins in Baghdad, through the destruction (by airstrike) of their rehearsal space (and instruments) to their escape to Damascus. The latest DVD of the documentary includes a lengthy second documentary update from 2008 about the band’s subsequent flight to, and tribulations in, Turkey. (As of 2009, Acrassicauda now live here in the New York City area. Here is an article by Ben Sisario on the band’s arrival in the USA, from earlier this year.)

This story takes the familiar “rock band struggling to make it” narrative and tells it from the context of mind-blowing fear, intimidation, violence, and relentless suffering and displacement that made of these bandmates (and one spouse and child) a dangerous – and paradoxically creatively freeing – political marginality, and a coterie of refugees who apparently try to hold their lives, families and friendships together through their dedication to their music. And to rock culture, which, as the documentary shows, gives many examples of how rock culture offers, even in a politically repressive atmosphere, a constellation of practices that teach about identity, relationships, goods worth living and suffering for. The ritualizing that goes along with rock, across cultures, including discipline and training in musicianship, self-presentation, gesture, interpretation of emotion, and (male, in this case) friendship, and much more, is evident in almost every frame. The dominance of United States rock for stabilizing and nurturing these rituals, one indisputable effect of the colonial power of the US recording industry, is also clear throughout. Yet it is also clear that for these musicians, music is a way of life, and of surviving/managing their political lives as well – precisely because they select music for, and effect stances of, apoliticality. This is something to notice and appreciate about how rock culture’s frequent (and frequently criticized) political “naivete” can be put to use politically in such a scenario as occupied Baghdad.


Acrassicauda seems to be also working creatively, if not overtly (at least not in the documentary), with Islam. There are only a few references to the mates’ identities as Muslims, and most of those have to do with the chafing and abusive dimensions of the Islamic governance and culture that they find in Baghdad. I would like to know much more about how their musical experience has inflected their Muslim sensibilities, and vice versa. It seems a very important point to be so muted in the film, but given the complicated political situation of the band, perhaps the omission was deliberate – and certainly understandable. Still, I would like to know what they take Islam to be now, what they take rock to be, and how those takes relate to each other. Perhaps they would willing to be interviewed on this topic for Rock and Theology?

One need not agree with every manifestation of rock culture to be amazed, while watching “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” at how rock succeeds, in a far different culture from the one in which it was born, in helping people find a way through their pain and the smallness of their circumstances. Is this because it grafts and graphs desire so well?

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for your interest in the band Tom. Let me know if you would like to get in contact with the band’s publicist to set up an interview.

    Comment by Christopher — November 25, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

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