Saturday, March 7, 2009

After Saddam & bombs, Iraqi band rockin' in USA

The band Acrassicauda is rockin' in the free world, but how they got here is an immigrant song of a different type.

After avoiding Saddam Hussein's secret police, enduring the bombing of their practice space, dodging death threats and navigating sectarian warfare in their native land, four Iraqi musicians who wanted nothing more than to rock 'n' roll all night are living in New Jersey, pursuing their dreams of heavy metal stardom.

Tales of bands struggling through hard times and overcoming obstacles to stardom are as old as rock 'n' roll itself. But Acrassicauda, named after a species of black scorpion, has had a harder time than most.

"A lot of heavy metal bands talk and sing about war and death and destruction, but they haven't experienced it," said bass player Firas al-Lateef. "We have."

After three years living as refugees in Syria and Turkey - and putting their survival ahead of their rock star dreams - the band is in America. They live in a small apartment with little more than some fold-out beds and a couple of chairs, doing the things many wannabe rock stars do: looking for jobs and women, not necessarily in that order.

"We're still in the process of figuring it all out," said drummer Marwan Riyadh, 24. "But we feel real optimistic about things. We're trying to fit in with a new culture and a new society and absorbing what's all around us. Our heads are spinning."

Acrassicauda (pronounced ah-crass-ih-COW'-dah) was formed in 2000 when Riyadh and guitarist and lead vocalist Faisal Talal met lead guitarist Tony Aziz, 30, in a Baghdad school where they were studying fine arts.

In between lessons, they realized they shared a love of heavy metal.

They joined with al-Lateef, 27, and played their first concert two months later before about 300 fans in a small Baghdad club. The city has a tiny heavy metal subculture that listened to cassettes by Metallica, Iron Maiden, Opeth, Slipknot and Savatage, purchased surreptitiously from the back of stores displaying Arabic music on the shelves.

Trouble soon followed. Saddam's secret police was seemingly everywhere, and grew suspicious when bands sang in English or languages other than Arabic, said the 25-year-old Talal.

"Our friends warned us this would happen, and they were right," he said. "They suggested we translate our lyrics into Arabic because the secret police would ask for it, and they did."

Though Acrassicauda's music deals with war and suffering, the band took pains to keep it apolitical, singing of injustices in a general sense in songs like "Between The Ashes" and "Massacre."

"It's like speaking about the killing of innocent children, but it doesn't have to be in your own country, or any particular country," Talal said.

When the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and toppled Hussein in April 2003, music took a back seat to staying alive.

"We didn't expect to survive," Talal said. "During war, it's stay home, lock your door and stay indoors as much as you can. Missiles and bullets were coming down from the sky. It was always red outside."

Added Riyadh, "We spent nights when we didn't know if we would wake up the next morning."
Aziz's house was destroyed in the fighting, but he and his family weren't in it at the time and survived.

Once Hussein was toppled and fighting subsided in and around Baghdad, the band regrouped in January 2004, playing a show for 50 to 60 people at a place called the Hindia Club.

But the insurgency was gaining strength, and a different kind of danger was taking hold. Their next show attracted only five people.

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