Baghdad band on the run

Rosie Swash on the price of playing metal in Iraq.

"First and foremost, we would like you to know," begins the blog entry, "that the Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda is more than just four guys with a passion about playing their heavy metal music, there is an idea that stands behind this band and that idea is unbreakable." Unbreakable it may be, but in a country where wearing a Slipknot T-shirt is akin to Satanism and headbanging is suspected of mimicking the Jewish act of prayer, making heavy metal music is either extremely daft or extremely brave.

That is why Acrassicauda's members - Firas Al-Taleef, Tony Aziz, Marwan Riyak and Faisal Talal - have to write blog in "purgatory", otherwise known as in exile in Damascus, though their MySpace page reports that their Syrian visas expire on October 10, and will not be renewed. Unless they can raise the money to move somewhere else, they will have to return to Baghdad. It's fitting, then, that the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad - which premiered this month at the Toronto film festival - begins with the band's last live performance in Iraq, in 2003, one of only three shows they were able to play.

The documentary, which was shot over three years, shows the band's determination to make music despite a series of logistical and life-threatening obstacles. In one scene, the band are shown setting up for what proves to be their last show in Baghdad, when a fan asks: "Is it safe? No one's going to blow us up?" The band respond: "We hope not." But it's not just the threat of death from a range of sources (Scud missiles, insurgents with a distaste for Metallica covers) that stands in Acrassicauda's way. Impromptu roadblocks, power cuts and a 9pm curfew all make playing live a nightmare.

Heavy Metal in Baghdad was inspired by a 2003 article about Acrassicauda that featured in Vice magazine. The band made for instantly recognisable heroes: five testosterone-fuelled but otherwise mild-mannered young men with a love of Slayer, Iron Maiden and Megadeth. But what started off as a project to help Acrassicauda achieve their goal of playing live soon turned into something else entirely, as Iraq descended into civil war. The band's hopes didn't just fade, they were smashed to pieces.

In the documentary, the camera crew revisit Acrassicauda's rehearsal space in Baghdad, the basement where drummer Talal stuffed his kick drum with clothes to muffle it, because neighbours complained of the noise. It had been destroyed by a missile. Worse was to come. Like an estimated 2 million of their compatriots, one by one, the members of Acrassicauda fled Iraq for neighbouring Syria. Though they reunited and were even able to record music there, their situation was bleak. With no legal status and no prospect of work, Iraqi refugees in Syria are sliding towards horrendous poverty. "One of our goals for this film is to raise awareness of the fastest growing humanitarian crises in the world," says the film's co-director/producer, Suroosh Alvi. "In the US, it's just not being talked about. No one gives a shit here, all they care about is our troops and the forthcoming presidential election." Heavy Metal in Baghdad ends with the band miserably resolving to "start building a life from nothing", a feat that seems impossible given the Syrian authorities' decision to refuse them visas.

Alvi, who is in daily contact with the band, says: "They will travel anywhere they can and for as long as they can to find a country where they can practice and record and release records."

The film's makers have set up a donation fund for Acrassicauda to help secure them some kind of future. Those who donate will be protecting one of heavy metal's inalienable rights: the right to rebel.



Rosie Swash

The GuardianTramp

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