Time Zones: The Piano Man of Baghdad

Known for his medley of Western and oriental tunes, as well as traditional Iraqi songs, Christopher Garabedian helps attract customers to Al-Rif, one of the few Italian restaurants in Baghdad still doing business.
By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 11, 2009

BAGHDAD Christopher Garabedian lighted the candles perched on top of his Korean-made piano and flipped through a folder of music, some of it handwritten. He glanced at his watch. It was 7:30 p.m., so he sat down behind the instrument.

At home, his drink of choice is vodka. Here at the piano, it is Lebanese red wine, served at room temperature. He reached for his glass, placed at the left corner of the piano, took a sip, then let his fingers slide across the keys. What followed were songs seldom heard in Baghdad, a city where pianists are rare and music venues are few.

Garabedian is the Piano Man of Baghdad, and his performance had begun.

"It was my only friend during the war and the events," Garabedian, 53, said as he patted his instrument as he might a friend. Like many here, by "events" he meant the sectarian warfare that plunged his country into blood-soaked chaos in 2006 and 2007. "Without it, I wouldn't have survived."

Garabedian plays every night at Al-Rif, a tony restaurant and one of the few doing business in Baghdad these days. In the upscale neighborhood of Arrassat, which has witnessed its share of bombings, the restaurant attracts only a handful of customers every night. Some come to listen to Garabedian's medley of Western and Eastern tunes, including Iraqi traditional songs, that has earned him many admirers.

"He is the best pianist here," said Najat Mashkouri, a longtime fan and a regular at the restaurant. "His music makes you forget where you are."

At age 12, Garabedian started playing the harmonica at the Armenian school in Baghdad. But when his Russian teacher, Mrs. Natasha, overheard him perform the piano, she enrolled him in her lessons, he recalled. Impressed by his talent, she suggested that he travel to Moscow, where he would study to become a professional. But money was an obstacle, and Garabedian never left Iraq. Neither did he finish school or complete his lessons. Instead, he played with local bands at restaurants, parties and nightclubs for about $2 a performance, which he gave to his father.

At 8 p.m., waiters ferried an occasional dish to the few patrons here on this night. Save for Mashkouri and her companion, no one seemed to be paying much attention to the music. For a born performer, the lack of notice seemed painful. But Garabedian kept playing.

Next in his repertoire was "Que Sera, Sera."

Garabedian improved by relying on his sharp ear and practicing a few hours every week on a borrowed keyboard. He joined a group called the Stars Band with four other musicians, and together they covered the Beatles, the Carpenters, the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple and Rare Earth in bars across Baghdad.

He learned how to sing in English, Spanish, Italian and even a Filipino dialect. In the early 1980s, he performed a one-man show in a nightclub once Baghdad's most famous, Al-Tahouna Hamra, or the Red Mill, where he played with visiting artists such as Denis Rose, an English jazz musician, and Dan Reed from the rock-funk metal band Dan Reed Network.

"Life taught me everything I know," he said.

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