Acrassicauda: Iraqi heavy-metal band finds new home in NJ and NY
March 06, 2010, 7:43PM
Not long after the United States-led invasion of Iraq, the Baghdad heavy metal band Acrassicauda received a death threat. “You are Americanized, playing Western music,” it read. “You either quit or you will be dead.”
Band members Faisal Talal Mustafa, Marwan Hussein, Firas Abdul Razaq and Tany Yaqoo didn’t quit, but did start scheduling band practices randomly, rather than at regular times.
They didn’t quit when mortar shells battered the area around the hotel where they were presenting a concert: they just turned the volume up. And they didn’t quit when their practice space was turned into rubble by a Scud missile.
It’s hard for a Westerner to comprehend the sacrifices they have made, and how much their music means to them.
“It’s our life,” says bassist Razaq, who now lives in Elizabeth.
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In 2008 and 2009, the four bandmates came to the United States, one by one, after spending several years living as refugees in Syria in Turkey. With the help of the International Rescue Committee, an organization devoted to resettling refugees, they were able to obtain legal-refugee status here.
Having achieved a small amount of fame via the 2007 documentary “Heavy Metal In Baghdad,” they have been able to meet some of their musical role models, and hang out backstage with Metallica at Newark’s Prudential Center. Last month, they presented their first American shows, at the Brooklyn nightclubs Europa and Public Assembly. Tuesday, their first album, a four-song EP called “Only the Dead See the End of the War,” will be released.
Their band name (pronounced ah-crass-ih-KOW-dah) is adapted from Androctonus crassicauda, the Latin name for a dangerous scorpion that lives in the Iraqi desert. Their songs are a portrait of a country torn apart by war.
“Is it God’s will, or just a lie?/People live, and others die/Never had a chance and never will/Forever doomed as I wonder why,” sings Mustafa in English — in a fearsome growl, over pounding drums — on the song “Message From Baghdad.”
“‘Entertainment’ doesn’t really apply to what we’re doing,” says drummer Hussein. “It’s more like a mission. We’re here, away from our country, not to entertain you. We want to tell you something.”
In the United States, they have continued to struggle: decent day jobs have been hard to find. But they have scraped by, taking jobs teaching, translating, and waiting on tables. Razaq currently works in food services at Montclair State University.
“We came in a rough time, where the economy is struggling,” he says. “But everything, other than that, is good. At least we got to be who we wanted to be.”
Shock and awe
At the Europa show on Feb. 23 — a rainy Tuesday night — Acrassicauda was sandwiched between two other bands, and played for about 100 people. Selling T-shirts at a merchandise table, and struggling with sound problems, they could have passed for just another up-and-coming thrash-metal band. Mustafa goaded the crowd to make noise, and form a mosh pit. The only exotic element to the music was the Middle Eastern-flavored guitar solo during one song, “Garden of Stones.”
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“We love being onstage,” says Hussein. “For once, you get to forget about everything. We worry about bills, and green cards, and our families back in Iraq. We worry about what the next songs will sound like. But onstage, that’s when you take that coat of burdens and problems and issues, and drop it, and go free. Go crazy and be happy, and feel like a human. Whatever that means.”
Now in their late 20s and early 30s, they discovered heavy metal as middle-class teenagers, listening to black-market albums by Metallica, Sepultura, Slayer, the Scorpions, and any others they could get their hands on.
“We were like, ‘It sounds crazy, but why don’t we do a band?’,” says Hussein. “For a lot of people back in Iraq, our age or even older, it wasn’t really a comprehensible idea to do a band, ‘cause you think about all the obstacles that the Middle Eastern environment puts you in.”
They weren’t able to present many shows — according to Hussein, they mounted just six in five years. But they did catch the attention of MTV News correspondent Gideon Yago, who filmed a report on them and also wrote an article for Brooklyn-based Vice magazine. Vice co-founder Suroosh Alvi became interested in the story, and co-directed the “Heavy Metal In Baghdad” documentary, which was followed by a 2009 book of the same name.
In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Alvi asks, “How did you guys decide to start a band, a metal band?”
“Look around,” Mustafa says. “We are living in a heavy metal world.”
The next shot shows a bomb hitting downtown Baghdad at night. A huge ball of fire lights up the sky.
Keeping the faith
Vice helped arrange for Acrassicauda to relocate to the United States, and is releasing “Only the Dead See the End of the War” on its own record label. The band has a Web site now, MySpace.com/acrassicauda, and has made a music video.
“I’m really happy for them,” said Alvi, before the Europa show. “They are excited, and seem happier than they’ve seemed in a long time. The show is a big deal, but for me, it’s not as big a deal as when I got an advance copy of the record last week. I remember interviewing them in Syria and Marwan said, ‘I just want to make a record. That’s all I really want to do.’”
When they first came to the U.S., Mustafa, Razaq and Hussein all settled in Elizabeth, though Mustafa and Hussein later moved to Brooklyn.
“Jersey is a cool place, but it has the problem of transportation,” says Mustafa. “You need a car to go wherever you like, and the idea of a car is a heavy responsibility on your shoulders, if you’re a refugee.”
Razaq, who has a wife and a young son, stayed.
“We’ve been moving a lot in the last five years or so,” he says. “Basically, I just want to feel settled.”
Hussein was the last to come to America, and just a few days after he arrived, early last year, Vice arranged for the band to see Metallica at the Prudential Center.
They met the metal icons before the show, and moments after walking offstage, Metallica’s James Hetfield presented Mustafa with a guitar that he had just played. Mustafa’s jaw dropped in astonishment, and stayed there as Hetfield signed it.
“Welcome to America,” Hetfield said. “Thanks for keeping the faith.”
They all hugged, exchanged fist bumps, and took photos.
“There are still some good riffs in there,” said Hetfield, referring to the guitar. “Bring ‘em out.”
In the studio
“Only the Dead See the End of the War” was produced by another one of the band’s heroes: Alex Skolnick of the band Testament. After seeing “Heavy Metal In Baghdad,” Skolnick arranged to meet members of the band, then living in Turkey, at Testament’s Istanbul tour stop.
It was essential that someone with a lot of experience produce the EP. The musicians in Acrassicauda had no prior experience in a modern recording studio. They’d have to work quickly, since they could afford to rent space there for just a few days.
“I heard moments of brilliance in their music,” says Skolnick. “Being in Iraq, it was very difficult to rehearse, and they didn’t get to woodshed and gig the way a normal band would. But they had the determination, and the individual talent, and they had a sound. I knew if they had a chance, being in a safe environment and being coached a little bit, they’d do a great job.”
“It was a heavy task to do an EP that’s well-presented, and Alex Skolnick helped us a lot,” says Hussein. “He became a good friend. We hang out and drink, and joke together, and talk about music. He’s been such an influence.”
The bond is obviously strong. Skolnick attended the Europa show, and when the band had problems with one of its amplifiers, he jumped onstage to fix it.
On their own feet
The musicians all have family back in Iraq, and are in touch. “But as far as seeing them ... it’s been almost four years now,” says Mustafa. “But we can’t go back yet, because the story won’t make any sense. Why did we leave in the first place?”
In other words, they aren’t far enough along as musicians to contemplate going home.
“But what we’re hoping is, someday, we’re going to go back — maybe with a bonus of having a reputation or a name, because of what we’ve accomplished,” says Mustafa.
The group will perform with Cannibal Corpse, Voivoid and other metal bands at the Scion Rock Fest in Columbus, Ohio, on March 13, but no other shows are currently booked. They would love to go out on a big tour, maybe opening for another band, but haven’t received the right offer yet.
During the days when Vice was trying to get the band to America, it set up a PayPal account online so that metal fans throughout the world could make donations. An invaluable $40,000 was raised. But now that the most urgent part of the mission has been accomplished, the account has been closed.
“They’re able to stand on their own two feet,” says Alvi. “They’re a working metal band now, which is exactly what they should be.”
Jay Lustig may be reached at email@example.com or (973) 392-5850.
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