Loolwa Khazzoom (center) with bandmates Sean Sebastian (left) and Robbie Morsehead (right). (Photo/Ettie Wahl)
Loolwa Khazzoom (center) with bandmates Sean Sebastian (left) and Robbie Morsehead (right). (Photo/Ettie Wahl)

S.F.-raised musician Loolwa Khazzoom blends punk with ancient Jewish Iraqi melodies

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Long before San Francisco–reared Loolwa Khazzoom followed her muse and devoted herself to music full time, she employed an international array of songs in her campaign to expand awareness of Jewish diversity.

Drawing on her family’s roots in Iraq’s ancient Jewish community, the Lowell High School graduate spent more than two decades championing an inclusive vision of the Jewish people through her writing and her leadership of the Jewish Multicultural Project, which she founded in Los Angeles and brought to the East Bay in the mid-1990s.

Khazzoom often laced her curricula with songs in Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic, Amharic and Hebrew, illustrating that the diaspora encompassed worlds far beyond the Ashkenazi realm of Eastern and Central Europe.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, she put her own music on the backburner again and again.

“I was a musician from birth, and at 3 months old, I started singing harmonies for the Iraqi prayers,” she said. “I was singing before I started talking, but through the years my music kept getting pushed to the side.”

These days, songwriting occupies the center of her life as she’s created a vast body of music with her band Iraqis In Pajamas, which released its fourth album, “Stripped Bare,” on Sept. 15. As the title suggests, the album is a bare-bones, vocals-and-bass project combining Khazzoom’s original lyrics and music with Iraqi selichot, prayers of supplication and yearning that are recited before and during the High Holidays.

Drawn to the Seattle area by its still reverberating riot grrrl feminist legacy, Khazzoom has honed an emotionally charged repertoire that blends ancient sacred Jewish Mesopotamian melodies and post-punk power chords.

Backing herself on electric bass and singing in English, Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew, she explores knotty subjects such as cancer, domestic violence, prejudice, mental illness, street harassment and national exile. The topics are often heavy, and the sound of Iraqis In Pajamas can be fierce, but much like the blues transforms lamentation into a vehicle for communal celebration, Khazzoom’s music carries an elevating kick.

The band’s name itself turns the neat trick of transmuting a slight into a playful badge of honor. Khazzoom first adopted the moniker when she was living in Israel in the early aughts, one of the periods in her life when she was trying to focus on music. She stayed at her Iraqi-born grandfather’s apartment in Ramat Gan, a city often referred to as Little Baghdad since the 1950s because so many Iraqi Jews settled there after the massive Operation Ezra and Nehemiah evacuation.

“I’d be out at a club and people would ask where I’m living, and when I’d tell them Ramat Gan they’d say, ‘Oh, Iraqis in pajamas,’ because of the Iraqi custom of changing into comfortable clothes when they’d get home from work. It was pejorative, but I thought it was hilarious.”

Loolwa Khazzoom (Photo/Moriel O'Conner)
Loolwa Khazzoom (Photo/Moriel O’Conner)

The image resonated doubly because working from home meant that Khazzoom was something of an Iraqi in pajamas herself. She performed several times in Israel using that name. But her writing and activist work — she edited the first English-language anthology of essays on identity by women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish heritage, 2003’s “The Flying Camel” — kept interceding with her musical pursuits.

With her move to the Seattle area in 2015, she revived the name, assembled a band and started making inroads on the local scene. Getting ready for a big push in the spring of 2020 with the release of a single in March followed by a string of gigs, Khazzoom was grounded by the pandemic.

The downtime turned into a period of intense creativity fueled by what she called her “ferocious determination to never lose my music again.”

She has released a series of albums online, and on Sept. 19 will launch a new online concert series, Kaffe Khazzoom. Her new Patreon site invites listeners into her songwriting process. And a budding collaboration with a recently arrived guitarist from Kuwait could be opening a new musical expanse.

“I don’t know where it’s going, but there are so many possibilities,” Khazzoom said. “Combining the Judeo-Arab music with an Arab musician could lead to so much richness.”

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.