At the present time there is really no Kurdish music that one might qualify as art music. Nevertheless, if we can believe the stories and reports of historians and travellers of the Middle Ages, there doubtless existed a "developed and refined" music in the feudal Kurdish courts.
What sort of music went into these songs which the dengbêj sang, "causing people to melt and weep with emotion", the "sublime and captivating melodies" of the tembûrvan (players of the Kurdish lute), "receiving their art and their secrets straight from heaven"? What was this court music like? Was it modal and, if so, what were its relationships with the art music in favour in the court of the caliph? All of these questions remain unanswered.
Whatever the case may be, the very important contributions of Kurdish musicians to the development of Musulman art music allows us to surmise that music life was very advanced in Kurdistan of the period.
Ibrahim al-Mehdi (743 - 806), under the reign of Caliph Haroun al-Rachid, reached the pinnacle of glory. Precious companion (nadzm) of the Caliph, he was called "paradise on earth"; Ibrahim Mawsili, who founded a conservatory "probaluly the first in the Near East" intended chiefly for the training of the slave-singers (qayna) is considered by music historians to have been "father of classical Mussulman music".
His son, Ishaq, also highly honoured in the Caliph's court and who is credited with having composed 4OO melodies, influenced music of the Baghdad school and gave it its definitive form and style, which later have varied only superficially. The al-Mawsili musicians of Mossul were the artisans of the golden age of the Abbassidean period. Later on, Hammad, son of Ishaq, though with less genius, continued the work of his illustrious predecessors.
Another talented Kurdish musician, Ziryab (789 - 857), a freed slave from a humble village of Mossul, carried on the traditions of the al-Mawsilis. After having begon his career under Ishaq in Baghdad, he pursued it with exceptional brilliance in the court of ABder Rahman in Cordova, where he founded a conservatory; this became a nursery of Arab-Andalusian art, whose traditions vvere to he perpetuated later throughout the MaghreL. It was Ziryalo who invented the plectrum (pick) and who added a fifth string to the lute of his master Ishaq al-Mawsili.
A universal man vvhose culture was as varied as it was vast, Ziryab "synthesized Iranian and Greek sources, gave music a psychic and therapeutic role, which he related to the signs of the Zodiac, to the elements of nature, to temperaments which corresponded to the different maquâms. From this the tonal, modal and orchestral system of the 24 Namba was born." (Simon Jargy, La Musique arabe. P.U.F.: Paris.)
Later, the most ambitious of the Kurdish musicians sought their fame and glory in the court of the Sultans of Istanbul. The tradition thus established has continued up to the present time when, for example, the greatest names of Turkish music "to refer only to that music" are actually Kurds (Ruhi Su, Nesimi, Rahmi Saltuk, Ihsani, Daimi, etc.). Kurds for whom the only way to touch a broad public and to achieve glory was to express themselves in the official State language.
Religious music "the Zikrs of the fraternities and mystical songs (beyt)" also plays an important role in the music life of the Kurds.