Iraqi-born Kazem Al-Saher has established himself as the biggest singer in the Middle East, having sold more than 30 million albums since the start of his career. Ranging from big romantic ballads to more political work, from pop to Arab classical, he's covered the spectrum of music with the kind of success not seen since the heyday of Umm Kalthum. Al-Saher was born in 1961 in Nainawa, Northern Iraq, one of ten children of a palace worker. His interest in music came not from lessons, but the radio, where he learned the works of composers like Mohamed Abdel Wahab by hearing them. When he was ten, he sold his bicycle to buy a guitar and two years later, began writing songs. He switched to oud, a much more common instrument, and was accepted into the Baghdad Music Academy at the age of 21. Keen to break through in the music business with his songs and voice, he found himself rebuffed by all the producers he approached, who'd only let him sing their material. Instead, he used the back door to gain entry to the industry. With a television director friend, he made a video of one of his songs, Ladghat El Hayya (The Snake Bite), which was slipped into a broadcast on Iraqi television in 1987, just after the Iran-Iraq war. An allegory to his situation, it caused a major controversy and the powers that ran television offered him a choice -- change the lyrics or have it banned. He refused to change anything, but the banning only made it more popular. He began giving concerts all over the Gulf and recording for labels in Kuwait. A year later, he had a hit with Obart Al Shat (I Crossed the Ocean). Some of his professors at the Academy denounced it as sha'bi (pop) music, anathema to those who taught classical music. But protesting was pointless. Al-Saher had managed to circumvent the system and had become a star on his own terms -- he even undertook his first U.S. tour in 1989. Having conquered pop, Al-Saher turned around and established himself in the Arabic classical world with La Ya Sadiki (No, My Friend), a magnum opus that lasted almost an hour and found him using maqams (scales) that hadn't been used in Iraqi music in several decades, revitalizing a tradition. The Gulf War and its immediate aftermath kept him pinned in Iraq, but in 1993 he transferred his base of operations to Lebanon, working with the poet Nizar Qabbani, who wrote lyrics to his music, before settling permanently in Cairo. Al-Saher continued to release albums and tour, having become the biggest name in Middle Eastern music, one whose ballads grew bigger and more romantic, but who would also write classically influenced works, even when they might hurt his popularity.
By 1998 he was lauded as an artist, not just a pop star. That prestige brought him wider fame and a growing international reputation that won him a UNICEF award for his song "Tathakkar," which he performed in the U.S. for Congress and the United Nations -- one of the first real post-Gulf War cultural exchanges. The following year, he recorded a tribute to the Pope with the Italian Symphony Orchestra. While still a fan of large orchestras, whose sweep helps define his music, he's remained open to technological innovation, even going so far as to allow a remix (by fusionists Transglobal Underground) of his song La Titnahad, taken from his 2000 release El Hob El Moustahil (The Impossible Love), the first of his albums to be given an official American release. To coincide with it, he performed on the Mondo Melodia tour, which crossed the U.S.