He made his first tambor as a soldier in Saddam Hussein’s army. It was 1988, and Iraq’s war with Iran had reached its eighth and final year. Hamo had been conscripted, not knowing what he was fighting for. He was made to eat and sleep apart from Sunni soldiers because of his Yezidi faith. Like many other drafted Yezidis, he feared he would be shot from behind by his Sunni comrades.
Somewhere between Sulaymaniyah and Diyala, Hamo made a tambor from a single piece of nut wood. On the back, he carved a peacock angel—the most sacred spirit in his Yezidi religion. He says it consoled him during those lonely days.
When he returned to his friends and family in Bare, his village in Shingal (Sinjar in Arabic), his need to make tambors went away. He owned a welding shop and fixed refrigerators. The years passed by. And he may never have taken up instrument-making again. Then ISIS invaded.
The family heard gunshots. Nobody knew what was going on, says Hamo. A friend called to tell them not to head to nearby Shingal mountain, where people eventually suffered from malnourishment and dehydration. Another friend called and said that ISIS was not along a route to safety in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Hamo and eight family members crammed into their sedan. Traffic was so bad that they slept on the side of the road that first night. Hamo’s wife, Nam Joko, says Yezidis and Kurds halfway between Duhok and Shingal brought them food and water. Thousands were killed and captured in Shingal within days. “We heard terrible stories of people abandoning their children just to escape,” says Hamo. “We can’t believe we survived.”
Five distant relatives were captured by ISIS, and one is still missing, says Hamo. The car didn’t have enough room for Hamo’s sister and aunt, so they had to walk some hundred miles into Kurdistan. Nobody brought any of their possessions with them.
The family spent 45 days in Chambarakat high school, waiting to be admitted to Khanke, a camp for Yezidis fleeing ISIS. In 2015, about fifteen months after the insurgents invaded, Shingal was liberated by Kurdish forces. Hamo, his eldest son, and his brother-in-law left Khanke to see what remained of their village.
Hamo stepped inside his home and found the 27-year-old tambor—or what was left of it. The instrument had been shattered by ISIS. He picked up the pieces and took them with him to Kurdistan.
At Khanke camp, surrounded by familiar faces yet unsure of what lay ahead, Hamo felt an urge to make tambors once again. He looked at the jagged shards of his first instrument. Very carefully, he glued the pieces back together, then left them to dry. That got him started and soon he was making tambors with materials donated by an aid organization.
Hamo immigrated to the United States with his wife and children in 2015. At home in Nebraska, he can be found late at night in the house’s lower level, drinking tea and making tambors. With curls of nut and mulberry wood scattered across the ground near his workspace, he explains that his tambors are not like the Turkish tambors which are so popular today. His take two months to make, and follow the old-fashioned, Yezidi style. It gives him immense joy to work on them every day.
They aren’t for sale. He gives them to friends and “people that understand music.” People who cherish having a little piece of Yezidi heritage. In fact, Hamo gave his 1988 tambor to his brother at Khanke camp. Only when his brother made it to the United States did he give the instrument back to Hamo.
Hamo still plays that tambor today.