It’s been a while since I’ve had a close listen to the recordings of Iraqi oud player/composer Rahim AlHaj or heard him play live. His upcoming appearance here in Albuquerque at the
Outpost this weekend and the release of a new album, however, have provided the
opportunity to do both, and I’m grateful for it.
One night earlier this week, I gave my full attention to the new album, Journey (Ur Music). I was quickly and happily reminded of his expressive virtuosity and the soulful beauty of his
compositions. So now I’m looking forward even more to this Saturday’s concert, where AlHaj, as soloist and in duets with percussionist Issa Malluf on daf and doumbek, will present
traditional and original works, including material from his current symphonic project.
A Brief History
Born in Baghdad, AlHaj began his musical journey in his second-grade classroom, where he first wrapped his arms around an oud. He exhibited such an affinity for the instrument that his teacher was moved to give it to him, and the oud quickly became his constant companion. The instrument has so consumed him over the course of his life, that he has more than once
wondered aloud, half-joking, if it’s “a blessing or a curse.”
AlHaj graduated from both the Institute of Music in Baghdad, where he studied with famed oud master Munir Bashir, and the prisons of Saddam Hussein, where he studied under
harsher masters. He was forced to flee Iraq in 1991 due to his activism against the Ba’athist regime. Using false papers procured with the help of his late mother, who raised the
extravagant funds required by selling her possessions, he escaped to Jordon.
After 18 months as a teacher in Jordan, where he met his wife, Nada Kherbik, AlHaj spent eight years in Syria, living comfortably as a composer and musician and performing across the
region and Europe. However, as relations between Syria and Iraq improved, AlHaj again found himself at risk.
In 2000, speaking no English, he relocated to the United States as a political refugee, starting a new chapter of his life in Albuquerque. Catholic Charities found him a job at McDonald’s, which AlHaj rejected as an inappropriate venue for his music. The job, however, was washing dishes.
With help from newfound friends in Albuquerque, AlHaj was gradually able to adjust to his new life and reinvent his musical career. Today—13 years, nine albums, and two Grammy
nominations later—he is an American citizen and has reestablished himself on the
international stage. Collaborating with top-notch musicians around the world, such as guitarist Bill Frisell, violinist David Felberg, guitarist Ottmar Liebert, accordionist Guy Klucevsek, sarod player Amjad Ali Khan, indy-rockers REM, and many others, AlHaj has used music to bridge the cultural and political gulfs that separate populations.
The new CD, says AlHaj, is “about my journey, how I started here in the U.S., what I have done.” Then he adds, with an impish smile, “My greatest hits.”
The 10 tracks present AlHaj in a
variety of settings—solo, duet,
quartet, chamber orchestra; in the
studio and live—playing his original material as well as a traditional maqam (mode). All but the one
traditional tune have been selected from his previous recordings. He says he wanted to give his audience an
album that “includes a sense of what I’ve really accomplished so far in my journey in the United States.”
He’s accomplished a lot. The range of material he’s produced in such a short time and under such trying circumstances is truly stunning—all the more so because of the compelling writing he’s done for instruments outside his own musical tradition.
The music is animated by his soul-thirst for home and peace, by his desire to represent the beauty of his native culture, and by his determination to speak for those unable to speak for themselves—especially the victims of the Iraq war, from the orphaned children to the
devastated palm trees that once graced his native city.
A Symphony of East and West
Looking ahead, AlHaj will continue his journey with a concert later this month with the Portland String Quartet at Colby College in Maine. What he really wants to talk about, though, is his
latest project, Arab Spring, a composition in four movements that features four traditional
Middle Eastern instruments—oud, ney (flute), kanun (zither), and zerdea (double reed)—and a symphonic orchestra.
“I chose actually four countries, which are Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Iraq, that have been
making dramatic change in their life,” he says, though he wonders if it is more an Arab winter these days. They’re represented by the four instruments, which in the first movement come
together to explore their hope for a new future. In the second movement, conflicts among the four begin to emerge.
The third movement introduces “the power of the West—fshoo—coming in,” AlHaj says, with a sudden sweep of his arm, “which is in a huge sound of violin and viola and cello and trumpet—a huge sound, right?—coming in to these four delicate instruments, to help to some degree, or make it more complicated.”
The third movement struggles with balancing the sound of the four instruments against the immense sonic presence of the orchestra. “You have to make sure each instrument has an
individual sound that means to be heard,” he says, “to explain what is going on with the power that is coming in, the fight.” The individual instruments continue to play out their conflicts while also underscoring a shared culture in the face of the orchestra’s power.
“The fourth movement I call ‘Rehope,’ ” he says, “because we still have hope that the revolution we started will continue in the right way.”
AlHaj hopes to have the project completed by spring 2014, but he says he will give the
audience a “glimpse” into the work this weekend.
Whatever the program, you can count on AlHaj translating into music the suffering, joy, anxiety, and determination that he has experienced and witnessed in his lifelong struggle against
injustice and for peace. Communicating with an immediacy that bypasses cultural obstacles, his music speaks irresistibly to the heart in a universal language of compassion.
Saturday, October 5, 7:30 p.m.
Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE
Tickets $20/$15 member and students
For more information or to buy tickets, 505-268-0044 or outpostspace.org.
© 2013 Mel Minter. All rights reserved. Some material in this post has appeared in previously published articles in Albuquerque The Magazine and Weekly Alibi, and in a press kit bio prepared for the artist.