In the dry mountains of New Mexico (United States of America), Iraqi oud (lute) master Rahim AlHaj raises homing pigeons. Persecuted for a single potent song, he fled his native land, only to be deprived of his beloved instruments at the border. Yet like the birds he cares for, he has homed in a new nest, where quarter tones can be urged from accordions, rock stars and classical violinists can play Iraqi maqam, and Middle Eastern lullabies echo in Pueblo Indian words.
Rahim AlHaj has recorded the double album titled Little Earth (UR Music; September 28, 2010). On Little Earth, a loose but poignant affiliation of musicians from a plethora of places and backgrounds tackle the filigree beauty of Iraqi maqam. American musicians Bill Frisell and Peter Buck, Cape Verde’s Maria de Barros and Mali’s Yacouba Sissoko, and other guests explore new territory mapped out by AlHaj’s deep sense of both maqam tradition and the expressive possibilities of global music.
“It was a dream, to compose music for all the world,” AlHaj chuckles. “The challenge of the project was to do more than just get together and jam. It was not just for fun.”
A favorite student of esteemed Iraqi oud player Munir Bashir, AlHaj was trained in both Iraqi maqam and Western classical music. He soon gained a sterling reputation as a performer, eventually leading decades later to Grammy nominations and recordings with the Smithsonian.
He also honed his skills as a composer, skills he has coaxed into full flower on Little Earth, where he transforms musical forms like sama’i (“Sama’i Baghdad”) and Iraqi sea chanteys (“Sailors Three”) into elegant pieces for unexpected instruments.
“Though most sama’i are written for traditional Arabic instruments, I wrote it for a Western string quartet, but they have to play it in the Arabic way, including the special intonation and microtones—we have eight notes between B and B-flat” AlHaj explains. “It was unique, the first time this form was performed by Western musicians on classical strings.”
Though highly successful in his musical career from an early age, AlHaj’s heart cried out against the suffering he saw around him in Iraq, especially with the advent of the brutal Iran-Iraq War that killed millions. “When I started to understand the world, I started to understand justice,” AlHaj reflects. “I felt like I was responsible and obligated to make all my music give voice to the voiceless.”
This desire moved him to set a friend’s poem to music and the resulting song of resistance—titled “Why?”—spread like wildfire from Iraqi to Iraqi. Soon it was being sung everywhere, and AlHaj found himself in one of Saddam’s prisons.
Only two years later did AlHaj end up at the border with Syria, free to go yet deprived of his precious ouds. After several years in exile, he was granted asylum in the United States, where he landed in Albuquerque thanks to a strange cultural misunderstanding: Thinking that, as a Middle Easterner, AlHaj would feel more at home in New Mexico’s arid climate, his sponsoring organization sent the new refugee to the deserts of the Southwest. A world away from the fecund land he had fled.
Yet this mishap put AlHaj in a state rich in diversity with thriving global music connections. And as he settled into his new life, he began to seek out musicians eager to bring their voices to AlHaj’s stunning oud, careful compositions, and heartfelt message.
“The musicians use their own sound and environment—I don’t want them to imitate me—but they need to play the composition right, with the influence from the Middle East and the maqam,” AlHaj notes. “This music is composed music; we’re not just jamming. It’s all written.”
Within these compositions, however, collaborators found new means of expression, using a language that they shared with AlHaj. Robert Mirabal, the Taos Pueblo Indian renaissance man and flute player, turned an Iraqi lullaby into a statement in his language of Tewa (“Lullaby”). Guy Klucevsek managed miraculously to get his accordion to hit the right quarter tones (“The Searching”), while Chinese p’ip’a (lute) player Liu Fung found a way to make her pentatonic work with AlHaj’s maqam modes (“River”), all to his great amazement.
The musical encounters often had a strong dose of kismet, as AlHaj’s work with Cape Verdean singer Maria de Barros proves. When recording took AlHaj to California, he met with de Barros and they struck up a conversation. AlHaj mentioned a piece dedicated to the memory of his mother and the warmth that emanated from her, de Barros exclaimed that she had Portuguese lyrics about her mother. The result (“Missing You/Mae Querida”) was more than a Cape Verdean morna being played by an oud; it was the bittersweet swing of de Barros’s home intertwined with the soulfulness of Iraqi maqam.
This soulfulness—the moan of a woman in mourning, the sigh of a palm tree collapsing under gun fire—remains AlHaj’s constant companion. It, and AlHaj’s political commitment to peace, continue to inform his work, and led him to close collaboration with a musical legend from his country’s erstwhile enemy, Housein Omoumi, master of the Iranian ney (traditional flute).
These elements are felt most powerfully in “Qassim,” a piece memorializing his vivacious and optimistic cousin killed during the U.S. occupation. “I needed to tell my cousin’s story in music. Iraqi women cry out in grief from their stomach, very low,” AlHaj reflects. “The piece starts with the sound of the horror at what happened. An Iraqi woman’s cry, thanks to Stephen Kent’s didjeridoo, and the rhythm of the piece are driving, insisting to be heard.”
Beyond the sorrow and insistence on telling the stories of those without voice, AlHaj has found a new contentment and sense of place in the U.S., and more mournful pieces are joined by sprightly expressions of pure joy. Works like “Morning in Hyattville,” inspired by a cheeky mockingbird and augmented by guitarist Bill Frisell, and “Athens to Baghdad” where AlHaj explores what he playfully calls “a place of sweetness” with his friend and sometime collaborator Peter Buck of R.E.M.
It is this union of the bitter and sweet, the harsh and the soothing, which gives AlHaj’s vision its punch. For AlHaj, his work is about far more than curious peregrinations and sonic juxtaposition. It’s about finding a path to peace and ending the suffering of the women and children, the bold minds and kind spirits, he witnessed.
“Of course, musicians from opposite sides in conflict can come together and make music,” AlHaj states. “But we must figure out how to make music together before we become enemies, or we will prove ourselves fools. If we can hold that ideal high, as a principle, we can make it into fact. We will make it real and the earth will indeed become little.”