Rahim AlHaj

COUNTRY: Iraq

GENRE: Iraqi oud musician and composer combining traditional Iraqi maqams with contemporary styling and influence

ABOUT: Virtuoso oud player and composer Rahim AlHaj, born in Baghdad, Iraq, has found in his ancient instrument, whose written history spans some 5,000 years, a unique voice that speaks passionately to contemporary listeners of every musical background. Deftly combining traditional Iraqi maqams with contemporary stylings and influences, AlHaj seeks to translate into music the suffering, joy, anxiety, and determination that he has experienced and witnessed in his lifelong struggle against injustice — as an Iraqi, a political refugee, and today as an American citizen. Communicating with a compelling immediacy that bypasses cultural obstacles, his music speaks irresistibly to the heart in a universal language of compassion.

AlHaj’s musical journey began in his second-grade classroom, where he first wrapped his arms around an oud. He exhibited such an astonishing affinity for the oud that his teacher was moved to give him the instrument. For AlHaj, the oud quickly became his closest confidant and constant companion, sharing every waking and sleeping hour.

Despite his father’s strong misgivings but with the support of his mother, AlHaj dedicated himself to music, and by the time he was thirteen, he was already making his name in Baghdad as both a musician and a composer. After high school, he applied to the Institute of Music in Baghdad to study under Munir Bashir, considered by many to be the greatest oud player of all time, and Salim Abdul Kareem.

AlHaj earned one of the five available positions out of a field of some 2,000 applicants. In 1982, he began a course of study that included two years of Western music, two of Arabic music, and two devoted to composition and solo performance.

At the same time, his awareness of injustice in Iraqi society under the repressive Ba’athist regime, which had embroiled the country in a devastating war of attrition with Iran, was quickened by wider reading and new acquaintances, and he soon became active in the underground revolutionary movement. Indeed, AlHaj gave that movement its anthem, setting to music a poem written by a friend. The song, titled “Why?”, gave voice to ordinary people’s dissatisfaction with the regime and was sung with seditious relish across the country.

AlHaj’s political activities drew the attention of the government, which imprisoned him twice, in 1986 and 1988. Incarcerated for two years altogether, he was tortured in an unsuccessful attempt to extract information about the movement.

Released from prison, he graduated from the institute in 1990 with a degree in composition, winning various honors. AlHaj also holds a degree in Arabic literature from Mustunsariya University in Baghdad — a degree that his father insisted he pursue as a condition for entering the conservatory.

Recognizing AlHaj’s talents, Bashir, an extremely influential cultural figure, invited his student to travel and perform with him internationally. Typically, such travel required membership in the Ba’ath party, which AlHaj refused to join. Nevertheless, Bashir’s influence prevailed, and AlHaj credits their work together as an important factor in the development of his confidence and skill as a performer, and his personal style on the oud.

By 1991, in the midst of the Gulf War between Iraq and coalition forces, growing pressure from the regime forced AlHaj to flee Iraq in fear for his life. Using false papers procured with the help of his mother, who raised the extravagant funds required by selling her possessions, he escaped to Jordan. However, in what he calls the saddest moment of his life, his instrument was confiscated at the border.

From Jordan, where he lived for 18 months supporting himself as a music teacher, he moved to Syria to evade Iraqi threats. There, he met his wife, Nada, and made a comfortable life as a composer and musician, performing throughout the country and Europe. However, after eight years, with relations between Syria and Iraq improving, AlHaj once 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, New Mexico, where he still lives. 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. He soon found more suitable employment as a night watchman, but this job ended prematurely when a supervisor found him practicing his oud while on duty.

Determined to focus on his music, AlHaj rented a hall on the campus of the University of New Mexico for a solo performance. The concert ignited an overwhelming response, and he was soon finding receptive audiences across the United States and internationally, playing to full houses in some of the world’s most prestigious halls.

In 2004, AlHaj returned to Iraq to visit with family and friends and to bear witness to the terrible destruction inflicted by the war with the United States, a war that, despite his experiences with the Ba’athist regime, he opposed. His continual efforts to promote peaceful understanding between the two countries and to speak on behalf of the oppressed have earned him recognition of politicians, religious leaders, veterans, and activists worldwide.

Since moving to the United States, AlHaj has released several recordings that have earned high praise, including a 2008 and 2010 Grammy nomination. His compositions embrace a broad spectrum of musical genres, routinely and seamlessly marrying Eastern and Western traditions. In addition to solo recordings and performances, he works with a variety of musical companions, from jazz artists (Bill Frisell) and classical Indian maestros (Amjad Ali Khan) to string quartets (Kronos Quartet). In December of 2009 Rahim was awarded a US Artist Ford Fellowship grant.

In 2008, AlHaj became a citizen of the United States and immediately filled out a voter registration card. In November 2008, for the first time in his life, he cast his vote — in the U.S. general election — an act that filled him with an almost giddy satisfaction and pride.

Today, AlHaj continues his journey of determined optimism, seeking to bring the world to a compassionate understanding of our shared destiny and to give the oppressed a voice for justice.

Rahim AlHaj is available in a variety of configurations including solo, with Middle Eastern percussion, with string quartet and with his compelling and irresistible new septet LITTLE EARTH ORCHESTRA. Little Earth is a septet that features around Rahim’s oud Middle Eastern percussionist, two violins, viola, cello, and acoustic bass. Little Earth is a vehicle that brings Rahim’s artistic vision to the next level. Rahim can also perform with local string quartets.

Rahim has performed around the world and is considered one of the finest oud players in the world. He has won many accolades and awards including two Grammy nominations. Rahim has recorded and performed with other master musicians of varied backgrounds and styles including genre-busting American guitarist Bill Frisell, modern accordion innovator Guy Klucevsek, Indian sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan and indy-rock pioneers REM. He has composed pieces for solo oud, string quartet, symphony and beyond. Rahim’s music delicately combines traditional Iraqi maqams with contemporary styling and influence. His compositions evoke the experience of exile from his homeland and of new beginnings in his adopted country. His pieces establish new concepts without altering the foundation of the traditional “Iraqi School of Oud”.

Rahim has released eight CDs. His March 2009 release, “Ancient Sounds”, a duet recording with Indian sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan, was nominated for a 2010 Grammy in the Best Traditional World Music Recording category. In November of 2009 he released a special recording “Under The Rose” with Ottmar Liebert, Jon Gagan and Barrett Martin, with all net proceeds benefiting Direct Aid Iraq. “Home Again” (2008) is a tour de force of touching and evocative original compositions portraying his trip to Iraq after 13 years in exile. “When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq” (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) was also nominated for a Grammy in 2008. His earlier recordings include “Friendship: Oud and Sadaqa String Quartet” (2005), a unique East and West musical collaboration, “The Second Baghdad” (2002) and the live CD “Iraqi Music in a Time of War” (2003). Rahim is featured in the 2009 documentary film on Smithsonian Folkways Records. Capping off an artistically fruitful 2009, Rahim was awarded the prestigious US Artist Ford Fellowship Grant on December 14th. His latest recording “Little Earth” was released on September 2010 to remarkable reviews. The double CD project features Rahim’s original composition in collaboration with the likes of Frisell, Klucevsek, Peter Buck (REM), Maria De Barros, Liu Fang, Robert Mirabal, Hossein Omoumi, The Santa Fe Guitar Quartet, Yacouba Sissoko, Stephen Kent, and many more including, of course, Little Earth Orchestra.

Available line-ups:

SEPTET: oud, Middle Eastern percussion, 2 x violin, viola, cello, double bass
QUINTET: oud and string quartet
DUO: oud and percussion
SOLO: oud solo

Rahim is also available for masterclasses and lectures.

AWARDS:

2010 Grammy Nomination for The Best Traditional World Music Album
2009 United States Artists Award
2008 Grammy Nomination for The Best Traditional World Music Album
2003 Winner of the Bravo Award for Excellence in Music
2001 Award for work towards peace from Veterans for Peace
1988 Music Institute Award for Composition

SELECTED PRESS REVIEWS AND QUOTES:

“One of the top oud players in the world” (San Francisco Chronicle)

“Unique combination of traditional and innovative performance techniques. Alhaj’s spontaneous inventions are constantly fascinating.” (Los Angeles Times)

“Whether AlHaj is working with sitar, pipa, or his own small ensemble, the music is very rich” (All Music Guide)

“His affinity with the instrument is striking” (BBC)

“The concept behind Little Earth is writ clear, and AlHaj has realized it with elegance” (All About Jazz)

“The hypnotic, swirling interplay between AlHaj and percussion will cast a powerful spell over any listener. This music is beautiful and fascinating” (Global
Rhythm)

“Rahim Alhaj is one of a very few professional oudists actively re-vitalizing and thereby preserving the Iraqi art music tradition in our time.” (Smithsonian Global Sounds)

“AlHaj is undeniably a master of his instrument. He has a deep woody tone, very clear and expressive, and, he has a profound sense of musical space and silence.” (East Bay Express)

“Deeply personal and poetic” (Steven Feld)

“His music is beautiful, mysterious, and powerful. I’ve never heard anything like it. He’s an inspiration.” (Bill Frisell)

“I am deeply moved by his artistry and his passion. Rahim’s music touches me profoundly, and I believe that it goes a long way to soften the differences and anger in the world, and to offer all of us hope.” (Ali MacGraw)

“I have not seen a musician locally elicit such response over and over again.” (Manny Rettinger)

“He is a storyteller in music, his songs are like tales that speak directly to the heart. He is fluent and subtle master of oud, a beguiling instrument with ancient roots. In his hands it creates an intimate art that speaks vividly, touching regions words cannot reach.” (Joanne Sheehy Hoover)

“Coming from Iraq, Rahim has faced discrimination in this community with dignity. His art is centuries old, representing his culture as it used to be, not as it is now. He is a peacemaker, while the media wants us to believe his people are violent and angry. He quietly and gracefully explains that most Iraqis are not as the media portrays them. Rahim’s music is the most eloquent expression of his desire for peace. I cannot imagine a better ambassador, especially during the current war madness. We in the arts always seek to portray mankind’s higher nature, a kind of communication that crosses borders and bridges conflicts. Rahim is the embodiment of this ideal. I have learned more about Iraq from him and his positive, giving attitude and exquisite music making than I have from all the rhetoric in the newspapers. He exemplifies the better nature in all of us. I admire him very, very much.” (Marty Ronish)

“Rahim possesses a level of technical skill which is matched only by a deep emotional commitment to this music and its tradition.” (Tom Guralnick)

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY:

- “Little Earth” (UR Music, 2010)
- “Under The Rose” (UR Music, 2009)
- “Ancient Sounds” (UR Music, 2009)
- “Home Again” (Fast Horse Recordings, 2007)
- “When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq” (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2006)
- “Friendship” (Fast Horse Recordings, 2005)
- “Iraqi Music in a Time of War” (VoxLox, 2003)
- “The Second Baghdad” (VoxLox, 2003)

SELECTED VIDEOS:

SELECTED PERFORMANCES:

- Tour, Canada
- Tour, India
- Tour, USA – with Bill Frisell (guitar) and Eyvind Kang (viola)
- Cultural Olympiad, 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver, BC, Canada
- ¡Globalquerque!, Albuquerque, NM, USA
- Grand Performances, Los Angeles, CA, USA
- Chicago World Music Festival, Chicago, IL, USA
- Tour, USA – with Coleman Barks (poet), Glen Velez (percussion) and David Darling (Cello)
- San Francisco Jazz Festival, USA
- Tour, USA – with Souhail Kaspar (percussion)

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