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A Crash Course in Arabic Music
Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2007
"When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq"
(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) BENEATH the daily violence in Iraq lies a
civilization dating back more than five millenniums. And if the capacity to
create a musical culture is a hallmark of a civilized society, there is ample
evidence that instruments with sophisticated capabilities existed in the
early Mesopotamian city-states. One of the most fascinating is the pictorial
image of a lute-like instrument on a cylinder seal discovered in the
5,000-year-old city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia.
It's impossible to tell what that instrument sounded like or, in fact, what
its many successors sounded like before the oud became a favored solo
instrument in the royal courts of Baghdad
about 1,000 years ago. But from that point up to the present, a highly
sophisticated classical music style has grown and flourished. And while Iraq is
attempting to survive as a nation, a few determined musical artists such as
Rahim Alhaj are also striving to preserve and advance the country's musical
"When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq" is a fascinating
introduction to the maqamat, the collection of note sequences that are
the foundation of Arabic music. The album also highlights Alhaj's unique
combination of traditional and innovative performance techniques. Although
each mode-like maqam sequence bears some resemblance to Western
scales, they are in fact far more complex, employing melodic fragments,
specific relationships to other maqam as well as spiritual or mystical
In this collection, Alhaj, accompanied by percussionist Souhail Kaspar,
performs a sequence of extended improvisations based on nine maqamat.
Some are as familiar to Middle Eastern ears as the C major scale is to
Western listeners; others are less well known. But the resulting collection
has an impact similar to that of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo
violin. Filled with air and space, sometimes stepping lightly through the
statements of an individual maqam, often interacting rhythmically with
Kaspar, Alhaj's spontaneous inventions are constantly fascinating — a
convincing affirmation of the rich culture of an embattled area of the world.
Here's a selection of other recent world music releases, some from similarly
distressed areas, others ranging across sounds from around the globe:
"Taqasim" (Connecting Cultures Records)Lebanese oud virtuoso
Khalifé has been a pioneer in blending Arabic music with Western elements in
works performed by large orchestras as well as his Al Mayadeen ensemble.
Like Alhaj — who was imprisoned twice by Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime
before he left Iraq
— Khalifé has had his skirmishes with various authorities, for pro-Arab
political statements as well as alleged "insults of religious values."
(It's obviously difficult simply to be a musician in the Middle East, which
may explain why Khalifé now lives in Paris and
Alhaj lives in New Mexico.)
Ultimately, all musicians — regardless of origin — will offer their music as
the ultimate statement of their values, creatively, culturally and
politically. And Khalifé is best experienced in his stirring improvisations.
Deeply inspired by the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish (and accompanied by the
double bass of Peter Herbert and the percussion of Bachar Khalifé) he
performs a large, extended work in three parts. Each of the stop and start
sections of the taqasim (the foundation of the improvising), reveals
different emotional content — sometimes intimate and inward reaching,
sometimes high spirited and celebratory.
Khalifé generates his lines from the rich-toned middle and lower areas of his
instrument, employing vocal-like melismatic phrases, constantly reminding the
listener of the complex, lyrical rhythms of Darwish's poetry. Different
styles drift — dreamlike at times — through the music: a whisper of flamenco,
a sudden rhythmic recollection of jazz, a sliding phrase recalling an Indian
raga. It's an impressive outing, stimulating new responses with each hearing.