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A Crash Course in Arabic Music

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2007

Rahim Alhaj
"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 traditions.

"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 references.

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:

Marcel Khalifé
"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.