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Oud Virtuoso Performing in Concert
for Film Festival of the Spirit

By Georgeanne Davis

Area residents who were captivated by the music of Iraqi oud virtuoso Rahim Alhaj when he appeared at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland in 2003 will once again have the opportunity to enjoy him in concert. On Friday, September 22, at 7:30 pm a the John Street United Methodist Church in Camden. Alhaj will be featured in an evening of music along with special guest Lock Kiermaier performing the poetry of Rum. Photographer Olive Pierce will display her photographs of Iraqi children in the church vestibule.  Alhaj will play the first set solo and then perform with Kiermaier for the second set.

Alhaj, who was born in Baghdad, Iraq, began playing the oud, known as the grandfather of all stringed instruments, at a young age, studying with Munir Bashir, considered by many to be the greatest oud player. Alhaj holds both a degree in Arabic literature from Mustansaria Univerisity in Baghdad and a diploma in composition.  He was imprisoned twice by the regime of Saddam Hussein, in part for refusing to compose musical tributes to that regime's military adventures during the 1980's.  His life came under threat by the Hussein regime at the time of the first Gulf War and he escaped in 1991, eventually making his way as a political refugee via Syria and Lebanon to New Mexico in 2000. Here, he began the long process of learning English, adjusting to a very different culture, and reestablishing himself as a musical authority, performer and composer.

Speaking by telephone from his home in Albuquerque, Alhaj talked about his career, which includes solo performances and appearances with musical ensembles in a variety of sizes, from string quartets to full symphony orchestras.  Alhaj has performed all over the world and in hundreds of concerts in the United States.  This includes a recent performance on June 18, at the Kennedy Center for the Smithsonian Folkways release of his fourth CD, "When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq", with Alhaj on oud and Lebanese percussionist Souhail Kaspar on tabla.  His recording: Friendship: Oud and Sadaqa Quartet" was nominated for a Grammy Award.

In addition to his solo performances, Alhaj teaches music theory and appreciation.  Joking, he describes himself as "a mean teacher", then qualifies his statement by explaining that he has high expectations of his students.  His composition work takes up whatever time he can find in his busy schedule.  He works with composer and cellist Katie Harlow, who teaches at the Albuquerque Academy, where Alhaj's wife teaches Arabic.  The pair have been working on pieces that Alhaj will perform along with over 18 symphony orchestras throughout the country, sending out their scores in advance so that the orchestras will be ready for rehearsal when Alhaj arrives.

How does an oud play in concert with an orchestra trained in Western classical traditions?  This is one of Alhaj's favorite subjects, one he refers to as his educational mission--"to let people be more aware of other cultures". Speaking of the symphony orchestras, Alhaj asks, "How can they play only Mozart or Bach? How can we engage ourselves?" There is no Western music or Eastern music, he says, "We made it all up. There is just music. Why do we call it Western music, or say this is jazz and this is classical music? We only made up these categories to convince ourselves that we are knowledgeable about the world. It's all music."

Kiermaier has been performing the poetry of Rumi for over a decade and was initially inspired by the performances of Rumi's poetry by Robert Bly and Coleman Barks, Kiermaier brings an uncommon soulfulness to his performances of Rumi's poetry, through which he engages with audiences on an intimate level. He lives in Hallowell.

Suggested donation is $12 at the door. For more information, call 230-0232. The performance is a benefit for the International Film Festival of the Spirit (www.filmspirit.org), which will take place the weekend of April 27, 28 and 29 at the Strand Theatre in Rockland.