Rahim AlHaj
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Rahim AlHaj

Albuquerque, NM | Established. Jan 01, 2000 | INDIE

Albuquerque, NM | INDIE
Established on Jan, 2000
Band World Classical




"Stories Of Wartime, Transformed Through Music"

Rahim Alhaj is a composer and musician from Baghdad. He was repeatedly imprisoned and tortured for speaking out under Saddam Hussein's regime. Alhaj fled his native country in 1991 — first going to Jordan, then Syria. He says that he heard that the Iraqi secret police intended to murder him abroad. So finally, in 2000, he came to the United States as a refugee, where he was resettled in New Mexico. (It wasn't an easy transition: As a new arrival, he tried to decline a job at a local McDonald's, saying that his music wasn't really right for playing in restaurants.)

In 2008, Alhaj became a U.S. citizen, and by 2015, he was given this country's highest prize for traditional and folk artists, the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. But Alhaj has never left his culture — and music — behind.

Rahim Alhaj plays a stringed instrument called the oud — the ancient, Middle Eastern precursor to what eventually became the guitar. On the album Letters from Iraq, Alhaj uses his oud, string quintet and percussion to turn letters written by Iraqis living through war into music. One, from his nephew, Fuad, was about going to get a haircut.

"There was a car bombing, happened near the barbershop," Alhaj explains.

Most of the people ran when they heard the explosion. But Fuad couldn't — he has a disability and can't walk well, or run. "Everyone's crying and body parts around him and he's scared," Alhaj says. "I was in tears. It was just a very moving story."

Rahim Alhaj told his nephew he wanted to turn the boy's horror into music.

"I told him, 'Hey, Fuad, I'm composing your letters.' And he was, 'Can I hear it?' So I tried to give it to him, and he started crying and said, 'Can I bring my friend, so we can hear it together?' Wow, how beautiful is that? He felt like he a human being and he's valued. You know, he's something in this world that is not negative and just disabled kid. Nobody give attention to him. And he felt like his life is matter. Like anybody else."

Alhaj believes that in telling these stories through music, he can transcend the barriers of language and culture.

"I remember one time they asked me, 'Rahim, how could you translate these letters to notes instead of language?' So I said this exactly: When I speak it in Arabic, you don't understand it, but if I talk to it emotionally, you grasp the meaning of it. And that's why I present it and translate it to note versus language."

Still, Alhaj says that certain facets of life have been lost after his exile. For one thing, the city of his youth no longer exists, though he says that the specter of oppression still hangs over the metropolis. "When I went back to Baghdad," he says, "I felt something missing here, this is not the same Baghdad that I was living in ... But I find there's a different regime who has control the Iraqi people, and they are the same — same goal and the same purpose of being."

Alhaj's newest album, One Sky, deals with another brutal period in Iraq's recent history: the Iran-Iraq war that devastated both countries in the 1980s. (Depending on estimates, between 500,000 and 1.5 million people are thought to have died in the eight-year conflict.) For this project, Alhaj collaborated with the Iranian santour hammered dulcimer player Sourena Sefati and a Palestinian-American percussionist, Issa Malluf.

Alhaj was trained as a violinist as well as an oud player in what was once the greatest city in the world to study the oud — Baghdad, says Hicham Chami, an an ethnomusicologist working on a doctorate at Columbia University. He's also a musician, and a specialist in Iraqi music.

Out of two thousand applicants, Alhaj won one of five highly coveted spots at Baghdad's music conservatory to train with Munir Bashir, one of the world's foremost oud players. "Here is someone who studied and performed at length with Bashir, who is probably the best oud player who ever existed," says Chami. That is to say, Rahim Alhaj could play super-virtuosically — if he wanted to.

Chami contends that Alhaj has made a conscious decision to create more accessible music for a mainstream audience. "He works with the string quartet or a quintet, maybe in a very clichéd way," Chami says, "and ends up volleying back and forth between the oud and the string quartet, modulating on each iteration, passing the melody back and forth. His melodies are very simple."

"And yet," Chami observes, "one could also argue that music doesn't need to be complex in order to be beautiful."

Rahim Alhaj says that simplicity was a vehicle. "To be honest I was really not to showing off how virtuosic I am for this record. I wanted to tell the story. I promised myself to be the voice for the voiceless people... to tell them to please hear our voice, to please give us a chance to tell you the story of what happened here, because you ... never heard that in the radio, you never saw it on TV. Please give me a chance to explain what's going on."

Each individual story is one more step in Rahim Alhaj's long journey to transform the chaos and pain of war into beauty. - NPR All things Considered

"Playing Oud In The Age Of Trump: The Story Of An Iraqi-American Virtuoso"

Iraqi-American instrumentalist Rahim AlHaj was imprisoned and tortured for two years by Saddam Hussein’s forces in the early 1990s, but if you ask him about the most difficult time in his life, he’ll cite something else: having his oud confiscated by government officials.

AlHaj received the instrument, which resembles a pear-shaped guitar, as a gift from his first music instructor at age eight; by 1990 he was a 21-year-old rising star. But in order to have a successful career in Iraq, the ruling Ba’ath party demanded he join—and he refused, leading to his incarceration. Upon his release, he snuck out of the country under an assumed name. But only musicians with permission from the Ministry of Culture were allowed to take their instruments with them, and the agent at the Jordanian border wouldn’t make any exceptions.

“It was the most excruciating moment in my life,” explains AlHaj in a telephone interview with FORBES. “Torture, blah-blah, this is nothing. Nothing compared to this moment.”

AlHaj, who moved to America in 2000 and became a citizen eight years later, managed to find another oud—and made good on the promise he showed as a youngster. He has played hundreds of concerts from North America to South Asia, released nine albums and earned two Grammy nominations; his next record, Letters From Iraq, debuts on Smithsonian Folkways on April 7th (“If you don’t cry, I will get you your money back,” he says).

The album’s eight exquisitely poignant tracks are inspired by actual missives from Iraq and translated into music for oud, violin and other instruments by AlHaj, an accomplished composer in addition to being a virtuoso. The songs tell stories of gut-punch moments: an Iraqi adolescent pausing to look at the charred remains of the building where his lover lived before her family fled the country, or homing pigeons circling the rubble of the house whose roof once served as their base. - Forbes

"Iraqi-American composer musically translates wartime letters"

Rahim AlHaj cried every time he read the letters of eight Iraqis sharing personal, harrowing tales of love, loss and hope in wartime since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Rather than retreat, the Iraqi-American composer and musician immersed himself in the stories and emerged with a collection of songs to illustrate them.

AlHaj is touring the United States in support of the resulting album, “Letters from Iraq,” which is set to be officially released next month on the Smithsonian Folkways label.

“I felt obligated to make these stories,” he told The Associated Press during a phone interview from the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, where he will perform Friday at the Arab American National Museum. “It has to be heard — it has to be seen. ... This is what the Iraqi people went through during that time period.”

For AlHaj, who plays a stringed instrument with ancient Iraqi roots called the oud, the tears still fall when he recounts the stories behind the music. One is about a teenage boy who was returning home when a car bomb exploded and leveled his home, sending his homing pigeons skyward with nowhere to land and destroying the alibi that allowed him to see his girlfriend while he cared for his birds and she hung laundry. Another is of a man who returns to Baghdad after living in exile — and finding a place that no longer feels like home.

Then, there is the letter written by AlHaj’s nephew, Fuad, who inspired and encouraged the musical project. Then a teenager, Fuad was getting a haircut at a barbershop when a bomb went off nearby and militants opened fire. Fuad, who could not run because his legs never fully developed, detailed the horror and carnage around him. He ends by writing, paradoxically, what a beautiful day it had been.

AlHaj said Fuad led him to his friend Riyadh, the teen with the pigeons. From there, the composer collected more correspondences while visiting his homeland, and realized he had to share these stories that might otherwise never be heard by the larger world.

AlHaj said he initially envisioned reading the letters in lectures, but felt they deserved a broader audience and a more lasting, artistic treatment. He began writing instrumental music for the oud, violin, viola, cello, bass and percussion that “translates” the tales, he said.

“It’s really challenging because it’s abstract — it’s not words — but people understand it,” AlHaj said. He added that the songs brought many people to tears at a recent Seattle performance, including a woman who approached him afterward.

“She took her shawl and put it around my neck,” he said. “She gave me a hug and said, ‘Thank you for healing me.’”

AlHaj graduated from Baghdad’s prestigious and competitive Conservatory of Music, but was later imprisoned after refusing to join Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party and supporting his regime. He fled in 1991 and eventually made his way to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he now lives, and became a U.S. citizen in 2008.

He has since performed across the globe, released nine albums and received two Grammy nominations along with other awards and fellowships. Still, he said, it was important for his story and accomplishments to take a backseat with “Letters from Iraq.”

“Musicians have ridiculous egos,” he said, laughing. “I put my ego aside to just breathe and cry with these letters. ... I didn’t want to show my virtuosity — I didn’t give a damn about that. It’s about supporting the voices of those letters.” - Associated Press

"Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj at SFJAZZ (SF CHRONICLE)"

November 2008

Titled "Why," the song never mentioned Saddam Hussein by name, but Iraqis knew that the lyrics - which described injustice and an unlikable man - referred indirectly to their country's despotic leader. The recognition was good news and bad news for the song's author, Rahim AlHaj - good because his composition was becoming a widely acclaimed hit; bad because Iraq's security chiefs were not amused. This was the late '80s in Iraq, when Hussein was at the peak of his power. Within hours of their investigation, Iraq's security chiefs tracked down AlHaj and put him in jail.

AlHaj was imprisoned twice, once in Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib facility. In 1991, AlHaj's mother sold everything she had to raise the $25,000 it cost to buy her son an illegal passport and spirit him out of Iraq.

"I had to leave to save my life," says AlHaj, who at the time of his departure was 22 and one of Iraq's most promising oud players.

As he looks back at his life - the subsequent years he spent in Syria; his immigration to the United States in 2000; the humiliating job he was offered on arrival (as a dishwasher at McDonald's); his struggles to establish his musical career in his new hometown of Albuquerque - AlHaj can almost laugh. He laughs easily, in fact, because his nightmare years are in the past. These days, AlHaj performs to critical praise around the United States. He is appearing Thursday night at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and Dec. 12 at the Palace of Fine Arts, at a concert celebrating the work of the Persian poet Rumi.

In the eight years he's been in the United States, AlHaj has recorded with flamenco, jazz and rock musicians, including Michael Stipe and R.E.M., and has been nominated for multiple Grammy awards, most recently for his 2006 album of traditional Iraqi songs, "When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq." AlHaj is now comfortably settled in New Mexico, a state chosen for him by a U.N. refugee agency because it thought New Mexico's desert climate and culture of arts would appeal to him. The agency was right.

"It's the most beautiful state. I love it," AlHaj says.

Still, he is always looking for ways to help his former homeland, as he did in 2004, when he returned to Iraq with funds he raised for hospitalized Iraqi children. His concerts, he says, are a way of showcasing Iraq's artistic beauty and his new compositions, such as "Baghdad, New Mexico," a playful, upbeat song that bridges his old and new life. AlHaj has played the oud since he was 6 years old and is now considered one of the world's foremost players.

"I realized how important it was to stay in this country, to make a difference, to (teach) people not just about (Iraq's) music but how Middle Eastern people live," says AlHaj, who is also a music lecturer at the University of New Mexico.

"The first cradle of civilization was in Iraq. I find myself in the position of ambassador." - San Francisco Chronicle

"What They Are Saying About Rahim Alhaj"

“One of the top oud players in the world” — St. Petersburg Times

"Unique combination of traditional and innovative performance techniques. Alhaj's spontaneous inventions are constantly fascinating.” — Los Angeles Times

“At its most futuristic, though, Alhaj’s music could be said to have parallels with the blues. His original compositions would never be mistaken for folk music, but matter-of-factly titled pieces such as “Missing” or “Iraqi Faces” provide a solid foundation for his mesmeric solo flights”. — Time Out New York

“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

“Rahim Alhaj is a worthy successor to [Munir]Bashir.” — Rootsworld

“This complex music communicates with an astonishing immediacy via a direct emotional channel that bypasses cultural obstacles. Playing with passionate eloquence, Alhaj speaks irresistibly to the heart in a universal language of compassion” — The Weekly Alibi

“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

“Rahim Alhaj is an impeccably pedigreed oud player and student of his homeland’s music. Hypnotic, swirling, will cast a powerful spell over any listenerThis music is beautiful and fascinating, no matter how much or how little foreknowledge the listener brings to it.” — Global Rhythm

“Your ears will tell you that Rahim Alhaj is a virtuoso lutenist. When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq features his refined yet adventurous mastery of the fretless, Arabic lute.” — The Weekend Planet (ABC Australia)

“[Rahim AlHaj’s] experiences in exile greatly influence his sound today. Peace, love and compassion intertwine, and the oud—a lute-like instrument dating back 5,000 years—becomes central to his storytelling. He combines traditional Arabic music with contemporary influences to create distinct instrumental pieces.” 
 — Philadelphia Weekly

“I'm struck by how unexotic [Rahim AlHaj] seems--how his sound, melodicism, and note values bridge East and West while remaining Iraqi. I'm impressed by how modest virtuosity can be in a classical tradition that honors simplicity. B+” — Village Voice

I feel lucky to have heard Rahim Alhaj. His music is beautiful, mysterious, and powerful. I've never heard anything like it. He's an inspiration" — Bill Frisell

“In modernizing the ancient string instrument primarily used in traditional Middle Eastern and East African music, AlHaj has brought a new sound as well as a new audience to the genre as he tours and records. Considered by many to be the best living oud player, AlHaj is widely respected” — Michigan Daily

“His skillful playing of the oud transports the listener into specific realms, which at first seem exotic but soon embody emotions that are common to us all. In AlHaj’s hands, the oud is not only a musical instrument, it is an instrument of mass instruction.” — Mothering

“Rahim al-Haj is among the most accomplished oud players of his generation. His original compositions introduce modern concepts into the tradition of Iraqi oud playing.” — The Oud (www.oud.eclipse.co.uk)

“AlHaj's overall style can be haunting and fascinating: his music can be very moving in an emotional - even spiritual - manner...this is serious playing”— WorldDiscoveries.net

“There are many ways to deliver a message, but few deliver their message without words. That is the method Rahim AlHaj uses. He describes everything from swaying palm trees to the murder of his cousin without a single lyric. The instrument AlHaj uses to express his ideas is the oud ....AlHaj called the instrument the grandfather of all string instruments, and he used it to convey three ideas to his audience: peace, love and compassion.” — Kent State News

New City Chicago:
Top 5 Records of 2007

Pavarotti: The Studio Albums - Luciano Pavarotti (Decca) 
When the Soul is Settled: Music Of Iraq - Rahim Al Haj (Smithsonian Folkways)
Afriki - Habib Koité & Bamada, (Cumbancha) 
Indian Summer - Dave Brubeck, (Telarc) 
Beethoven Complete Symphonies - Sir Georg Solti & Chicago Symphony (Decca)

- Multiple

"Oud Awakening (BBC)"

On 4 November, Rahim Al-Haj will be a first-time voter. His eyes were wide with boyish enthusiasm as he told me how excited he was at the prospect of exercising his democratic right. But Rahim was no callow 18-year-old straight out of high school.

Imprisoned and tortured in his native Iraq for his opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime, Rahim, 40, became an American citizen at a ceremony on 16 August, having arrived here as a refugee eight years ago.

"I cried that day," he told me. "And the very first thing I did afterwards was fill in a voter registration form.
"My polling card arrived this morning. I picked it up and did this," he said as he mimed kissing it. "After 40 years, I can't wait to vote freely at last."

But Rahim didn't want to be thought of as a dissident or a political activist. He's an exceptionally skilled musician, one of the world's most accomplished players of the oud - a lute-like stringed instrument whose origins date back over 5,000 years.

I asked him to play for me. He obliged with a quick-paced, melancholy composition. His affinity with the instrument and the gentle, mournful sound it produced was striking.

"It's much more intimate than a guitar," he explained as he strummed. "You have to hug it like you'd hug your wife or girlfriend."
As a small boy, his bond with his oud was so strong that he used to sleep with it in its carry case. His love of music won him a string of awards and a place at the Institute of Music in his native Baghdad.

But it was Rahim's passion for composing and performing that forced him into exile. He used his talent and popularity to speak out against the regime by writing songs which protested against the Iran-Iraq war.

The authorities didn't hesitate. His recordings were banned and he was thrown into prison at the mercy of Saddam's torturers.

"But worst degradation was that they took my oud away," he recalled. "I'd practice playing on my wrist. It was as though I could hear the music."

After he was released from prison during the first Gulf War, Rahim fled the country using false papers. But because musicians had to declare their instruments before leaving Iraq, he had to leave the oud behind.

He went to Jordan before settling in Syria, where he met his wife and stayed for eight years. But when Iraq and Syria restored diplomatic relations in 1998, he had to leave again - this time for the USA.

The United Nations refugee agency sent him to Albuquerque, New Mexico, because they thought the desert landscape would remind him of home.

At first it seemed strange to him. It wasn't the bustling New York-style metropolis he had expected. But as he learned English and made friends, it became his favourite place in the world.

Rahim's career flourished. He played with symphony orchestras in New York and teaches music at the University of New Mexico. In 2008 he was nominated for a Grammy. And like any American, he exercised his constitutional right to complain about the state of the nation.

"America is a wonderful place - the country is gorgeous and the people are so open and welcoming," he said.
"But Americans are very isolated. The only people around them are the Mexicans, who they treat badly, and the Canadians, who are just like them.

"If I can do anything while I'm here, I'd like to help them understand other parts of the world."

I asked him how he was planning to use his first-ever free vote. The answer came back on the beat: Obama. The occupation of his homeland had been a disaster, he said.

"I had mixed feeling when Saddam was overthrown because he was such a terrible man," Rahim said. "But I also saw the devastation and the suffering that my people experienced as a result of the invasion.

"When there's a snake in your house, you don't destroy the house to get rid of it. But there have been four million people displaced in Iraq, one million dead, Shia turned against Sunni.

"It isn't just about Iraq. We need change at home too. Ask anyone about how the economy's affecting them. The Americans have suffered under Bush, too."

Before I left, we embraced. He made me promise never to take my right to vote for granted again. - BBC

"A Crash Course in Arabic Music (LA 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. - Los Angeles Times

"Exile on Main Street: Iraqi oud virtuoso Rahim Alhaj is alive and well and living in America. (TIME OUT NY)"

December 2006

Rahim Alhaj’s new album revisits centuries-old music forms.

This past Thanksgiving wasn’t the easiest day for Rahim Alhaj, but there are few telltale signs in his voice 24 hours later. The 40-ish Iraqi composer and master of the oud—a 12-string Middle Eastern lute that is a precursor to the guitar—laughs easily over the phone from Albuquerque, New Mexico, the city he settled in after finding asylum in the States in 2000. “When I arrived, I thought, Where are the tall buildings?” he says, chuckling at the memory. “In my imagination all of America was like New York and Chicago.” Alhaj reveals only in passing that the deadly sectarian bombings splashed across the Thanksgiving Day headlines occurred in the Baghdad Shiite enclave in which he grew up and still has family.

It can be inferred that no grave news about his relatives has reached him, as he searches for an English word to sum up the event. “Heartbreaking,” he mutters after a slight pause. “Right now, the situation is so much bigger than my own personal experience,” Alhaj says, alluding to the harrowing circumstances that sent him into exile in the early ’90s, shortly after the first Gulf War. At the time, Alhaj had run afoul of Saddam Hussein’s regime, primarily for refusing to compose praise music saluting the despot. “I worked hard against the regime, and yes, I was jailed and tortured,” he says.

“But as a whole, the Iraqi people have endured much more. The Iran-Iraq War was eight years, followed by the sanctions that devastated our society. Then the first Gulf War and now the current situation. Sometimes I wonder if the struggle will ever end, because the people of Iraq really need a different life.”

At first glance, the title of Alhaj’s new album, When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq, seems like a wistful suggestion of peace, but it actually refers to an Iraqi expression for becoming immersed in the centuries-old Middle Eastern scales called maqãms (“muh-KAHMS”). The album features Alhaj improvising through nine different maqãmãt, beginning each with an extended solo before Lebanese percussionist Souhail Kaspar joins in. The predominantly microtonal interpretations exude a trancelike, meditative quality, but Alhaj’s personal renderings (called taqsïm in Iraqi) are nothing if not freewheeling, much like those of his internationally celebrated teacher, Munir Bachir. In several places, Alhaj’s solo playing retains its hypnotic bent while slipping in and out of countable time, and periodically seems completely without meter. “I would say that having a soul that is settled is like the American expression ‘being in the zone,’ ” Alhaj offers. “It’s like if you’ve been practicing for a number of hours and the music is really under your fingers. It’s at that point that your soul settles and you get beyond the notes and into the maqãm.”

It’s also true, however, that part of this creative latitude is built into Iraqi music making. There’s a famous quote from the late Egyptian music icon Mohammed Abd el-Wahaab that says as much: “All the Arab world’s music turns around Egypt, except Iraq. They have their own musical way.” The liner notes of Alhaj’s disc help put this into perspective, as they explain how in the hands of an Iraqi musician, a well-known scale like “Mukhalif”—begun here in an eerie, slow march with the percussionist—is built by modulating into a wide variety of other maqãms. “That’s why, musically speaking, you might hear other Arabs say Iraqis are crazy,” Alhaj says with a laugh.

At its most futuristic, though, Alhaj’s music could be said to have parallels with the blues. His original compositions would never be mistaken for folk music, but matter-of-factly titled pieces such as “Missing” or “Iraqi Faces” provide a solid foundation for his mesmeric solo flights. They’re what make Alhaj’s 2003 disc, Iraqi Music in a Time of War (VoxLox), a vehicle for bared emotions in both his music and spoken introductions; it was culled from a recital at the Tribeca shop Sufi Books as news arrived of the first bombs raining on Baghdad. He’s returned to Iraq since Saddam’s capture, but at the time of the 2003 concert, he hadn’t been home in 13 years. “Listening to music, art, whatever is so easy here,” he says wistfully. “In my country, survival is almost a luxury.“

When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq is out now on Smithsonian Folkways. - Time Out New York

"Global Hit - Rahim Alhaj (PRI's THE WORLD)"

Some people don't use words to express themselves, but they do just fine getting across their points of view. One of them is Iraqi composer and oud -- or lute -- player Rahim Alhaj.

Alhaj has been in exile in this country since 2000. About three months ago, he became an American citizen. The World's Marco Werman spoke with Alhaj this morning and has this story.
Rahim Alhaj had never voted before. Not here, because he only became a US citizen in August. And not in Iraq, because when Alhaj lived there, Saddam Hussein was head of state and there were no free elections. As Rahim Alhaj told me, all of that made voting yesterday even more powerful.

“It was a great moment, not just for me, but for all nations basically. And this is first time in my entire life that I do go and vote. And it was a very exciting moment, and in fact I was in tear. Because this is my country, my adopted country and I need to make a difference in this country. And I think my voice has been heard.”

When he lived in Iraq, Rahim Alhaj says he opposed Saddam Hussein's regime. He associated with anti-Saddam political parties. That landed him in jail, where he was tortured. And Alhaj was targetted for other reasons too.

“I was composing music against Saddam Hussein regime criticizing Iran Iraq war, and composing music that talked about unjustified Iran Iraq war, and that's what put me in trouble during that time.”

Marco Werman: I'd like to play just a bit of a recording you recently made, this is a composition of yours called Missing You and then I'd like to ask you what the inspiration for it was.

Rahim AlHaj: Right.

“That's a composition called Missing You, by the Iraqi oud master, Rahim Alhaj, who now lives in Alberquerque New Mexico. Rahim, what are you saying in music, what are you saying without lyrics, in that song Missing

Rahim Alhaj: This is actually my belief in music, that's the music has humongous power, and it has great capacity to make a communication with us as a human being. And this for example, I try to portray some Iraqi faces that always come to my head, kids running, my mother when is doing our meal, and friends around, and all these images that are centered in my head for a long time.

MW: It's a musical expression of your sense of nostalgia for Iraq?

RA: Exactly.”

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 tied together the histories and fortunes of the two countries.

Musically, Rahim Alhaj has responded to that. After his first concert in the states a few years back, Alhaj found that a lot of Americans didn't understand the Arabic music he played: its unfamiliar microtones and its rhythms that followed time signatures you couldn't tap your foot to.

So he tried to build some bridges. This composition, "Baghdad, New Mexico" was one of them. The sounds in "Baghdad, New Mexico" don't reflect classical Arabic music. There are hints of western guitar stylings.

That's the point. Alhaj wanted to open a door to his culture that he hoped Americans would walk through.

“MW: Does an Obama victory do you think and what one can presume from his victory speech last night would be a larger world view for Americans, is the opportunity bigger for you now to share your culture, to share your music?

RA: I think this is what we hope for. I mean, we do not know Obama, but he will do all that expectation we have right now. I mean there's a huge challenge right now he has to face basically, from financial problems to global warming and war all the time, and we have two wars for Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, so there's a lot going on. Now what we need from Obama is how can we understand the others.”

But how will the American people find the time and energy to understand other people and their cultures -- their music -- when there are all these other things to worry about?

That is what Rahim Alhaj is waiting to see. But he's eager to be a part of it and to make those connections. After all, that's why he's making music today in the United States. He feels his time has come too. - PRI's The World

"Rahim AlHaj Interview & VideoLinks"

CNN August 2, 2008

"Musician Preserves Iraqi Roots"

The World November 5, 2008

“Rahim AlHaj” (Marco Werman)

Weekend America May 17, 2008

“Iraq's Oud Ambassador” (Michael May)

NPR December 23, 2006

“Rahim AlHaj’s Odyssey with The Oud”

Minnesota Public Radio September 30, 2005

“Songs of the Ancient Oud Still Resonate”

Smithsonian Global Sounds

“Maqām Sharqī Rast”


- Multipe


Ancient Sounds - Rahim AlHaj & Amjad Ali Khan (2009)
Home Again - Rahim Alhaj (2008)
When The Soul Is Settled : Music Of Iraq - Rahim Alhaj (2007)
Friendship - Rahim AlHaj & Sadaga Quartet (2005)
Iraqi Music In A Time of War - Rahim Alhaj (2003)
The Second Baghdad - Rahim AlHaj (2002)



Rahim AlHaj, virtuoso oud musician and composer, was born in Baghdad, Iraq and began playing the oud (the grandfather of all stringed instruments) at age nine. Early on, it was evident that he had a remarkable talent for playing the oud. Mr. Alhaj studied under the renowned Munir Bashir, considered by many to be the greatest oud player of 20th Century, and Salim Abdul Kareem, at the Institute of Music in Baghdad, Iraq. Mr. AlHaj won various awards at the Conservatory and graduated in 1990 with a diploma in composition. He holds a degree in Arabic Literature from Mustunsariya University in Baghdad. In 1991, after the first Gulf War, AlHaj was forced to leave Iraq due to his activism against the Saddam Hussein regime and began his life in Jordan and Syria. He moved to the US in 2000 as a political refugee and has resided in Albuquerque, NM ever since.  Rahim became a US citizen on August 15, 2008.  Rahim was awarded the prestigious US Artist Ford Fellowship Grant (2009).  In 2015 Rahim was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor for traditional arts in the USA.

Rahim is available in a variety of configurations including solo, with Middle Eastern percussion, with string quartet; with his compelling and powerful septet (oud, Middle Eastern percussionist, two violins, viola, cello, and acoustic bass), his stellar, inventive Rahim AlHaj Trio featuring Iranian santoor master Sourena Sefati and percussionist extraordinarie Nicholas Baker. Rahim is also available to perform with local string quartets and has two very special duo programs: one with Iranian tar maestro Sahba Motallebi, the other with ith Iraqi cello master Karim Wasfi.   

Rahim has performed around the globe 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 twelve CDs. His latest album, One Sky (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings), released in April 2018 is a call for friendship and features Iranian santour maestro Sourena Sefati. Letters From Irag (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings), is a powerful musical meditation on consequences in a post-war reality featuring oud, percussion and string quintet. Infinite Hope (2015) with Indian sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan, is a follow up to their 2010 Grammy-nominated collaboration Ancient Sounds, while Journey (2014), is a retrospective of Rahim’s music up to the 2014, including a new track. Little Earth was released in 2010 to remarkable reviews. The two-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, Santa Fe Guitar Quartet, Yacouba Sissoko, Stephen Kent, and many more including Little Earth Orchestra.  Other releases include Under The Rose (2009) with Ottmar Liebert, Jon Gagan and Barrett Martin, with all net proceeds benefitting Direct Aid Iraq;  Home Again (2008), 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 (2007) nominated for a Grammy in 2008 and earlier recordings include Friendship: Oud and Sadaqa String Quartet (2005), The Second Baghdad (2002) and the live CD Iraqi Music in a Time of War (2003).