World in Stereo: Rahim AlHaj’s Little Earth

Each week, World in Stereo examines classic and modern world music while striving for a greater appreciation of other cultures.

Rahim AlHaj: Little EarthRahim AlHaj: Little Earth (UR Music, 9/28/10)

Rahim AlHaj: “Morning in Hyattsville”
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If you’ve ever dabbled in Arabic music, whether realizing or not, you have probably come across the short-necked Arabian lute known formerly as the oud.  If you’ve never explored the musical styling, however, the recordings of Rahim AlHaj may be the place to start.  Hailed as one of Iraq’s most paramount composers and an esteemed oud musician, AlHaj studied under Munir Bashir, perhaps one of the most quintessential innovators and players of the oud, at the Institute of Music in Baghdad.

While embarking on a six-year program beginning in 1982, the political climate of Iraq began to boil over.  AlHaj was unable to ignore the injustices within the Iraqi society under Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime.  Like many others, AlHaj aligned himself with an underground movement that resisted Hussein, the tyrannical Ba’ath party, and the unending war with Iran.

AlHaj’s political activity led him under the watchful eye of the government.  The latter half of the 1980s found AlHaj in jail twice, once for a year in a half.  In 1991, fearing for his life only one year after graduating with a degree in composition, AlHaj obtained false papers and escaped Iraq, fleeing to Jordan.

From Jordan he moved to Syria, where he fled once again under the UN Refugee Resettlement program in 2000.  He began a new life in Albuquerque, New Mexico, working odd jobs assigned by refugee workers.  He continued to play music and collaborated with many local musicians, using the status as a refugee in a new land as inspiration for new compositions.

AlHaj debuted his first US album, The Second Baghdad, in August of 2002.  It was a pensive solo-oud affair, shortly followed by his special 2004 release, Home Again — a reflection on his journey back to Iraq after 14 years of exile.  Subsequent recordings have added more instrumentation, explored East and West musical crossovers, and garnered a few Grammy nominations.

This year marks one decade since AlHaj moved to the United States as a political refugee.  And though he was displaced from his home nearly 20 years ago, AlHaj has been able to keep his identity intact, using Iraq’s musical tradition as way to resist conflict and promote peace.

Little Earth, AlHaj’s eighth album, presents his vision of a musical panorama where divergent ideas and concepts can flourish together.  It brings to view a certain mode of thought, a way to unthink clichés that may prevent listeners from exploring the rich and diverse history of Arabic music.

The album, after all, hinges on the how AlHaj negotiates the Iraqi oud, the grandfather to the modern day lute, with instruments from other cultures and distant histories.  Essentially, AlHaj is taking the Iraqi maqam — in all of its forms, intonations, and chromatic modes — and transforming it to fit a global perspective.  Where once an accordion playing an Iraqi maqam might have sounded like a delirious idea, AlHaj and American accordionist Guy Klucevsek make it sound timeless on “The Searching.”

Over the course of two discs, AlHaj taps a hotbed of talented guest musicians that transcends the East/West dichotomy that we often fall back on when describing world music.  Half the fun of listening to Little Earth is attempting to recognize all the different instruments at play.  It is a dialogue between these guest artists but also between their cultures.

Guitarist Peter Buck, of REM and The Minus 5 fame, is the most recognizable name, but the all-star cast also includes Cape Verde vocalist Maria De Barros, Indian sitarist Rashan Jamal Bhartiya, the Argentina-based Santa Fe Guitar Quartet, Iranian ney player Hossein Omoumi, multi-national didgeridoo player Stephen Kent, Native American flutist Robert Mirabal, and Chinese pipa player Liu Fang.

The tracks that showcase the Little Earth Orchestra, AlHaj’s ensemble composed of players from far-flung places, shine throughout the album.  American jazz/country guitarist Bill Frisell and American multi-instrumentalist Eyvind Kang are featured on “Morning in Hyattsville,” a track that travels through Eastern Europe to the Near East and back, where AlHaj’s oud, Frisell’s electric guitar, and Kang’s viola create a dialogue between one another that is reminicent of a Django Reinhardt / Stéphane Grappelli Gypsy strut.  “The Other Time” features Malian kora player Yacuoba Sissoko, and it showcases (while recorded in just one take) the oud in classical form next to beautiful sweeping rhythmic phrases of the kora.

By intention, Little Earth is diverse but always results in a unified sound, as AlHaj places a 5,000-year musical tradition in dialogue with the rest of the world.  Ultimately, listeners will appreciate it for its musical underpinnings — the Iraqi maqam tradition, the instrumental juxtapositions, and wide range of sonar landscapes — as well as its desire for a shared peace.

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