Home Again (Fast Horse Recordings), the latest solo release from Iraqi oudist/composer Rahim Alhaj, sounds unfamiliar at first. The CD’s nine compositions are played on a 12-stringed acoustic instrument little known in the West, whose recorded history dates back 5,000 years. They’re built on modes (maqamat) alien to the Western ear, and their themes are developed almost entirely melodically.
Nevertheless, 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.
“‘When you make music, make it sweet,’” says Alhaj, quoting the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. “Music means not necessarily mode and scale and maqam and melody, but something to talk to you,” he says. “Could make you angry, could make you sad, could make you frustrated, could make you happy—but moves something inside of you.”
Home Again moves the listener’s spirit over and over, with yearning, horror, glee, pride, foreboding—all the emotional experiences of a refugee returning after 13 years to his war-ravaged homeland, seeing once more the faces of dear ones—those who remain, anyway.
For Alhaj, his responsibility as a composer and musician is to “take this reality and make it accessible to people and let them think about it. Tell them the truth. Tell them the story—regardless, is good or bad,” he says.
Educated at the prestigious Institute of Music in Baghdad under the renowned oudists Munir Bashir and Salim Abdul Kareem, Alhaj graduated in 1990 with a diploma in composition (he also holds a degree in Arabic literature). He received a harsher education in the jails of Saddam Hussein, where he was ungently incarcerated twice in the ’80s for his antiregime activities.
In 1991, he fled Iraq, living in Syria and Jordan. Granted political asylum in the United States in 2000, he was relocated to Albuquerque, where his first job as a non–English-speaking refugee was washing dishes at McDonald’s.
Seven years later, he has five stunning CDs to his credit, including the twice-
In his new home, he has established himself as “an ambassador for my culture,” he says, who works to “change the stereotype of Iraqi people.”
Asked how—despite incarceration, torture and exile—he has managed not only to maintain his own humanity but to awaken that of others through his music, Alhaj responds, “I believe the human has an inconceivable power that could do [anything].”
He could, he says, simply write his music and play it when and where possible, but he has chosen, instead, to use music and his testimony to educate Western audiences about the richness of Arabic culture, as well as events in Iraq.
To that end, he has established the Baghdad Ensemble, which performs classical and traditional Middle Eastern and Arabic music from different regions from the ninth century on. The ensemble comprises Juli Palladino, violin; Jason Parris, viola; Tom McVeety, cello; Beth Beaver, qanon; Jon Gagan, contrabass; Laurel Wyckoff, flute; Ed Pias, riq; Issa Malluf, tabla; and Zackery Kear, ney.
“The music is the music, no matter where you live,” he says, confident it can bridge boundaries erected by politicians and worse. “That’s what we need to engage—the music, to be more powerful, more useful in our life. I see the result, I can see the effect on people.”