Alibi V.18 No.25 • June 18-24, 2009 

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Rahim AlHaj and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan

Two musical masters serve the single purpose of peace

AlHaj (left) and Khan unite on Friday, June 19, for a world premiere performance that marries Middle Eastern and Indian music.
AlHaj (left) and Khan unite on Friday, June 19, for a world premiere performance that marries Middle Eastern and Indian music.

Though rooted in two different cultures, Iraqi oudist Rahim AlHaj and Indian sarodist Ustad Amjad Ali Khan have each flourished under the same sun: the belief that music is a singularly uniting art form that can transform the world for the better.

Their new CD, Ancient Sounds (UR Music)—which they believe to be the first collaboration of its kind between Indian and Arabic musicians, between oud and sarod—presents a compelling musical argument in support of this premise, with its unique merging of two distinct cultures in a harmonious and moving plea for peace.

“There are a basic seven notes—altogether 12, sharp and flat,” says Khan. “Right from 5,000 years to now, we have achieved mobile phone, iPod, fax machine, but nobody could create the 13th note, because the science of music was so advanced even 5,000 years back that there’s no room for any other note. These 12 notes have united the whole world.”

The two master musicians will unite for the world premiere performance of their musical collaboration in Keller Hall on Friday, June 19, presented by AMP Concerts and Padmini.

A Conversation

Despite their different musical backgrounds, the two men found it easy to communicate musically, thanks to the universal language of the 12 notes, a mutual admiration and a shared belief in the purpose of their music: “To bring peace, to bring dialogue, understanding to this world,” says AlHaj.

“In Indian music, you call it raga, this foundation. [In the Middle East], we have maqam. In the West, they have it as a scale. But when you analyze it musically, you find that—wait a minute—you have the same do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do,” he says.

“The most fascinating thing about this record,” says AlHaj, “is that we never, ever rehearsed together, even two minutes [before going into the studio].”

“The science of music was so advanced even 5,000 years back that there’s no room for any other note. These 12 notes have united the whole world.”

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan

“The melodies, the foundation, the framework were composed—and then, improvisation,” says Khan.

“We just talked to each other,” adds AlHaj.

“We don’t follow a written score,” says Khan. “This music is absolutely from the heart.”

A Purpose

The similarity to classic jazz is obvious, but the music’s structural foundations, the instruments’ ancient sounds and the common purpose of these two musicians color the music differently.

Every one of the compositions has “a face,” says Khan—a specific feeling or message—and the improvisation unfolds and elucidates that kernel of meaning in an organic fashion.

“Improvisation means not just to explore the notes but to explore the heart,” says AlHaj.

The beautiful improvisational play between the two develops exceptionally complex musical ideas and a rich emotional palette. Over the course of the CD, the music seems to present a struggle from uncertainty to peace.

Asked if that movement was planned, Khan responds quickly: “Automatically it happened.”

In both the Arabic and Indian cultures, music is spoken of as a connection to the divine, say AlHaj and Khan, and their approach to playing is steeped in that awareness and purpose.

“I hope people enjoy and get peace and happiness, and I hope they find it satisfying,” says Khan. “This album has an absolutely different flavor—good or bad, I won’t say. We have played with heart and soul, with great feeling, and it’s a bouquet—every piece is a tribute for the world, and to all the great masters that gave the best music to the world.”

Rahim AlHaj and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan appear at Keller Hall on Friday, June 19, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $27.50 advance, $32 at the door, available at UNM Bookstore (877-664-8661, unmtickets.com), The Pit and select Albertsons. General admission seating.