Rahim AlHaj Plays for Peace at ¡Globalquerque!
Six continents and a world premiere in two days
Oud player Rahim AlHaj will take the stage Saturday night at the ¡Globalquerque! world music festival to premiere works from his new album, Little Earth. When he does, don’t be surprised to see tears in his eyes.
His appearance, with the Little Earth Orchestra, will mark the culmination of several years’ work that began with an improbable dream and has produced a profound and beautiful gesture of hope, a musical roadmap for communication across cultures. It’s only fitting that the premiere of Little Earth should come at a festival dedicated to building bridges, one that allows people from around the world to come together for two days of mutual celebration.
Now in its sixth year, ¡Globalquerque! is developing into a true destination event, winning recognition around the world. It’s certainly one helluva good time shared by several thousand simpaticos, fueled by some of the world’s best musicians and dancers—from Mali to Iran, India to Brazil, Norway to Northern New Mexico—plus international food, drink, crafts and more.
Scheduled for release on Sept. 28 (but available this weekend at ¡Globalquerque!), Little Earth began with a little joke, when someone suggested to AlHaj—a Baghdad native, Albuquerque resident and U.S. citizen—that nations might try to settle their differences by seeing who could make the best music instead of the best war.
From that germ, AlHaj began to communicate with musicians around the world whom he had encountered on his travels and admired, inviting them to play with him on a global cross-cultural project. He found willing, renowned collaborators from every inhabited continent who represent widely varied genres (see “Little Earth Album Collaborators”).
But how to write the music for this project? “To make the music a reality means you have to compose music to share something common, right? So ... how can I talk to pipa [Chinese lute]? How can I compose music for pipa? I mean, beautiful instrument, but you have to understand it to be able to write music for it.”
AlHaj began researching each instrument and the traditions in which they operate so that he could find a way to meet his collaborators halfway. He realized that his compositions first had to make the other musicians comfortable. So in every piece, AlHaj engages his collaborators in a musical environment that allows everyone, including himself, to work outward from their own comfort zone to a less familiar sphere and converse freely.
It took AlHaj more than three and half years to compose the pieces and assemble the Little Earth Orchestra. In stolen moments in cities across North America, he recorded the tracks with his collaborators whenever their paths happened to cross—even if they had only enough time in the studio to complete a single take. In the process, he emptied his bank account to pay for the studio time and other expenses. Winning a United States Artists Award in 2009, which provides a $25,000 prize, his first thought was, “I can finish Little Earth.”
“Let’s make beauty instead of making destruction. “Let’s talk about our similarities instead of our differences.”
A stunning masterwork of global proportions, as beautiful to look at as to hear, Little Earth offers 15 tracks of cross-pollinated music that reflects a variety of cultures as well as the common human experience. All the performers are artists committed to the cause of world peace.
“I’m obsessed with peace for this world. It’s like my obsession with the oud,” says AlHaj, who’s known his share of war, having lived through Iraq’s long war with Iran.
“Let’s make beauty instead of making destruction,” he says. “Let’s talk about our similarities instead of our differences.”
For guitarist Bill Frisell, one of the Little Earth collaborators, the project reflects a long-held belief in the nature and power of music. “For me, that’s what music has always been, my whole life: It’s always something about people, showing you that there’s just no problem. You don’t have to speak the same language,” he says. “Growing up in Denver and seeing how the music cut across all the other kinds of social or racial—All that stuff just melted away as soon as you started playing. I always think that if everybody played music, I can’t imagine how there’d be all these problems in the world.”
“I still believe it’s possible. It is possible to live peacefully, to love this world,” says AlHaj, despite his experiences with war, torture and refugeeism. In fact, he says, that was the original title for the Little Earth project. “I called it, It’s Possible.”
The appearance of AlHaj with the Little Earth Orchestra— Souhail Kaspar (Middle Eastern percussion), Carla Kountoupes and Gail Robertson (violins), Jason Parris (viola), Katie Harlow (cello), and Michael Glynn (acoustic bass)—as well as several of the featured collaborating artists, promises to be a rare event. It’s just not easy to assemble musicians from multiple continents in one spot at one time. Hossein Omoumi, Stephen Kent and Roshan Jamal Bhartiya are confirmed participants, and they may be joined by others.
Their welcome appearance here is perfectly in tune with the tenor of the festival. The Little Earth project could be considered a miniaturized version of ¡Globalquerque! itself, bringing together people from everywhere for the purpose of celebrating peaceful coexistence.
“It’s a little clichéd, but we’re really hoping that people not only have a really good time, but that they take away something meaningful from the event that expands their outlook on different cultures,” says Tom Frouge, festival co-founder with Neal Copperman. “The whole country’s going through a rough time now, and sometimes it’s very easy to blame ‘the other.’ If people open their minds and hearts and expand their understanding of other cultures and other views, it’s a lot harder to blame ‘the other’ when you know ‘the other.’ It’s always been part of the ¡Globalquerque! weltanschauung, or world view: that it’s harder to bomb people if you know them.”
And it’s really, really hard if you’re dancing to their music.