“It’s true, I’m working my ass off,” says Iraqi oudist Rahim AlHaj, on the phone from his Albuquerque home, “composing music and commissioning music and making the oud recognizable with all these remarkable musicians, plus my practice time, which is six to eight hours a day.”
The work is paying off. On Dec. 14, AlHaj was one of 50 American artists to receive a 2009 fellowship from United States Artists, “a grant-making, artist-advocacy organization dedicated to supporting America’s finest artists,” according to its website. Each fellowship comes with an unrestricted grant of $50,000.
For AlHaj, the grant means he can continue to pursue his dream project, “It’s Possible—Voices for Peace,” for which he has been recording and performing with musicians from every continent. He plans to bring the musicians together for a performance to benefit Doctors Without Borders.
“These kinds of awards are what artists need,” says AlHaj, who notes that he’s already spent almost $10,000 on recording fees alone.
He also learned that his recording with Amjad Ali Khan, Ancient Sounds (UR Music/Thirty Tigers), has been nominated for a Grammy, AlHaj’s third nomination. An improvisational collaboration between Iraq and India, oud and sarod, Ancient Sounds springs from the two men’s belief that music can transform the world for the better.
Meanwhile, AlHaj has just released a new CD, Under the Rose (UR Music), a spellbinding collaboration with Santa Fe guitarist Ottmar Liebert that explores the connections between Iraqi musical traditions and flamenco. Net proceeds from its sale benefit Direct Aid Iraq, which works with Iraqi children whose lives have been scorched by violence.
For AlHaj, music is an act of faith that he is compelled to perform. The United States Artists fellowship, the Grammy nomination and the new CD are only fuel for his faithful heart.