Rahim AlHaj

Rahim AlHaj ENGLISH CONTENT

 

Rahim AlHaj has long functioned as a politically conscious musical goodwill ambassador. Last year, the Iraqi-American oud virtuoso, who fled his native country in 1991 after being imprisoned twice for his opposition to the Saddam Hussein regime, issued the powerful album Letters From Iraq, which brought to life correspondence he received from Iraqi women and youth. Now the two-time Grammy nominee tells his own remarkable story with One Sky, his third album for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. 

One Sky also serves as the debut album for the Rahim AlHaj Trio, featuring in addition to AlHaj the supreme talents of Iranian santūr player Sourena Sefati and Palestinian-American percussionist Issa Malluf. The record is a deeply immersive sonic experience as the three world-renowned musicians weave transfixing textures and melodies that transport listeners to a world of tranquillity and beauty.
Beyond its music, the album represents AlHaj’s artistic appeal to each of us to make a positive difference toward a better world, however, we can. Sefati and Malluf join AlHaj in this spirit of friendship, tolerance and an acknowledgement that everyone must live in peace under the same sky.

For AlHaj, the seeds for the album date back to the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. At the start of the conflict, he was a star student of the oud at the prestigious Institute of Music in Baghdad; by the time he graduated in 1990, he was a vocal opponent of the war. Following his imprisonments, he fled Iraq, ultimately emigrating to the U.S. and arriving in Albuquerque, New Mexico. AlHaj became a U.S. citizen in 2008, and his career took flight: He performed hundreds of concerts all over the world, released a string of albums and collaborated with artists such as R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and the Kronos Quartet.

But after 40 years, he was still haunted by the carnage he had witnessed as a teenager, along with the emotions he felt when the U.S. and the U.K. aligned to combat the “axis of evil” (North Korea, Iran, and Iraq), and he set out to create an album that would be his personal statement of peace, friendship and unity.
He reached out to Sourena Sefati, master of the santūr (Arabic hammered dulcimer). Beyond Sefati’s impressive resume (he holds numerous music degrees, has performed as a soloist and in ensemble concerts across the globe, and has been featured on over 50 albums), he understood the power of AlHaj’s mission. Born in Ramsar, Iran, Sefati emigrated to the U.S. in 2014 and now teaches, performs and resides in New Mexico.
Supporting AlHaj and Sefati is Palestinian-American percussionist Issa Malluf. Born and raised in New Mexico, Malluf is a self-taught musician who has been internationally recognized as a specialist in Middle Eastern, Arabic and North African percussion. Among the artists Malluf has performed with are Amjad Ali Khan, folk duo A Hawk and a Hacksaw, and Peter Buck.
“Dialogue,” the opening track on One Sky, unfolds like a dream, with the three players painting an elaborate tableau of delicate musical layers. AlHaj and Sefati engage in a dance around Malluf’s precise yet nimble rhythms. The music is soothing, but its story is harrowing: AlHaj originally wrote the piece for violin and oud to honor his friend Nazar al-Jabar, who played the 1st violin for the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. The violinist once told AlHaj of the time in 1994, during UN Security Council-imposed sanctions against Iraq, when he was forced to burn his violin to keep his infant son warm. It would be the last time he touched a musical instrument.

“Time to Have Fun” conveys an entirely different mood. Playful and hypnotic, it springs forth like a bolt of hi-beam light. The dance rhythm is called a khaliji, common throughout the Arabian Gulf and Iraq. Listeners might feel compelled to move their bodies, which, as AlHaj explains in the liner notes, is the very idea: “If you don’t feel moved to dance here, go find some children and dance with them.”
“A Gift from a Sufi Soul” features an almost Western-sounding rhythm that supports sinuous and vaguely mysterious riffs. As the song opens up, the rhythm (an intriguing pattern of 14 beats counted as 4+4+3+3) grows more insistent and the melodies expand. The meaning behind the song stems from the Sufi belief that, with guidance from someone who has already experienced it, one can become awakened to the soul’s connection with God. Awareness of who you really are, a state of being described as beyond “I am” and “I want,” is the gift a Sufi soul offers.
“Dancing Planet,” built around engaging and invigorating polyrhythms, is a fitting and celebratory coda to this mesmerizing journey. Asked how he came to write the piece, AlHaj explains that he envisioned an Irish jig or a Scottish reel. He recounts how he had never danced until his wedding day, when every molecule in his body was filled with joy and everyone seemed to dance with him in celebration.
With One Sky, Rahim AlHaj, along with Sourena Sefati and Issa Malluf, makes good on his commitment to creating music that bridges cultural and sociopolitical divides. Filled with intoxicating waves of sound and brilliant melodies, it succeeds in spreading AlHaj’s message of global understanding and love.

One Sky Track List:
1. Dialogue
2. Wandering
3. Time to Have Fun
4. Fly Away
5. A Gift From a Sulfi Soul
6. Dasht
7. Ayoub
8. River
9. Dancing Planet
 

ONE SKY
D. A. Sonneborn

This album is an intimate artistic appeal to the best in each of us, and the relationships between us all. It’s about love, friendship, and peace. Composer and oudist Rahim AlHaj believe each of us has to choose whether to make a difference—toward a better world—or not. He has chosen to advocate for and hopes to build peace with his music.

The seed inspiration for One Sky was the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). When the war’s carnage began, Rahim AlHaj was 12 years old, studying oud and composition in Baghdad. By July 1988 when a UN-mandated ceasefire finally took hold, as many as 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians had died. Not yet a teenager in 1980, Rahim already abhorred war. By the time it was over, he was an outspoken activist against the Saddam Hussein regime, twice imprisoned and tortured. In 1991 he went into exile to avoid execution. Nearly 40 years later, Rahim says, Our nations were sworn enemies, killing each other, but today an Iranian and an Iraqi are making music together. To establish peace in the world we need to learn to listen with open hearts to one another, to create more beauty together rather than more destruction. Let us share food and music; these simple acts create common ground. We all live under one sky.

There has been no real peace in Rahim AlHaj’s homeland. Iraq tried to conquer Kuwait in 1990 and was decisively pushed back by a 35-nation U.S.-led coalition, which put an end to the Iraqi aggression in just over a month. And 140 days after the 9/11 attacks on the
U.S. in 2001, President George W. Bush declared in his first State of the Union address that “North Korea, Iran, and Iraq...constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” The U.S. and U.K. and other allies began military action against Iraq in March 2003. While combat formally ended in December 2011, fighting and violence continue.
The seed for this album sprouted and grew. Rahim AlHaj reached in memory to the conflict of his youth and invited Iranian santur player Sourena Sefati (supported by Palestinian- American Issa Malluf on percussion) to join in a musical statement of friendship, an understanding of the oneness of our humanity, all of us living under one sky.

Composer, Oud. At 13, Rahim AlHaj was accepted into the prestigious Conservatory of Music in Baghdad, one of only five of more than a thousand who had applied. By the time he received his diploma in 1990, he had won awards and played across much of the world. However, he refused to join the ruling Ba’ath party and support Saddam Hussein’s regime and was therefore twice imprisoned and tortured. Under threat of execution, he went into exile in Jordan and then had to flee to Syria. In 2000 he heard he was in imminent danger of murder by the Iraqi secret police. With the help of Catholic Relief Services, he emigrated safely to the U.S. and arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in April 2000. His journey since then has included hundreds of concerts in North America, South Asia, and Iraq; ten albums (including two GRAMMY nominations); a United States Artists award; and in 2015 the nation’s highest honour in the folk and traditional arts, a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. He was naturalized as an American citizen in 2008.

Santur. Sourena Sefati is a master of the Persian hammered dulcimer, or santur, as well as a composer, author, and teacher. He has performed as a soloist and in ensemble concerts in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America, and on more than 50 albums. He was featured soloist for the Iran Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra (2009–2014), Iranian Chamber Orchestra (2009), and Mehrnavazan National Orchestra (2011). Sefati holds a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Tehran (2002) and a master’s degree in Iranian music performance from Art University (2009). He also taught at Art University and at the University of Applied Science and Technology (2008–2014). Born in Ramsar, Iran, he emigrated to the U.S. in 2014 and now teaches, performs, and resides in New Mexico.
Percussion. Issa Malluf is a Palestinian-American multi-instrumentalist, born and raised in New Mexico. He has performed at concerts and festivals in Asia, Europe, and North America with artists including Rahim AlHaj, Peter Buck, Amjad Ali Khan, and A Hawk and a Hacksaw.

TRACK NOTES

1. Dialogue
Rahim originally composed this piece for violin and oud  to  honor  Nazar  al- Jabar, a childhood friend who played 1st violin in the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. Al-Jabar believed Western classical music was the highest music and the only music worthy of playing or listening to. But in 2004 when Rahim visited his friend in Baghdad, Nazar recounted, “On January 16, 1994, while the [UN Security Council–imposed] sanctions were at their height, my son was born. It was so cold. The infant was wet and shaking, shivering with cold. I burned my violin to make    the room warm.” He has never touched a musical instrument since.

2. Wandering
Musically this is quite straightforward with three sections in Maqam Kurd on A (La). Of this piece composer Rahim AlHaj says, “If you have something to say, say it simply. The piece is very sad but very simple. I’m telling my own story on the oud, and the tale is told on the santur at the same time. There is no rhythmic change except the triplet figure. The oud is searching for something, perhaps a hug, a relief from loneliness, perhaps simply comfort. I am searching still.”
The repeated cadential figure is found elsewhere in Rahim AlHaj’s music. Speaking of the call-and-response 2nd movement, Rahim drew an analogy to munajat, one meaning of which is the intimate whispering between lover and beloved.

3. Time to Have Fun
A dance rhythm called khaliji is common throughout the Arabian Gulf and Iraq. The piece is upbeat—an invitation to have fun, to dance. The piece is in Maqam Kurd on tonic G (Sol). AlHaj says, “If you don’t feel moved to dance here, go find some children and dance with them.”

4. Fly Away
Rahim AlHaj said of this piece, “Lose your sadness, leave it behind. Go anywhere you need to go in order to feel better, whether in your imagination or to the other side of the world.” This is the fourth time “Fly Away” has been recorded to date. The first was as an oud solo (Home Again, Fast Horse Recordings, 2007). The second time it was recorded with Bill Frisell and Eyvind Kang on Rahim's Little Earth CD (UR). The third was accompanied by the string quintet and percussion, retitled as “Letter 7: Fly Home – Fatima” (Letters from Iraq, Smithsonian Folkways SF40577, 2017). Here the santur and percussion join the oud to give a very different color and artistic perspective to the composition.

5. A Gift from a Sufi Soul
The Sufis believe that with guidance from someone who has already experienced it, one can become awakened to the soul’s connection with God. Awareness of who you really are, a state of being described as beyond “I am” and “I want,” is the gift a Sufi soul offers. The point is made repeatedly in the music, using a rhythmic pattern of 14 beats (counted as 4+4+3+3). Repeated rhythms like the pattern here can be used by the Sufis in gatherings to achieve entrainment of breath and body in exercises of remembrance (zikr, hadara) of the essential unity of being.

6. Dasht
Rahim composed this piece for the oud in Maqam Dasht when he was 13, in the early days of the brutal Iran-Iraq war. It was entered into a quadrennial national youth composition competition and won. The Iraqi Maqam Dasht is closely related in pitch and melodic tendencies to the Iranian  v  z-e Dašt . A mature oudsolo thee young musician could not have conceived has been added at 3:30, and the sant r’s reply begins at 5:10. Rahim’s maqam selection was intuitively a gesture of friendship toward Iranians, but some heard it as possibly an antiwar statement, which may have furthered his path to becoming a political dissident. AlHaj reflects today, “I was inclined to reach out toward Iran for peace.”

7. Ayoub
The track title is the name Job in Arabic. Job is celebrated in the Old and New Testament and Qur’an as an exemplar of patient endurance in the face of whatever comes. Rahim wants to remind us that enduring life’s most difficult times is demanded of all of us. The rhythm here is one of those often used by the Sufis    to align themselves with the One Being during group rites. It is likely an old rhythm, as it is found across the Arab world. The repeated 4-beat rhythm serves to synchronize the group’s chant, heartbeat, and breath until they are as one.

8. River
Composed by Sourena Sefati, the piece features sant r with percussion support. For Rahim AlHaj the river can only be the Tigris, which flows through Baghdad. The Safarud River flows through Iran and empties into the Caspian Sea at Ramsar, Sourena Sefati’s birthplace. The remembered sound and image of water flowing downstream and to the sea inspired the composition and Sourena’s performance.

9. Dancing Planet
When Rahim AlHaj was asked to reflect on his compositional intention with this piece, he said that it was much like the feeling of an Irish jig or a Scottish reel. Until his wedding day, he had never danced in his life, but on that day, every molecule in his body was filled with joy. He remembers it felt like everyone and everything everywhere was dancing with him.

 

SPECIAL THANKS
Shukran! Sourena Sefati, Issa Malluf, Tom Frouge, Munir Bashir, Salim Abdul Kareem, Atesh Sonneborn, Pete Reiniger, and everyone at Smithsonian Folkways
To my love, Nada Kherbik, thank you for making me dance....

CREDITS
Adel Ibrahim Sudany is an Iraqi designer and calligrapher who now lives in Germany. He attended the Institute of Calligraphy and Design in Baghdad, Iraq, from 1987 to 1992, then the Gutenberg School of Graphic Design, in Frankfurt, Germany, from 2004 to 2007. Since 2013 he has been a professor of Arabic calligraphy at the Goethe University in Frankfurt and also at Giessen University. His expertise in Arabic calligraphy has been recognized by the Gutenberg Museum and Ministry for Education, Mainz.
Produced by Rahim AlHaj
Recorded and mixed by Pete Reiniger
Mastered by Charlie Pilzer, AirShow Mastering, Takoma Park, MD Annotated by D.A. Sonneborn
Translation to Arabic by Nada Kherbik Original artworks by Adel Ibrahim Sudany Photos by James Gale
Executive producers: Huib Schippers and Atesh Sonneborn Production manager: Mary Monseur
Edited by Carla Borden
Art direction, design and layout by Zaki Ghul Management: Tom Frouge at Avokado Artists
Smithsonian Folkways is: Madison Bunch, royalty assistant; Cecille Chen, director of business affairs and royalties; Logan Clark, executive assistant; Toby Dodds, technology director; Claudia Foronda, sales, customer relations, and inventory manager; Beshou Gedamu, marketing assistant; Will Griffin, licensing manager; Meredith Holmgren, program manager for education and cultural sustainability; Fred Knittel, online marketing; Helen Lindsay, customer service; Mary Monseur, production manager; Jeff Place, curator and senior archivist; Pete Reiniger, sound production supervisor; Huib Schippers, curator and director; Sayem Sharif, director of financial operations; Ronnie Simpkins, audio specialist; Atesh Sonneborn, associate director; Sandy Wang, web designer and developer; Brian Zimmerman, fulfillment.
 

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