Rahim AlHaj Trio
A 5,000-year-old musical tradition from the heart of Mesopotamia is alive and well in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the adopted home of renowned Iraqi oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj. AlHaj is a cultural ambassador for the deep musical heritage of his homeland. His music evokes the experience of exile, new beginnings, and “the message of peace and compassion and love” that he shares with audiences to heal a world beset by conflict.
The oud is a fretless, short-necked Arabian lute central to Iraqi music. It is an ancestor of the lute family of instruments that includes the guitar. Traditional Iraqi music is organized into a series of maqamat, or modes. Each maqam has a distinctive scale and specific melodic formulae, and is often associated with a certain mood or season. Unlike western music, which is based on whole and half tones (12 semitones altogether), Iraqi music is based on 24 quarter tones.
AlHaj began learning the oud at the age of nine. Studying under the legendary Munir Bashir and Salim Abdul Kareen at Baghdad’s Conservatory of Fine Arts, Rahim established himself as one of the world’s foremost oudists. But his political activities were anathema to Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime, which twice imprisoned him, subjecting him to torture and beatings. His composition entitled “Why,” based on a poem by a longtime friend who lost his legs in the Iran-Iraq War, became an anthem of the resistance movement. During the Gulf War, his mother sold almost all of her belongings to acquire false documents so Rahim could escape a rumored assassination by security forces.
In 2000, AlHaj was granted political asylum in the United States, landing in Albuquerque, where he got a job as a security guard. Unsatisfied, AlHaj rented a music hall at the University of New Mexico and organized his first U.S. solo concert, relaunching an international music career. He is now a two-time Grammy® nominee. Rahim became a U.S. citizen in 2008, and in 2015 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, our nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
The Rahim AlHaj Trio features two other musicians who call Albuquerque home. Master artist Sourena Sefati plays santour (Persian hammered dulcimer); a soloist in numerous leading orchestras in his native Iran, Sefati is an award-winning composer and performer who has been living and teaching in the U.S. since 2014. The trio’s third and newest member is percussionist Nick Baker. Their recent release, One Sky (2018), was inspired by AlHaj and Sefati’s perspectives on the Iran-Iraq War. Reflecting on this collaboration, AlHaj notes that “our nations were sworn enemies … but today an Iranian and an Iraqi are making music together. To establish peace in the world we need to learn and listen with open hearts to one another, to create more beauty together rather than more destruction.”