Rahim Al­Haj

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - RAHIM AL­HAJ Casey Sanchez

Fif­teen years ago, Rahim Al­Haj, a world-class player of the oud, walked the streets of Al­bu­querque de­bat­ing whether to go through with a job in­ter­view at McDon­ald’s. Ear­lier this sum­mer, the mu­si­cian was one of nine tra­di­tional and folk artists named a 2015 Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts Her­itage Fel­low, an award that comes with a $25,000 prize.

Born and raised in Bagh­dad, Al­Haj won awards in his col­lege years for his tal­ents on the lute-like in­stru­ment that dates back 5,000 years to an­cient Baby­lon. By his twen­ties, the mu­si­cian was in prison for his out­spo­ken op­po­si­tion to the Sad­dam Hus­sein regime. Af­ter Al­Haj’s re­lease from prison, his mother sold all her be­long­ings to buy her son fake pa­pers and safe pas­sage to Jor­dan. “My mom saved my life,” he said. “She saved my mu­sic.”

How Al­Haj re­con­structed his Ara­bic mu­sic ca­reer in New Mexico is a re­mark­able story of sur­vival that be­gins in 2000, when a United Na­tions re­set­tle­ment team of­fered to move the mu­si­cian and his wife to Al­bu­querque. U.N. rep­re­sen­ta­tives fig­ured the In­ter­state 25 cor­ri­dor would be re­cep­tive to Al­Haj’s mu­sic. But he faced stag­ger­ing le­gal and travel bills re­lated to the immigration. A non­profit ar­ranged some fast-food job in­ter­views, but Al­Haj never walked in the door. In­stead he be­gan past­ing fliers and ar­rang­ing what may have been the first oud con­cert ever at the Univer­sity of New Mexico. The con­cert was a suc­cess, and a few weeks later, Al­Haj re­peated the same feat at The Out­post in Al­bu­querque. “Quite frankly, I came to the U.S. with an un­fa­mil­iar in­stru­ment,” he said. “It was hard to find my way and con­tinue my ca­reer. I never had any job be­sides my mu­sic.”

Since then, Al­Haj has recorded sev­eral al­bums. He re­leased The Sec­ond Bagh­dad in 2002 and Iraqi Mu­sic in a Time of War in 2003. That was fol­lowed by a col­lab­o­ra­tion, Friend­ship: Oud & Sadaqa Quar­tet .In 2006, Smith­so­nian Folk­ways pro­duced and re­leased When the Soul Is Set­tled: Mu­sic of

Iraq. In all, it’s an un­likely ca­reer path for a U.S.-based mu­si­cian whose core au­di­ences live in the Mid­dle East and North Africa and whose in­stru­ment is rel­a­tively ob­scure in the United States. “Com­ing to New Mexico was a phe­nom­e­nal choice,” he said. “I now con­sider my­self very New Mex­i­can. I have com­posed sev­eral pieces about New Mexico. When I go away even for a week, I miss New Mexico. Last month, I was in Bagh­dad with my friends and fam­ily. Even af­ter a few days there, hon­estly, I still missed New Mexico.”

Al­Haj has per­formed fre­quently in Santa Fe, in­clud­ing gigs at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, the James A. Lit­tle Theater, and the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts. “Santa Fe is also home to one of the three or four peo­ple in the United States who can fix and tune the oud. That guy is like my mes­siah.” These days, his grow­ing global tour­ing sched­ule means Al­Haj per­forms in New Mexico only a cou­ple of times a year. His next con­cert in Santa Fe is sched­uled for the spring to pro­mote the re­lease of a new al­bum, which he co-recorded with Am­jad Ali Khan, a vir­tu­oso of the stringed sarod and the tabla.

Since the Amer­i­can in­va­sion of Iraq and the oust­ing of Sad­dam, Al­Haj, now an Amer­i­can citizen, has been free to re­turn to Iraq to visit his fam­ily and even to per­form. But the re­unions have been bit­ter­sweet. A 2004 trip was the last time he saw his mother alive. His fa­ther, with whom he re­mains close, will not watch his son per­form the oud in public. “My fa­ther has never seen my con­certs,” he said. “My fa­ther hated me play­ing the oud, at least pro­fes­sion­ally. He still feels it is a bad ca­reer, be­cause be­ing a mu­si­cian is not sta­ble or even safe.” His fa­ther had hoped Al­Haj would grav­i­tate to some­thing more suit­able, like en­gi­neer­ing or medicine, and keep mu­sic a pri­vate pur­suit. “Still, my fa­ther has one of the beau­ti­ful singing voices I have ever heard in my life.”

If any­thing, Al­Haj con­sid­ers him­self lucky that mu­sic is his metier, given the time he has spent in ex­ile. “When I came to the U.S., I spoke very lit­tle English. I didn’t need to deal with lan­guage like I would if I were a nov­el­ist or an ac­tor.” Even among oud play­ers, Al­Haj has an un­usual per­for­mance and record­ing style. The oud is tra­di­tion­ally played with ei­ther a singer or an ensem­ble, if not both. Though he some­times col­lab­o­rates with other artists, in con­cert Al­Haj most of­ten opts for in­tense solo in­stru­men­tal per­for­mances. “As a solo per­former, you are naked,” he said. “You have to be very good to per­suade an au­di­ence to lis­ten to your mu­sic for two hours. You have to be at the top of your game.”

Though he jokes that he is com­par­a­tively young at age forty-seven to win an NEA Her­itage Fel­low­ship, Al­Haj is hum­bled by the recog­ni­tion. “The NEA is re­ally such a great honor; I don’t know if I de­serve it, to be hon­est,” he said. “Con­gress­woman Michelle Lu­jan [Gr­isham] called me to give me the news and an­nounce the award. I re­ally didn’t know what the call was go­ing to be about. When she said her name, I an­swered, ‘What do you want?’ ” Al­Haj ex­pects the award will change lit­tle in his regime of com­pos­ing, record­ing, and tour­ing. He’s a work­horse of a mu­si­cian who has been handed a rare chance to re­build his ca­reer in another coun­try, but Al­Haj said that story is not un­usual for an artist. “You have to be ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive about your art. You have to be prac­tic­ing all the time. You have to be left with no choice but to do your art. To sur­vive your art, you have to be ob­sessed with your art.

As a solo per­former, you are naked. You have to be very good to per­suade an au­di­ence to lis­ten to your mu­sic for two hours. You have to be at the top of your game.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.