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.