Print this Page

World Music Features

Rahim Alhaj
Published August 23, 2007

Middle Eastern music gets lumped into one big mass, but Iraq, like every other country or region in that part of the world, has a very definite sonic identity. Rahim Alhaj is an impeccably pedigreed oud player and student of his homeland’s music, having apprenticed under Munir Bashir, an acknowledged master.

Rahim Alhaj
When The Soul Is Settled: Music Of Iraq
Smithsonian Folkways

Middle Eastern music gets lumped into one big mass by listeners who haven’t got years to spend studying individual traditions, but Iraq, like every other country or region in that part of the world, has a very definite sonic identity. Rahim Alhaj is an impeccably pedigreed oud player and student of his homeland’s music, having apprenticed under Munir Bashir, an acknowledged master. On this album, he tackles nine maqams, or modes, improvising on each for between four (“Taqsim Maqam Mukhalif”) and nearly 11 minutes (“Taqsim Maqam Sharqi Rast”). The informative, bilingual liner notes analyze the history of the music and the individual melodies in detail, but the hypnotic, swirling interplay between Alhaj and percussionist Souhail Kaspar will cast a powerful spell over any listener, even one who never cracks the booklet. This music is beautiful and fascinating, no matter how much or how little foreknowledge the listener brings to it.

Q&A WITH RAHIM ALHAJ

What makes Iraqi music unique among all Middle Eastern traditions?
Historically, Iraq has had its own maqamat (modes) which are rhythmically and melodically unique and are not found in other Arab or Middle Eastern countries. Some examples of these are Maqam Mukhalif, Maqam Lami, and Maqam Sharqi Rast, all recorded on my new CD.

Additionally, there is a distinctive Iraqi style of play on the oud. This Iraqi style can be discerned in several aspects of the musical pieces including the opening and prelude, the closing sections, and the way in which feelings are expressed and communicated by the musician while extending the maqam. Those knowledgeable in Middle Eastern music can readily recognize a maqam as Iraqi (versus Arab, Turkish or Iranian) based on the above.

How important are ancient musical traditions to Iraqi identity?
Actually, modern-day Iraq is connected to its roots in Sumeria and Mesopotamia, which is ancient Iraq. There is a strong connection between Iraqi history and music and the modern country. Pictures discovered on ancient artifacts show an instrument very similar to the modern-day oud being played in temples for Gods and Goddesses as long as 5,000 years ago.

During the early 1900s, when Sharif Muheiddin Haydar founded the Baghdad Fine Arts Institute in Iraq (as prestigious to the Middle East as Julliard is to the US), he based much of the theory and curriculum for the music department on a return to the musical theory and traditions of the Abbasid period, combined with a modern flair. This included returning to the concept of the solo oud, rather than the oud as accompaniment to folk singers and ensemble. It also entailed adding a string to the instrument and changing the shape of the oud slightly to increase the range of musical expression.

I believe it’s critical to the modern Iraqi identity to musically connect to our past, from which we obtain our present maqamat, our style, our songs, and our theory of music. There is a strong connection between the present and past, without which we do not have an innovative future.

What do you see as the difference between the Middle Eastern approach to improvisation and the American/European (jazz/blues) approach?
Improvisation is a critical component of Middle Eastern music and historically it was very important in classical music in Europe as well. The similarity between improvisation in Arabic/Middle Eastern music and jazz/blues comes from the same foundation which is based on a tonic and rhythm which the musician utilizes to extend the mode from one to two to three sections according to what he/she is trying to express.

The major difference between Middle Eastern improvisation and jazz/blues is the extent of options available in Middle Eastern improvisation due to a large number of maqamat, as well as complex