Rahim AlHaj

Oud Player and Composer
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Jim Gale


Hailed as "one of the top oud players in the world" by the San Francisco Chronicle, Rahim AlHaj is a performer and composer who combines a traditional Iraqi musical foundation with contemporary styling and influences.

AlHaj was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and began playing the oud—a stringed instrument dating back at least 5,000 years—at age nine. By the age of 13, AlHaj was already known in Baghdad as both a musician and a composer. Out of 2,000 applicants, he won one of five spots to study at the Institute of Music in Baghdad under Munir Bashir, one of the most renowned oud players in the world, and Salim Abdul Kareem, an influential composer and performer. At the same time, he became active in the underground revolutionary movement and composed the movement's anthem "Why?," setting to music a poem written by a friend. After being imprisoned twice due to his political activism, AlHaj graduated from the Conservatory in 1990 with a diploma in composition and began touring internationally with Bashir. In 1991, after the first Gulf War, AlHaj was forced to leave Iraq due to his activism against the Saddam Hussein regime and lived in Jordan and Syria before moving to the United States in 2000 as a political refugee. He has lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, ever since, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2008. AlHaj held jobs as a dishwasher and night watchman, before renting a hall at the University of New Mexico for a solo performance. The positive reaction to his music ignited his career again and he began performing throughout the country and internationally.

AlHaj has released nine CDs, two of which were nominated for Grammy awards—Ancient Sounds, a duet recording with Indian classical musician Amjad Ali Khan, and When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq. He has composed pieces for solo oud, string quartet, and symphony. His compositions combine traditional Iraqi "maqams," the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, with contemporary styling and influences, marrying Eastern and Western traditions. AlHaj continues to perform nationally and internationally as a solo artist, in duo configuration, and with his septet Little Earth Orchestra, and has performed with such varied musicians as jazz artist Bill Frisell, the string quartet Kronos Quartet, and the rock band REM. In 2009, he was awarded a United States Artists Fellowship.


Rahim AlHaj

Rahim AlHaj Transcript
Music Credits:
“Dream” and “Closeness”,  composed and performed live at the studio by Rahim AlHaj
“Qasaam”  composed and performed by Rahim AlHaj, from the cd Little Earth, Ur Music, 2010
“Second Baghdad,”  composed and performed by Rahim AlHaj, from Second Baghdad, Magnetic Fields, 2002
“Second Baghdad” from Friendship, composed by Rahim AlHaj, performed by Rahim Alhaj  & Sadaja Quartet, Fast Horse, 2006

(Music up “Second Baghdad”)
Jo Reed: The music is “Second Baghdad.” It was composed and performed by oud-player and 2015 National Heritage Fellow Rahim AlHaj, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
This week, the NEA unveiled the recipients of the nation’s highest award in folk and traditional arts, the 2015 National Heritage Fellows.  The award always generates a lot of excitement here at the agency because it’s a celebration of the   strength and diversity of the country’s ever-evolving culture. The recipients of this year’s NEA National Heritage Fellowships represent art forms ranging from those with deep roots in the United States – like the quilters of Gee’s Bend from Alabama – to those that are more recent arrivals to our country, such as the oud playing of Rahim AlHaj.

Rahim AlHaj is quite simply one of the best oud players in the world.  

(Music up “Second Baghdad”)

The oud is a stringed instrument that dates back at least 5000 years, and it gave birth to many instruments including the lute and the guitar. The oud occupies a central place in Middle Eastern music, much like the piano or violin does here in the West.

Rahim AlHaj is a performer and composer who combines traditional Iraqi "maqams," which is the system of melodic modes that’s used in Arabic music, with contemporary influences, in other words a true marriage of Eastern and Western traditions.  A renowned musician in the Middle East, Rahim came to the United States as a political exile in 2000.  He settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he slowly rebuilt his career and brought it to new heights.  He’s released nine CDs, two of which were nominated for Grammy awards. He composes pieces for solo oud, for string quartets, and for symphonies, collaborating with musicians ranging from jazz artist Bill Frissell, to the Kronos Quartet, to the rock group REM.    Given his embrace of music across traditions and genres, it should come as no surprise that Rahim believes fervently in the universal language of music.

I spoke with Rahim AlHaj earlier this week. Here’s our conversation.

Jo Reed:  Rahim, I have to begin first by congratulating you for being named a 2015 National Heritage Fellow.

Rahim AlHaj:  Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. It was—what an honor, really.

Jo Reed:  Do you remember the first time you heard an oud?

Rahim AlHaj:  Yes. I mean besides I heard it on the TV, the first time it was, in the second grade when I was in the elementary school, and my teacher knows how to play oud. Because you know, the oud is the most famous instrument, like a guitar here in the West, basically. And it was haunting sound, and I was really courageous enough to ask him if I can just touch it. <laughs> So he went and he said, "Okay." So I went there. I reached my hand, and I put my hand on the oud and I was just—I was in some different space. <laughs> I couldn't sleep, actually, the same day, 'cause I was just happy. I was so happy. The next day, I was ask him again if I can hold it. So he said, "Do you want to play it?" I said, "Okay." You know, a little boy with second grade, and the oud is really big, huge. And I try to imitate him and by putting my right hand on the string and then I stream something. I don’t know what I did exactly, but he was impressed. And he said, "Oh, my God. You are a musician. I think you are a musician. Take it." <laughs> So he gave me this oud, and he started teaching me when I was second grade.

Jo Reed:  Oh, what a gift he gave you.

Rahim AlHaj:  Yes. And I am really still believe that's the guy, he made me a musician. Besides my mom, of course.

Jo Reed:  Was your family musical?

Rahim AlHaj:  No. But my father, actually, is the most beautiful voice I've ever heard in my life. And he did not really lead me to be a musician. In fact, he fought me a lot. And but my mom supported me that time, and he said, "You have to study something else beside the music," when I was studying music. In fact, I did. I studied Arabic literature besides my music. It was really difficult to study two things, really complicated and difficult at the same time. That's the only way my father could support me and let me study music at that time.

Jo Reed: Did your father finally come around?

Rahim AlHaj:  The great things about Iraq at that time, the teacher is very valuable things. I mean, you be a teacher mean that you are like a God almost, really. It doesn't matter what kind of subject you teach. So that's when I graduated as a teacher, my father, I earned his respect, <laughs> I think. In fact, he has never, ever been in any concert. I was so famous in Baghdad, you know. I mean famous at that time. I was a kid, but, it was my picture in TV, you know, when a kid in TV, in the Middle East is huge things, right?

Jo Reed:  It's huge here too.

Rahim AlHaj:  And newspaper and magazine. And he never give a damn about it, really. <laughs>

Jo Reed:  Who did you study with in the conservatory in Baghdad?

Rahim AlHaj:  Yes, I studied with the most famous oud player in the 20th century, actually. It's Munir Bashir. Mainly it was Munir Bashir who was my direct teacher for five years. And when I was a kid, you know, I was just like middle school, actually, when I entered the conservatory.

Jo Reed:  When you left the conservatory, were you able to support yourself in Iraq, in Baghdad, playing your music?

Rahim AlHaj:  Yes. The situation for artists and musician in the Middle East is really different from the West. When you are a musician or you are an artist, when you graduated, you have a salary every month from the government that you can concentrate on your art. And then if you do a concert, you're going to get money, but the concerts are free for the public. So that's the norm. And sometimes, you teach in conservatory or middle school or high school or something like that. But mainly, it's the concentration of your art. And that's the gift, actually, in the Middle East. So you don't need to do something else, and that was really important things for me to continue my professional job as the musician. In fact, I do not have any job besides music, actually, since I was what-- 13 years-old?" <laughs> I'm a musician.

Jo Reed:  You had political difficulties, unfortunately, during that time. And you were in prison during Saddam Hussein's regime. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened?

Rahim AlHaj:  Yes. When when I started to became aware of the situation in Iraq, and I call myself one of the generation that really suffered a lot during that Saddam regime, because we could call them the '80s generation, where the war, Iran-Iraq War for 18 years. And we were kids. I mean, we were teenagers at that time. So since I started to be aware of the political situation in Iraq, I was involved really against the Saddam regime. And I composed the music against it, and you know, whatever is somebody he’s against the regime, they will be in trouble. So I was one of the hundreds, thousands of people who is really suffer under the Saddam regime. So I imprisoned at that time, just because I was composing music. And one actually particular piece is called "Why." And that's why I talk about-- why is there's suffering in Iraq and so forth. It becomes really famous in Iraq, and everybody sing it, but nobody will announce it who is composing it, who is write it. And in fact, who wrote by dear friend of mine, he’s still alive actually, Juwaid Ahmarani He's a wonderful poet. So that's why I became politically active against Saddam. And at the same time, I paid the price by being in prison for--twice, actually-- in Iraq.

Jo Reed:  And it became necessary for you to leave Iraq. I can only imagine, that was—A, a difficult decision to make, but also, a difficult thing to arrange.

Rahim AlHaj:  Absolutely, it was. actually, I always say it was the most difficult moment in my entire life, not because to leave Iraq, but what happened is that my mom saved my life where she actually provide me a false travel document to go from Iraq to Jordan. And she sold practically everything that belonged to her, including her clothes, actually, to provide this $1 million dinaro at that time, which was a really, really huge number, to get me out of Iraq. And another name, and it had my oud, who is the first oud I-- from my teacher. The same one, who was like that oud, it was like a very important element in my life. And I was for five years when I was a kid, I never, ever slept without my instrument. I was cover it and kiss it goodnight.  So, when I arrived to the border between Jordan and Iraq, at that time there is no way to take an instrument from Iraq to another country. Actually, not just--

o Reed:  Why is that?

Rahim AlHaj:  They consider that like this treasure. And books, too. I mean you cannot take books from Baghdad to another country during that time, during 1991. So I couldn't really announce my name, because I have a mustache and different identity. So they took this instrument from me, and this is the saddest moment in my entire life, when they confiscated my instrument from me. But I had to make a decision at that time, between saving the instrument or saving my life. And I was crying. Just incredibly, incredibly difficult and inconceivable to me, really, and still inconceivable when I lost the most precious things in my life, who was the oud I earned when I was a kid.

Jo Reed: So, you first went to Jordan where you stayed almost a year, and then you moved on to Syria. Why Syria?

Rahim AlHaj: I went to Syria, which is the country who consider enemy of Iraq, because there is no relationship between-- I mean relationship, I mean diplomatic relationship between Syria and Iraq, since 1979. And so all the opposition groups who work against Saddam regime, they go to Syria at that time.

Jo Reed:  And were you able to play music there and compose?

Rahim AlHaj:  Yes. I was a musician. And in fact, the first time when I arrived to Syria, I invited to give a concert. Which it was a really huge deal in Syria, because they never saw a musician for long, long, long time during the 70s. So, that's what I did. I was traveling and doing regular concerts and support myself as a musician, and stayed till 2000, when I came to the United States as a politically <sic> asylum.

Jo Reed:  Yes. I want to get to that in a moment. But before we go there, I want to talk a little bit about your music. And what inspires your musical compositions? When you sit down to write music, what are you trying to convey?

Rahim AlHaj:  I think I am obsessed about stories of women and children. And that's my concentration all the time. Because I feel and I believe, children and women, they do not have voice. I am trying to be their voice as much as I can. To take their stories and translate it to music. If you to go to all my records and all my composition, you will find there is voice of children and voice of women. Whether their story is sad or beautiful or depressing. But always, my inspiration is the children and the women. Because, they can convey the situation of our country, of my country in specifically.

Jo Reed:  Can you give me an example now? Can you play an example for me?

Rahim AlHaj:  Sure. Sure. <plays oud>

Jo Reed:  That was beautiful, thank you. And that piece is called “Dream.”

Rahim AlHaj:  Thank you very much. This is part of the piece, it's extremely long piece, about the dream of the children.
Jo Reed:  What do you see when you're playing that? Do you see anything? Do you have pictures in your mind?

Rahim AlHaj:  Yes, actually. I have two things always come to my head when I play. I have faces of children, some of them I know, some of them I just imagine them. And color, actually. Always, I see color in my music. But mainly, when I see playing, is the faces of children who is really suffering a lot, you know. The Iraqi children, they've been suffering too much for more than three decades. You know, as you know, we lost two million children as a consequence of sanction. And after sanction, we have the same thing. There is two million children displaced right now in Iraq. It's devastating, really devastating for the Iraqi children.

Jo Reed:  Tell me about your decision to come to the United States. Why? Why did you decide to come in 2000?

Rahim AlHaj:  Actually, I didn't decide it. Not me. The Executive Director of the Refugee Settlement in Syria, a wonderful guy. He's, I think, from Libya. And he said, "Rahim, you have to go to the United States, and you just need to leave. Just leave. Don't ask me questions."

Jo Reed: Why New Mexico? How did you choose New Mexico?

Rahim AlHaj:  Actually I didn’t decide. Not me. The United Nations chose New Mexico for me as a home. And they told me for two reasons. The first reason, I am a musician, of course, and I am interested in art. They told me, you know, New Mexico, Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Taos, very important in art and music. And the second reason is because it's a desert, like the Middle East. So I went to my wife, who's Syrian, actually. She was a journalist, actually. She came to interview me for one concert, and I thought her so beautiful and gorgeous and said, "Well, can you marry me?" actually. <laughs> And I did. I married her. So that's what happened to come to the United States. And it was a beautiful, beautiful, wonderful decision, actually, when I came here. And you cannot imagine how beautiful people in New Mexico. And they've been a wonderful, great supporter for me, since I started my career over again. It was not easy, actually, as you know, for a musician and artist to start. And I thought, you know, everybody knows me. And then when I came here, I find they do not know the oud itself, you know. <laughs> It's not familiar to a lot of people.

Jo Reed:  That's what I was going to say, that I would think that people in the Middle East know a lot more about Western musical traditions than the West knows about Middle Eastern traditions.

Rahim AlHaj:  Absolutely. And in fact, that's a beautiful story. You know, when I came here as a political asylum, and I thought, you know, everything, I think, will be great. And my case worker came to me and told me that I have a job for you. I said, "Okay, sure." And at that time, I didn't speak English, actually. I speak zero English. I can understand to some degree. And he told me that, "I find you a job in McDonald." And I told him, "Well, which kind of conservatory is that? They teach, like, Western classical music, or Eastern classical?" He said, "No, no. It's a McDonald. You don't teach music in McDonald. You gonna work there." And I said, "But I don't play in restaurant." <laughs> In any rate, I told him, "No, no. It seems like you do not know me." And he said, "No, I know you were one of the most famous, but you have to support yourself." So I have dear friend of mine, her name Kelly, and she's still in New Mexico. She's my dear, dear friend, actually. I told her this, I needed to do a concert, and she rented a hall in here in New Mexico in Albuquerque at UNM, from her money. And I didn't have any money. So we made it. And in the concert, when I finished the concert, there is a guy came to the green room with his son. He is almost eight, seven, nine, something like that. And he was holding the program with my picture in it, and he was crying. And I said, in bad English, I said, "You don't like my music?" And he said, "No, I adored it, but I need your autograph." Oh, my God. If this little boy understood what I am talking about in my music, I think I am going to make a huge difference. <laughs>  New Mexico, since then, became a really wonderful supporter. In fact, the next year, I started to tour and I started to make music and compose. And they give me a Bravo Award for New Mexico. And, you know, I started my career over again.
(Music up: “Second Baghdad”)

Jo Reed:  You are a proponent of traditional Iraqi music and you respect it and you play it. But you also innovate it. And doing that—how far do you push it, how far do you not--- that can be a tricky, kind of a sticky wicket.

Rahim AlHaj:  <laughs> Yes, yes. In fact, that's a really great story. Yes. So like I said in the beginning, when I came here and I find the instrument is not famous and known. And I'm a solo instrument, and I'm a big fan of the classical, because my second instrument is the violin. So I started to compose music for string quartet. And the reaction was fantastic, wonderful. So I established the string quartet. After that I compose for orchestras, for concertos for oud and full symphony orchestra. And then I really pushed it, like I said, further than that.  And I start to compose music to all kind instrument that I know of. For example, my record is called, Little Earth. And Little Earth, I tried to make a statement of how can we establish peace through music? And you push the boundaries. And it doesn't matter where you came from. And you just play music, right? And I started to see the six continents, and I choose one country from it and one instrument that could convey this. For example, if you think of India, you think of sitar, right. Or if you think of Australia, you think of didgeridoo. If you think of America, United States, you think of Native American flute. And so I started to compose music for all these, including even actually rock and roll, with Peter Buck with REM. <laughs> Let's really push it hard. So I compose the music for REM, and I had-- I mean I have some collaboration with him before, but this is one specific piece that I compose for Peter Buck. So that's where I pushed it really hard, to make this instrument more available, more noticeable to other listeners.

Jo Reed:  Because stories are the inspiration to your music, did you find that the stories, that somehow the stories that you want to tell, that by doing these collaborations you could tell them better, tell them differently?

Rahim AlHaj:  Yes. Actually, that's a great question. In fact, this is what abled me really to open the voice bigger. For example, there is one piece I composed called "Qasaam" about my cousin who killed in Iraq during the Invasion, and I chose the didgeridoo. Didgeridoo, it has one note, and it's a very deep and very sad at the same time, and it’s very dark. And I thought about this sound, that the same exact Iraqi women when they grieve. It's incredible. So Iraqi women always, they grieve of making sound come from their bottom of their heart. I don't know how to describe it more than they weep when they cry. (music up) So this voice of didgeridoo, it was absolutely the most accurate for that voice of the Iraqi women. And I tried to put this, the voice of the Iraqi woman who is grieving for her son. It's called "Qasaam."

(Music up: “Qasaam”)

Jo Reed:  When were you first able to go back to Iraq? I'm assuming last week wasn't your first visit.

Rahim AlHaj:  No. No. First time I went Iraq, it was after the invasion in 2004. And--which is 11 years ago. And that's why I was able to go to Iraq, because before that I can't. I can't go to Iraq because I am against Saddam regime, and Saddam was in power at that time. So when the Saddam gone, I was able to see my family the first time. So that was in 2004.

Jo Reed:  And what was that experience like for you?

Rahim AlHaj:  Ah, first one was very emotional visit, because I haven't seen my family since 1991. And I had to see my mom and my family, you know. I haven't seen my nephews and nieces or my students when I left them, nine years, right? And they became like 20, 21, and of them. So it was very emotional, and you see I went there, and I saw the tanks of American tanks there. And then I see the happiness in the Iraqi faces, and at the same time there's, they are confused and they are worried about their future.

Jo Reed:  The war weariness must be extraordinary.

Rahim AlHaj:  Yes. I mean you can imagine, Iraq, for example, they been living-under this huge sky of violence.
Jo Reed:  No. I can't.

Rahim AlHaj:  You know, what -three decades right now for Iraq? The Iraq-Iraq war for eight years, you know, first Gulf War and sanctioned for 13 years, and then invasion for the 12, 13 years. So all this violence has started to be really, the rhythm is so high of the violence in Iraq.

Jo Reed:  This is always something that philosophically I really struggle with. What part does art play in giving hope and in bringing people together?

Rahim AlHaj:  I mean this is a significant one. And that's what I always talk about that. It's amazing in Iraq, you know, in Baghdad specifically, because the violence is really heavy, right. The rhythm is so high. And the car bombing everywhere. And there is no place is safe. The Ambassador of United States invited me, actually, to do a concert in the Embassy of-- the American Embassy in Baghdad. So when I did my concert, for example, they told me, "Hey, will charge. We'll make tickets." And I said, "No, no, no. You don't make tickets for people to come. Because it's a very hot area. I mean they go through all checkpoints. They could be killed any minute, because there is a lot of people there, right. And that's a very great target for the group, who they need to kill as much as they can. So wherever there's group gathered together, that’s where they target them. And they love it. And they come, and they sacrifice their life to come to hear music. Isn’t that amazing? And there's a friend of mine who is a cellist, Karim Wasfi, who is the conductor, actually, in the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. Now, whenever there is an explosion happen in Iraq, next day he took his cello and go there and play in the same place. Every single explosion--

Jo Reed:  Wow.

Rahim AlHaj:  He take his instrument, the cello, and open it and play. So I think the art, it make a huge role for our life, and change all our aspect of life. So yes, it's very important. And I saw they are thirsty. They are really hungry to the art. And I saw them, like they go and I mean the theater was full. I mean all the time, the theater is full of people, young and old, and that's wonderful. You know, that's really huge. And you go, you open like an exhibition for example. It's like you find hundreds of people. So the art, I think, is the most important element right now, could help our situation to make it better. Yes. So the art is the answer to change our aspect or concept to our life.

Jo Reed:  Yeah. The ability of art to connect people.

Rahim AlHaj:  Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jo Reed: Oh Rahim, thank you so much. Can I ask you to play something for us that we can go out on?

Rahim AlHaj: Absolutely. Thank you very much, and I really appreciate it. This is called, actually, "A Closeness" the piece I composed when I was in Iraq the first time when I visit, and I saw my mom and she was so close. And then she said, "Hey, son. Just pick up your instrument." And I did this piece for her. It's called, "The Closeness." <plays oud>

Jo Reed: That was oud-player and 2015 National Heritage Fellow Rahim AlHaj.  You can find out who the other fellows are at arts.gov.
You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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