Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rahim AlHaj: One Iraqi Whose Sounds and Stories Can Change Lives

There’s really no good reason why Rahim AlHaj’s life shouldn’t become a Steven Spielberg movie. The musician, who visits Louisville this month, has carried his oud all over the world, from Baghdad to the western edge of the United States, with stops in between as a political prisoner, Grammy winner and educator.

Now a resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, AlHaj’s journey continues with a visit to the Clifton Center for “Into the Garden: A Festival of Iraqi Culture,” taking place from October 6 – 10. Kentucky Refugee Ministries and the Louisville Free Public Library’s Iroquois branch join the Clifton Center in presenting several opportunities throughout the week for learning, playing and otherwise sharing through the joy of music, art, food and everything else Iraqis and Americans have in common.

“He is an inspiration,” American guitar innovator Bill Frisell said of AlHaj. The two collaborated on the 2010 album Little Earth, which also featured AlHaj performing alongside R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, American violinist Eyvind Kang, avant-garde accordionist Guy Klucevsek and Malian griot Yacouba Sissoko. But it took AlHaj, currently 46 years old, a very long time to get to that highlight.

33 years earlier and 7,000 miles away, young Rahim discovered the short-neck, lute-like oud and quickly realized his skill with it. By 14, he was headlining concerts. He practiced under the master Munir Bashir, taking his studies all the way to college at the Baghdad Conservatory of Fine Arts. However, the politically progressive and outspoken AlHaj made enemies by refusing to join Saddam Hussein’s ruling party, and further provoked the dictator by performing songs like “Why?” A total of two years of imprisonment, including consistent assaults by his jailors, followed over the next few years. After his release, AlHaj returned to his university.

He studied Arabic literature, mainly because his father – who had never been truly supportive of his music – had put pressure on him. As the Gulf War began, AlHaj decided the time had come to flee all of his oppressors and try to find freedom and peace, for himself and his music. His one true supporter, his beloved mother, sold everything to help him escape. He wouldn’t see her again until 2004.

He moved through Jordan and Syria first, and told NPR, “When I crossed the border between Iraq and Jordan, they took my instrument from me. And this is the saddest moment in my entire life…. I had a choice between leave my instrument or have life. I had to leave. And so I left Iraq and left my instrument.” AlHaj found love in Syria, and they wound up together in New Mexico at the turn of the century through a refugee resettlement program.

Having to learn English while looking for work, AlHaj was directed to a job – at a McDonald’s. That short-lived adventure was followed by an almost equally disastrous stint as a night watchman (where he was fired for playing his music while at work).

He was able to release his first album in 2002, and has since released seven more. Whether solo, in a trio or a symphony, AlHaj demands attention without having to resort to loudness or gimmicks. His playing is focused and prayer-like, though the man is more overtly joyful and exuberant in everyday life. He writes about freedom, home, loss, war and of course, love. He combines poetry and music in all of his compositions, one way or another.

And then there is also his politics. Asked if he continues to be an active voter, as a citizen since 2008, AlHaj replies, “Of course! I’ve spent most of my life fighting hard for justice. I still do that. It is our duty to make life better against the politicians who control everything and destroy our lives! I am a big fan of change, and a big fan of making peace and compassion for all.”

“I call my music ‘The Sound of Resistance,’” he continues. “I always take the story of children, women, the tragedies of the world, and turn it and make it music from it – to give women and children a voice, for the voiceless people … I believe that everybody has the ability to make change, to make a difference.”

Rahim AlHaj
Friday, Oct. 10
Clifton Center
2117 Payne St.
$10; 8 p.m.

c. 2014 Clifton Center

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