24 October 2010

Iraq in America: Rahim AlHaj's Little Earth

Rahim AlHaj: Little Earth
(UR Music)

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during the recording of this album! Bathing in the recorded virtuosity of Rahim AlHaj and his musical cohorts is an extraordinary experience. I can only imagine the magic that flowed between the musicians as they recorded these songs at studios scattered all over the USA.

Yes, this Iraqi our master calls the US home; he lives in New Mexico, though he's clearly got the whole world in mind when composing. Guests on Little Earth include guitarist Bill Frisell, kora player Yacouba Sissoko, percussionist Glen Velez, singer Maria de Barros, Native American singer Robert Mirabal, didgeridu player Stepehn Kent, ney player Hossein Omoumi, and pip player Liu Fang…among many others.

Hauntingly beautiful, the songs often develop patiently. Most are over five minutes, and seven of the 15 tracks on the two CDs are over nine minutes long. Helpful liner notes tell the meaning or origin of each piece, such as the track "Qaasim" about AlHaj's cousin who was in a group of young men killed by US soldiers in Iraq. It's a dark but beautiful piece, beginning loosely before the instruments fall into a spinning, driving rhythm. I could see dervishes spinning to this piece, which may not be a stretch considering AlHaj's connections to the mystical Sufi wing of Islam.
My understanding of Sufism can be put as a question. How can anyone have a great relationship to the Divine? You have to communicate your love for it with meditation, prayer, or through music. I, you, each of us, all of us have a tool to do that -- an infinite eternal tool. Using that tool in my own way, how do I communicate with the world? My way is with music. When I arrive at that communication, I am at peace because I reached you.
AlHaj may be more at peace here in the US than in Iraq, where he was twice imprisoned for supporting anti-regime political movements. His harrowing biography makes for riveting reading, but one gets the feeling that AlHaj doesn't dwell on the past because he's too busy playing, practicing, composing, organizing. A decade after his arrival in the US (and an initial dishwashing job) he has established himself professionally, both touring and recording gems like this gorgeous album.

My first favorite track was "The Other Time," a duet with Yacouba Sissoko's sweet kora. But a few listenings and I've been drawn deeper into the music. I suppose I've lent my own patience to that of the musicians, and having tuned into their wavelength I'm enjoying the longer tracks, particularly "Dance of the Palms." with Glen Velez.

"Iraqis consider the palm tree sacred," the notes say. "Along the river from Baghdad to Basra you can see palm trees everywhere." And AlHaj notes that "During the Iran-Iraq war [1980-88), not only did we lose more than a million men, we also lost more than a million palm trees." Perhaps the trees in this song are dancing grief for their fallen brothers; perhaps they're dancing joy for surviving. 

Falling between classical and world music, Little Earth has many subtle, sublime delights for the patient listener. And it's a top contender for my upcoming list of best albums of the year.

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