Smithsonian Folkways Shares Powerful 'Letters From Iraq' by Oud Master Rahim AlHaj (April 7)
In 1991, oud player Rahim AlHaj fled Iraq, leaving behind his native land after being imprisoned twice for his political outspokenness. On 'Letters From Iraq' (out 4/7 on Smithsonian Folkways), the two-time Grammy nominee's eight pieces for oud, string quintet, and percussion convey the story of contemporary Baghdad, from the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to the present day through what Western music scholars call program music - narrative compositions intended to give rise to imagery or tell a story.
AlHaj, one of the world's most prominent and renowned oud masters, began writing 'Letters From Iraq' after reading touching personal letters he received from Iraqi women and children during a 2014 trip to his homeland - his first in a decade and only his second since leaving the country. They told of the American occupation and the sectarian violence that arose in its wake. One story came to AlHaj in person, relayed by a handicapped nephew who had been trapped during a car bombing and firefight. With 'Letters From Iraq, ' the virtuoso musician creates chamber music using his oud, strings, and percussion to depict a city in crisis but not without hope.
'Letters From Iraq' includes AlHaj's detailed notes revealing the heartbreaking stories that inspired each composition. The album was recorded in Albuquerque, NM, where AlHaj has lived since receiving political asylum in 2000. A 40-page booklet with artwork by exiled Iraqi artist Riyadh Neama and notes in both Arabic and English by D.A. Sonneborn, associate director at the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, accompanies the music.
AlHaj's remarkable story has been told in a New York Times piece titled "A Fabled Iraqi Instrument Thrives in Exile" (nyti.ms/2kW4rKZ). He also has performed on NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. He began playing the pear-shaped, fretless stringed instrument at age 9, eventually studying under Iraqi master Munir Bashir. He received a degree in music composition from Baghdad's Institute of Music, as well as one in Arabic literature from Al-Mustunsiriya University in Baghdad. He was imprisoned for a total of two years during the 1980s after setting dissident poetry to music. When his political activism necessitated his leaving Iraq for Jordan in 1991, his oud was confiscated at the border. Pursued by the Mukhbarat, Iraqi's secret police, he had to move to Syria, where he lived under an assumed name before being granted asylum in the US and placed in Albuquerque.
'Letters from Iraq' is AlHaj's 11th album and his second for Smithsonian Folkways. His previous Folkways release, 2006's 'When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq, ' received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional World Music Album, as did 2009's 'Ancient Sounds.' He has performed with artists ranging from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck to jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to the Kronos Quartet. In 2015, he received the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship.
'Letters From Iraq' Tracklisting:
Letter 1. Eastern Love-Sinan
Letter 2. Forbidden Attraction-Tiama
Letter 3. Running Boy-Fuad
Letter 4. The Last Time We Will Fly Birds-Riyadh
Letter 5. Going Home-Rahim
Letter 6. Unspoken Word-Laila
Letter 7. Fly Home-Fatima
Letter 8. Voices to Remember-Zainab
About Smithsonian Folkways:
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is dedicated to supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among people through the documentation, preservation, production, and dissemination of sound. Part of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, it is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States. NOTE: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings retail distribution in the US is through ADA (Alternative Distribution Alliance) at 800.239.3232. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings releases are available through record and book outlets. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, as well as Folkways Records, A.R.C.E., Arhoolie, Banjo Builders, Blue Ridge Institute, Cook, Collector, Dyer-Bennet, Fast Folk, I.L.A.M., The Mickey Hart Collection, Monitor, M.O.R.E., Paredon, and UNESCO, are available via mail order at 888.FOLKWAYS or 800.410.9815. Visit the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings website at folkways.si.edu or write to 600 Maryland Ave. SW, Suite 2001, Washington, DC, 20024.
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