Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Rahim AlHaj’s Little Earth Breaks Down Barriers

A protege of legendary Iraqi oud player Munir Bashir, Rahim AlHaj was persecuted and jailed during the Saddam Hussein regime for writing a protest song questioning the Iraq/Iran war. Following his release, he was driven into exile, first in Syria and then eventually the United States, where his sponsoring agency, thinking he would prefer a desert climate, set him up in New Mexico. It wasn’t exactly what AlHaj was hoping for, but in retrospect it seems fortuitous. One of the world’s foremost oud players and composers in his own right, AlHaj’s latest album Little Earth is a cutting-edge collaboration with some unlikely but supremely well-suited suspects, several of whom he met in his new surroundings. To call what he does “world music” is accurate in the purest sense of the word – on this massive two-cd set, AlHaj mixes Iraqi oud styles with American Indian, Greek, Appalachian, West African, Australian aboriginal and Chinese chamber music, bringing out the best in a spirited crew of like-minded boundary-defying adventurers: a famous jazz guitarist, a world-renowned chanteuse, the scion of a prominent Malian musical family and one of the guys in REM. Yet despite the broad stylistic reach, AlHaj’s signature, steely intensity remains front-and-center: this is one of the most fascinating and gripping albums in any style of music in recent months.

All the compositions here are instrumentals with the exception of an Iraqi lullaby turned into an oud/flute duet with a brief vocal from Pueblo Indian flutist and craftsman Robert Mirabal, and a collaboration with Maria De Barros, a Cape Verde morna teleported to the Middle East. The pieces closest to AlHaj’s home turf wield the most power: the funereal Sama’i Baghdad, its haunting string chart played by the Little Earth Orchestra; the absolutely sizzling Dance of the Palms, and Qaasim, a requiem for his cousin, killed in Bush’s Iraq War, Stephen Kent’s oscillating djeridu lines meant to evoke the tears of the survivors. The others are somewhat more upbeat: to call them inventive would be an understatement. The Searching uses djeridu as a bass, holding down the low registers while accordionist Guy Klucevsek swirls over the incisive attack of the oud. Morning in Hyattsville, a duet with Americana jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell, evokes John Fahey or Leo Kottke at their brightest, with a wickedly unexpected shift into Middle Eastern territory from the guitar. Athens to Baghdad, with Peter Buck on twelve-string acoustic guitar, is gentle Tuatara/Tribecastan esoterica.

AlHaj also includes some richly intertwined pieces for oud and accompanying instruments, twisting and shifting shape until it’s hard to tell who’s playing what. The Other Time mingles oud with the West African kora harp of Yacouba Sissoko; River (the Passage) does the same, with some wildly interesting pipa work by Liu Fang. Other pieces set the oud against an unorthodox backdrop, whether a baroque-tinged piece featuring the Santa Fe Guitar Quartet, or the Andalusian-flavored Rocio, with oud over hypnotic sitar by Rosman Jamal Bhartiya. A listen to this ought to expand a listener’s brain at least as much as it did for the musicians involved. Talk about thinking outside the box! And what might be most impressive here is who’s not included on this album: no celebrity dj’s, no bedheaded indie rock dilettantes, no techno remixes. With all the amazing cross-pollination going on here, who needs any of that?

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January 12, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment