November 13, 2015 by SURAYA MOHAMED Ancestor to the lute and the guitar, the oud is an ancient stringed instrument commonly played throughout the Middle East, North Africa and countries like Greece and Turkey. The oud has charmed audiences for more than 5,000 years, and the tradition continues with this reverent performance by one of the world’s best players, Rahim AlHaj.
Born in Baghdad, AlHaj possesses a life story as powerful as his music. He learned to play the oud at age 9, and later graduated with honors and a degree in music composition from the Institute of Music in Baghdad. He also earned a degree in Arabic literature from Mustunsiriya University in Baghdad. Active in the underground revolutionary movement, AlHaj wrote protest songs opposing Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime. He was imprisoned twice, once for a year and a half, and was regularly beaten by his captors. In 1991, AlHaj was forced to leave Iraq because of his political activism, and ultimately found a home in New Mexico.
Today, he composes traditional and contemporary pieces for a variety of ensembles — solo oud, string quartets and symphony orchestras. He performs around the world and has even collaborated with Kronos Quartet and R.E.M. AlHaj stopped by the Tiny Desk while in Washington, D.C., to receive a well-deserved NEA National Heritage Fellowship.
The set starts with a solo performance, followed by three songs in which he’s accompanied by Palestinian-American percussionist Issa Malluf. Malluf plays the daf, a large circular drum with a hardwood frame, and a stretched and shaved goat skin that produces a gently melodic tonality. The dumbek is a goblet-shaped drum with a tight head make of goatskin, heated by a lamp to keep the skin taut in order to produce a consistent tone.
Though wordless, AlHaj’s music tells powerful stories about the blessedness and fragility of life. The first song is intended to serve as a voice for millions of displaced and murdered Iraqi children whose cries will never be heard. Small but powerful, the oud reveals their stories of joy and pain while conveying a deep understanding of their sad history and hopeful future.
Little Earth is available now.
Producers: Suraya Mohamed, Morgan Walker; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Walker, Nick Michael, Julia Reihs; Production Assistant: Kate Drozynski; Photo by Julia Reihs/NPR
For more Tiny Desk Concerts, subscribe to our podcast: