Rahim Alhaj, When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq

By Daniel Garrett

Rahim Alhaj, When the Soul is Settled
with Souhail Kaspar, percussion
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2006

The desert country of Iraq is in the middle east, between Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, in the place where Mesopotamia used to be. The ancient place has been called the cradle of civilization. Sumer was in south Mesopotamia, and was known for written language—and the epic of Gilgamesh, a fierce ruler of the city of Uruk, was written in Sumerian, and was an epic of privilege, of seduction, of friendship, of conquest, of punishment, of death and mourning, of resistance against one’s own mortality and finally acceptance. The Iraqi musician Rahim Alhaj, a graduate of the Baghdad Conservatory of Fine Arts, began to study the oud, one of his culture’s traditional musical tools, at nine years-old. The oud, which looks like a large covered wood bowl attached to a bent stick, is a string instrument, a lute, and the music of oud player Rahim Alhaj calls to mind both western (guitar) and eastern (sitar) music, and it, as in the musical composition “Taqsim Maqam Ajam,” is pleasantly somber music that seems appropriate for thinking and relaxing. Some of the pieces even could be dance music (“Taqsim Maqam Mukhalif”), and it is interesting to hear how notes seem to be introduced before fading in volume and intensity, or how notes in the second movement of a composition seem to roll away before one has time to weigh them. The music could be posing questions even when it is most fast, most exciting (“Taqsim Maqam Sika”), or sound like the keeping of time, spiritual time, in a work for which the word beautiful seems too shallow (“Taqsim Maqam Kurd”). Music heard often brings to mind other music—it is the echo of the human, the similarity of imaginative play in different parts of the globe; and some of the rhythms Rahim Alhaj with Lebanese percussionist Souhail Kaspar perform recall Spanish music to me (“Taqsim Maqam Bayyat-Husayni”). The music has the rigor of an old tradition, and the energy of a particular musician and moment (“Taqsim Maqam Hijaz”), with some of it sounding like the forming and explosion of bubbles. It is very good (“Taqsim Maqam Lami”); and fascinating that the oud can sound like more than one instrument (“Taqsim Maqam Sharqi Rast”), proof of virtuosity. This is such a sturdy music (“Taqsim Maqam Saba”).

Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.