Rahim AlHaj was hounded out of Iraq in the early 1990s after his song “Why?” became a hit among the anti-Saddam political resistance. But the tag “protest singer” hangs no better on him than it did on Bob Dylan: AlHaj, who now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is an impressively broad-based musician, and this two-CD album showcases his facility as a contemporary composer of mostly instrumental music.
AlHaj plays the oud, a guitarlike instrument that’s adaptable to many settings, and he was trained in both Western classical music and the Arabic melodic technique known as maqam. So crossing genres comes naturally to him, and he freely melds styles as he plays with guests including guitarists Bill Frisell and Peter Buck, Cape Verdean singer Maria de Barros, Indian sitarist Rashan Jamal Bhartiya, Chinese pipa player Liu Fang, and American Indian flutist Robert Mirabal.
Despite the extensive, impressive guest roster, this is definitively AlHaj’s album: He didn’t just invite these artists to jam but rather composed music that capitalizes on their talents and their artistic multilingualism. “It was a dream, to compose music for all the world,” he has said of Little Earth. It’s a dream to listen to as well.
This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.