When Iraqi exile Rahim AlHaj fled to the United States in 2000, a charity organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico, found him a job. AlHaj spoke no English, but the academically trained oud player, who had studied both Western and Arabic music at the Institute of Music in his native Baghdad, quickly recognized that the venue was not suitable for his art.
No matter — the job , at a McDonald’s, was washing dishes.
Now, nine years later, AlHaj has been nominated for his second Grammy Award, one of the most prestigious music awards given in the United States. His latest album, a duo work with Indian Sarod master Amjad Ali Khan titled “Ancient Sounds,” has been nominated in the Best Traditional World Music Album category.
In his homeland, AlHaj was known for his song “Why?,” which became an anthem for the underground revolutionary movement that opposed Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime.
Imprisoned twice by Saddam’s government in the late 1980s, AlHaj fled Iraq in 1991 in the midst of the Gulf War. He fled first to Jordan and then to Syria, until threats from his homeland brought him to the desert of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he still lives.
His dish-washing career was short-lived, as was the night watchman job he took later — he was fired for practicing his oud while on duty.
Yearning to present his music to people, AlHaj rented a hall on the campus of the University of New Mexico for a solo performance. His audience would be the Anglo, Spanish and Native American cultures that intersect in the U.S. state known as the “Land of Enchantment.”
Indeed, the audience was enchanted by AlHaj’s performance on an instrument whose history can be traced back 5,000 years.
The rest, as the cliché says, is history — but with several important footnotes:
- AlHaj returned to Iraq in 2004 to visit with family and friends and to witness the destruction inflicted by the war with the United States, a war that, despite his travails with the Ba’athist regime, he opposed.
- The musician’s Web site says he continues to “promote peaceful understanding between the two countries and to speak on behalf of the oppressed.”
- AlHaj became a U.S. citizen in 2008 and, for the first time in his life, he cast a vote in election — in that year’s presidential race. However, the Web site doesn’t reveal who AlHaj voted for.
From Rami al Haj's Web Biography:
Mr. AlHaj has released five CDs. His latest, Home Again (UR Music), is a tour de force of touching and evocative original compositions portraying his trip to Iraq after 13 years in exile. When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) garnered a 2008 Grammy® nomination in the Best Traditional World Music Recording category. Don Heckman, reviewing the CD for the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “Alhaj's spontaneous inventions are constantly fascinating — a convincing affirmation of the rich culture of an embattled area of the world." (January 7, 2007). His earlier recordings include Friendship: Oud and Sadaqa String Quartet (UR Music 2005), a unique East and West musical collaboration, The Second Baghdad (2002) and Iraqi Music in a Time of War”, (2003). Rahim’s next release, a duet recording with sarod master Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, will be released in late 2008/early 2009 on UR Music.