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Rahim AlHaj Coaxes Musical Beauty Out of Adversity

Douglas Kent Hall

The vocation of instrumentalist, composer and NEA National Heritage Fellow Rahim AlHaj has brought him joy and exile, praise and torture -- always accompanied by a soundtrack provided by the 5,000-year-old Arabic oud.

Out of 2,000 applicants, AlHaj won one of five coveted spots at the Institute of Music in Baghdad to study under Munir Bashir, one of the most renowned oud players in the world, and Salim Abdul Kareem, an influential composer and performer. In 1991, after AlHaj had twice been imprisoned and tortured as a 'subversive' for involvement in the underground revolutionary movement - and for refusing to write songs in praise of Saddam Hussein - he was forced to flee Iraq. Nine years later, AlHaj was resettled as a political refugee in Albuquerque, NM. He became a U.S. citizen in 2008.

To date, AlHaj has released twelve recordings, two of which were nominated for Grammy awards. In 2015, he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, this country's highest prize for traditional and folk artists.

“The great, ultimate theme to my work is that with peace we will find safety, we will find comfort and we will find a lot of creativity,” he says. “That's always" target="_blank"> the message behind the notes I talk about. I am not entertaining people. I tell my audience, 'I need your heart, your ear, your thoughts and your communication. You have to be open to the story I'm telling that you have not heard, or open to the culture that is so far away from you. I will bring this to you through the notes that I play.'”

(Broadcast: Musician's Spotlight,  9/17/19 and 3/31/20. Listen on the radio Tuesdays, 7 p.m., or via podcast.)

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