Iraqi Lute Player Calls in a Few Favors
It seems like a can’t-miss idea. Rahim Alhaj is a master of the oud—the 11-stringed Middle Eastern lute—whose resistance song “Why?” questioned the wisdom of the Iran-Iraq war back in the 1990s. Iraqi authorities were not pleased with the tune, and Alhaj spent time in Saddam Hussein’s prison system. Subsequently exiled, he passed through Syria and wound up in New Mexico, where he began bulding connections among musicians both local and international.
The culmination of those connections, and of a life spent making music, is Little Earth, a two-disc set that showcases Alhaj’s technical skill and passionate feeling. It also brings aboard a bevy of high-profile guests, including jazz guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell, R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, singer Maria de Barros of Cape Verde, Malian kora master Yacouba Sissoko, sitar player Roshan Jamal Bhartiya, and many others. This is world music in the truest sense, featuring thoroughly unexpected collaborations with musicians as diverse as Chinese p’ip’a player Liu Fung and Taos Pueblo vocalist Robert Mirabel. In other words, it should be great.
The results are mixed. Certainly, the music is technically proficient, and the producers are to be commended for avoiding many of the world music clichés out there (what? No duet with Youssou N’Dour?), but there is a certain flatness to many of the tracks that belies the impressive roster of guest stars.
Opening track “Sama’i Baghdad” features swooping violins courtesy of Luis Alberto and Roberta Arruda, but it sounds more like Middle Eastern film music than anything else. If there’s any oud in here, I can’t hear it. “The Searching” fares better, with Alhaj’s lute making an appearance, playing off nicely against Guy Klucevsek’s bittersweet accordion, but at seven-plus minutes, the track lingers longer than necessary. “Morning in Hyattsville” is the longest tune on the first disc, running over ten minutes, and is built around a playful interchange between Frisell’s guitar, Alhaj’s oud and Eyvind Kang’s viola. It’s enjoyable enough, but hardly justifies its length.
More successful are the duets with kora and sitar, “The Other Time” and “Rocio,” respectively. In the first, kora master Sissoko plays rippling runs that shimmer above Alhaj’s metronome-like underpinning, and then the musicians reverse roles. “Rocio” is a slightly more uncertain pairing, as the sitar is an instrument that tends to demand the spotlight. Nonetheless, the two men make the collaboration work, largely because Alhaj stays out of the way whiole Bhartiya plays, and Bhartiya does the same when Alhaj takes the reins. The nine-minute song is thus less a duet than an alternation, but a compelling one nonetheless.
The two tracks with vocals are also successful. Maria de Barros, who sings on “Missing You/Mae Querida”, turns her throaty and expressive voice to a song that can only be described as haunting, and again, Alhaj is unafraid to step back and allow her center stage when the song calls for it. The tune is one of the albums’ highlights. The other vocal track, “Lullaby,” is almost as successful, with Robert Mirabel’s subdued voice playing against Alhaj’s oud and an assortment of other sounds.
By now, we’re well into the second disc, and listeners hoping to find some kind of high-octane east-west fusion will have figured out that no such developments are on the horizon. “Athens to Baghdad” refers not to Athens, Greece but to Athens, Georgia, home turf to REM guitarist Peter Buck. This song is comprised of an upbeat rhythm and a jaunty beat, but there isn’t much to stick in the memory.
In fact, the second disc is probably unnecessary. Despite a quartet of songs clocking in at the nine to 11-minute range, there is little here to compel the listener. “Fly Away” opens the disc with one of its strongest songs, a jazzy, energetic romp that builds from a quiet opening into something urgent. It is also perhaps the best showcase for Alhaj’s considerable technical skills—dexterity and expressiveness are both to be seen here.
“River (the Passage)” is a duet with p’ip’a player Liu Fung, and while the interplay between the two instruments is pleasant, it rarely grows into anything more. “Waterfall” is more energetic than almost anything else on the album but again wears out its welcome after its first, initial impact. That said, Iranian Hossein Omoumi, who on this track plays the ney—a type of flute—achieves dazzling moments of soaring transcendence.
The best song on the album is also the saddest. “Qaasim” is an elegy for Alhaj’s cousin who was shot and murdered by American soldiers in Najaf while walking with some friends. The song, opening with Stephen Kent’s mournful didgeridoo, builds from a slow opening to an expressive, mournful lament, punctuated with moments of rage and a thrumming, rhythmic fury. At such moments, Little Earth becomes more than just a group of musicians playing songs—it becomes a plea for humanity to put down the guns and pick up musical instruments instead. Maybe someday the call will be heeded.