Rahim Alhaj: Little Earth

An all-star, two-disc effort that yields mixed results...

Rahim Alhaj

Little Earth

Label: UR Music
US Release Date: 2010-09-28
UK Release Date: 2010-09-28

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.