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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 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.)



Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

John Floridis, the host and producer of Musician's Spotlight, has been with Montana Public Radio since 1997. He has interviewed over 200 musicians during that time from household names like B.B. King, Alison Krauss and Lyle Lovett, to Montana musicians such as Eden Atwood, Darko Butarac and Tom Catmull. He is also an independent recording and performing artist in his own right and a former registered music therapist.
Beth Anne Austein has been spinning tunes on the air (The Folk Show, Dancing With Tradition, Freeforms), as well as recording, editing and mixing audio for Montana Public Radio and Montana PBS, since the Clinton Administration. She’s jockeyed faders or "fixed it in post” for The Plant Detective; Listeners Bookstall; Fieldnotes; Musicians Spotlight; The Write Question; Storycorps; Selected Shorts; Bill Raoul’s music series; orchestral and chamber concerts; lecture series; news interviews; and outside producers’ programs about topics ranging from philosophy to ticks.