Rahim Alhaj Oud and String Quintet – Letters From Iraq

Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 3/5

Letters from Iraq is an attempt to express the love and pain in the lives of the people in war torn Iraq through a series of musical pieces for strings and oud.  Virtuoso oud player and composer Rahim AlHaj, a native of Iraq and now a naturalised American citizen, came into possession of a number of letters written by Iraqis, describing events and sectarian violence during and after the American occupation.  These personal stories so touched AlHaj that he gave them voice in music.  The pieces are presented as program music, intended to conjure imagery or tell tales hinted at in the titles.  The stories are detailed in the extensive booklet track notes, but the music is performed without words. Eastern Love – Sinan, the opening track tells the story of a doomed romance, set against violence against the Sunni community of Baghdad. The percussive Rigg, a Middle Eastern small single headed frame drum like a tambourine, beats out a rhythm that is both eternal like love and rises and falls to suggest heart beats. The melancholic tune is carried by both the violins and cello of the string section and AlHaj’s resonant and emotive oud.  “Forbidden Love – Tiama” continues a similar story of a Shi’ite Man and a Sunni Woman, driven apart by the violence.  In this piece a plaintive Gypsy violin speaks as the women and AlHaj’s oud the man, the notes becoming voices, conjuring such pictures.  This is sparse music, with space for the emotion to pour out of every note of the soloists.  It is also dark music that speaks of sorrow.  “Running Boy – Fuad” describes a boy trapped after a car bomb explosion, wonderfully resonant descending oud notes and the deep bass voice of the cajon a Latin American drum describe those stretched moments perfectly and build huge tension.  “That Last Time We Will Fly Birds – Riyadh”, like the Dave Sudbury’s song “King Of Rome”, describes how flying homing birds means you are sharing their freedom to feel free yourself, only to have that feeling shattered when their roof top homes are destroyed and the birds scattered.  Again different instruments tell different elements of the story, the oud describes the sense of loss (loss of the birds home and loss of the excuse of their care as a cover for meeting a girlfriend) and the strings describe the movements of the flying birds.  The song titles, each with the names of the person whose story is being told, and the track notes, full of the everyday, universal and very ordinary details of life, add depth and power to the music.  “Going Home – Rahim”, with the most ominous drawn out tremolos, describes AlHaj’s return in 2014 to Baghdad after an exile following the US invasion.  The delicate and soulful solo Oud passage in the middle is Rahim returning to his childhood home.  This is possibly the most powerful piece on the album as it describes the moment when the composer and player realises that Baghdad is no longer his home and what he is misses is in the past.  “Unspoken Word – Laila” is an Iranian lullaby and a lament for a boy’s lost mother with a gloriously expressive violin solo.  The final two tracks “Fly Home – Fatima” and “Voices to Remember – Zainab”, offer light among the shade.  “Fly Home – Fatima” uses an infectious percussion rhythm and some uplifting oud and violin to show that everyday life endures, between the horrific stories are moments of precious living and a hope for a return to normality.  “Voices to Remember – Zainab” is a dance that looks to a time where Iraq is united.  Rahim says “Music can make us laugh, make us cry, make us march into war.  I want to make music to make us realise peace”.  This album makes us cry, makes us laugh and tells stories that contrast the universal beauty of everyday live with the indiscriminate destruction of conflict and war.  AlHaj, born in Iraq, living in America concentrates on the inhumanity and doesn’t take sides, but points out that battles are not only fought far away, that war has come to his homeland and now to our homelands.  He acknowledges that as individuals and as groups we are capable of being the worst but hopes “This album will inspire listeners to choose love, wonder and hope” and be the best.