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Arab Music from Iraq: Rahim Alhaj, oud; Souhail Kaspar, percussion

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1. Dream (Rahim Alhaj)
2. Home Again (Rahim Alhaj)
3. Maqam Ajam (traditional)
      —Song: The Beautiful One Passed Me (Marru 'Alayya al-Hilwin)
4. Maqam Rast (traditional)
      —Song: The Night Is Sweet and Beautiful (Il Layla Hilwa)
5. Maqam Hijaz (traditional)
      —Song: Atop the Palm Tree (Fawg in-Nakhal)


6. Gray Morning (R. Alhaj)
7. Maqam Segah (aka Sika)
      —Song: The Girl with Her Eyes on Me (Ya Bint w-'Enich 'Alayya)
8-11. Traditional Iraqi, Egyptian, and Syrian songs (8:57–19:20)
12. Percussion demonstration (19:34–23:40)


Rahim Alhaj, composer and virtuoso on the oud (Arab lute), earned a Grammy Award nomination for his CD titled When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq (Smithsonian Folkways, 2006). He was born in Baghdad and began playing the oud at the age of nine. He studied at the Institute of Music in Baghdad under Salim Abdul Kareem and the renowned Munir Bashir—considered by many to be the greatest oud player of the twentieth century—graduating in 1990 with a diploma in composition. Alhaj also holds a degree in Arabic literature from Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. In 1991, after the first Gulf War, he was forced to leave Iraq, due to his political activism under the Saddam Hussein regime. A political refugee, he moved first to Jordan and Syria and then in 2000 to the United States. He resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Alhaj has performed hundreds of concerts all over the world: on tour with Munir Bashir, in solo engagements, and with his string quartet. His music combines traditional Iraqi maqāms (musical modes, see below) with contemporary styles and influence. His compositions are about his experiences in exile and new beginnings in his adopted country. His songs seek new musical concepts while incorporating the foundations of the traditional Iraqi music.

The latest of his five recordings, Home Again (Fast Horse Recordings), features original compositions inspired by his recent return to Iraq, after thirteen years in exile. His previous recording, When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq, prompted the Los Angeles Times to write that “Alhaj's spontaneous inventions are constantly fascinating—a convincing affirmation of the rich culture of an embattled area of the world.” His CD titled Friendship: Oud and Sadaqa String Quartet (Fast Horse Recording, 2005) received two Grammy nominations. It was preceded by The Second Baghdad (2002) and Iraqi: Music in a Time of War (2003), both produced by VoxLox Records. His upcoming CD, Lingua Franca, combines flamenco guitar and oud and features  Alhaj with Ottmar Liebert, Jon Gagan, and Barrett Martin.

Profiles of Alhaj's life and music have appeared on National Public Radio and in Smithsonian Magazine, Time Out New York, Los Angeles Times, Global Rhythm, (London) Times, Village Voice, and Reuter's International. His recordings have aired on BBC, ABC National Radio Australia, Pacifica's Democracy Now, and NPR's Studio 360.

Souhail Kaspar, percussion, received a Grammy nomination for his collaboration with Rahim Alhaj on When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq (Smithsonian Folkways, 2006). Born in Lebanon and trained at the Conservatory of Traditional Arabic Music in Aleppo, Syria, Kaspar studied both traditional and classical percussion and received his degree in classical Arabic performance.

He has performed with John Bilezikjian, Kenny Burrell, Omar Faruk, Shujaat Khan, the Kronos Quartet, Cheb Mami, Scott Marcus, Roberto Miranda, Tito Puente, the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra, Kathem al-Saher, Simon Shaheen, Sting, Strunz & Farah, and Wadi al-Safi. Kaspar has worked with such legendary Egyptian composers as Farid al-Atrash, Sayyad Makowi, and Hanni Mehanna. He has appeared in concert before such dignitaries as Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Dalai Lama. He is a recipient of the Durfee Music Fellowship and has worked closely with ethnomusicologist Ali Jihad Racy at the University of California Los Angeles in concerts, master classes, and workshops throughout the United States, including appearances at the Freer and Sackler in 2005 in conjunction with the exhibition Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade, and Innovation.

Kaspar has recorded film soundtracks for The Prince of Egypt, Sinbad and Scooby Doo in Egypt, and the documentaries The Region of the Nile, Darfur Now, and The Great Bazaars. He performed on the CD Kronos Caravan with the Kronos Quartet (Nonesuch 2000), and the Congo Square Project, which provided relief funds for New Orleans musicians. He has recorded a wide range of instructional recordings on Arab rhythm and percussion. His signature Egyptian drum line was released in 2007. He lives in Los Angeles.

The Oud

The oldest known image of an oud-like instrument is on a clay seal from the Sumerian city of Uruk (4500–3100 B.C.E). A wood-bellied lute also appears on royal seals and other iconography from the same period. It is an instrument tantalizingly similar to (and perhaps a direct ancestor of) the oud itself. Unfortunately, little is currently known about the development of this instrumental tradition between the fall of Babylon to the Persians in 539 B.C.E. and the centuries that preceded the founding of Islam in 622 C.E.

The oud held a respected position as a solo instrument with its own distinct repertoire during much of the Abbasid period (750–1258), during which the royal court and capital of the Islamic empire were established at Baghdad. Iraqi musicians today describe that time as a golden age for Iraqi music. Rahim Alhaj, for example, provides a strong sense of aesthetic and musical continuity, as did his teachers and their teachers. Yet he also recognizes that Iraqi culture, including its music, has changed dramatically in the last century, and that he himself is an agent of musical change. His recording for Smithsonian Folkways is comprised primarily of taqasim, instrumental improvisations offering an early twenty first-century interpretation of maqāms, including material derived from the Iraqi maqām tradition as well as more recently created compositions.
Adapted from notes by D. A. Sonneborn for When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq (Smithsonian Folkways, 2006), www.folkways.si.edu.

Oud and Iraqi MaqĀm

While a maqām in Arab music is often depicted as a series of pitches, in the manner of a scale, this kind of representation tells only a part of its story. Each Arab maqām does indeed prescribe its own pitch content but there are always other characteristics. Most prominent among these are the up-and-down direction of melodic movement typical of each maqām and a unique collection of melodic motifs. According to Arab music theory, each maqām is built from three or four notes within the interval of a perfect fourth, less often in a third or fifth. In addition, each maqām tends to modulate, or transition, to particular group of other maqāms. These and other elements offer the potential for infinite variation, and real artistry is attained by their subtle and emotionally effective use by the musician.

In Iraq, maqām carries all the meanings found in the rest of the Near East but also refers to what was, until the early twentieth century, a particularly local vocal tradition: a specific repertoire of pre-composed songs, improvised vocal sections, and other unique identifiers. Counterparts to this Iraqi approach to maqām may be heard in related suite forms, such as the Persian dastgah or Central Asian mogam and mugām.

Traditionally, the instrumental ensemble for Iraqi maqām consisted of the fiddle (jōzā or jawza), hammered dulcimer (santūr), and two or three single-skinned percussion instruments, usually dāf or riqq and dumbak or darabukka, or sometimes naqqara. This group accompanied and cued a singer, providing pitch and rhythmic frameworks, following the melody, and enriching the aesthetic enjoyment for the audience. The instruments, however, always played a secondary role to the voice.

Until the early twentieth-century, there were at least three prominent regional styles of Iraqi maqām, associated with the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk. Alhaj focuses on a later development, a pan-Iraqi style.

Featuring vocal soloists, the Iraqi maqām tradition was the most prominent urban repertoire, one that appears to have remained stable through most of the nineteenth century and up until World War I. By the early twentieth century, modernity was bringing rapid change to Iraqi cultural traditions. Recordings and radio introduced new musical ideas and sounds. Some scholars believe the Iraqi maqām tradition can be traced back to the Abbasids but there is, so far, insufficient primary documentation to support that hypothesis. Other instruments appeared in a new sort of Iraqi instrumental ensemble in the 1920s, including oud and qānūn and with the Western violin replacing the santūr and the jōzā. The Egyptian tabla often replaced the more resonant, deeply pitched Iraqi metal dumbak. The ensemble was called takht al-sharq?, and it performed a lighter, more popular repertoire.

The origin of the Baghdad Conservatory and its emphasis on the oud began with the cellist, oud player, pianist, and composer Sherif Mohieddin Haidar Targan. After studying in Turkey in the early 1920s, he lived and performed in the West from 1924 to 1932. He accepted an invitation from his cousin King Faisal in 1934 to return to Baghdad and create an Institute of Arabian Music in the Abbasid tradition. He founded the Institute of Fine Arts there in 1936, which later gave rise to the Baghdad Conservatory.

Haidar's aesthetic sensibility was of the oud of medieval times, a solo instrument equal to or surpassing any in the Western orchestra. He taught that instrumental music could stand alone in its beauty and effect and not simply provide accompaniment to vocal repertoire. He added a sixth pair of strings to the oud to increase the instrument's expressive capability and liberated his students by allowing them to use all four fingers of the left hand.

Lutenist and violinist Jamil Bashir (1921–1977) was one of Haidar's first students, and certainly the most prominent, ultimately succeeding Haidar as head of the Institute. Jamil's vision and active concertizing was critical to the modern restoration of the oud's high station as a solo instrument in Iraq.

His younger brother, Munir Bashir (1930–1997), also studied at the Institute and went on to become the most renowned oud player of the second half of the twentieth century. Munir Bashir popularized Iraqi and Arabian music in eastern and western Europe. His Iraqi-born students included Salim Abdul Kareem, Khaled Mohammed Ali, and Naseer Shamma. Both Bashir brothers featured the oud within the Iraqi maqām tradition and in other musical styles. Munir Bashir's son, Omar Bashir, currently teaches at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest and gave a solo recital at the Freer Gallery in 2003.
Adapted from notes by D. A. Sonneborn for When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq (Smithsonian Folkways 2006), www.folkways.si.edu.

Center for Contemporary Arab Studies

The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), the co-sponsor of this concert, is the only academic center in the United States that focuses primarily on the Arab world, the region from Morocco to the Gulf. CCAS was founded in 1975 as an integral part of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, and each year its graduate and undergraduate programs offer more than seventy-five courses in history, international affairs, economics, development, business, culture, and society as well as the Arabic language and the study of Islam. For more information, visit ccas.georgetown.edu.

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