Arts, Culture & Media

Global Hit - Rahim Alhaj

Some people don't use words to express themselves, but they do just fine getting across their points of view. One of them is Iraqi composer and oud -- or lute -- player Rahim Alhaj. Alhaj has been in exile in this country since 2000. About three months ago, he became an American citizen. The World's Marco Werman spoke with Alhaj this morning and has this story.

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Rahim Alhaj had never voted before. Not here, because he only became a US citizen in August. And not in Iraq, because when Alhaj lived there, Saddam Hussein was head of state and there were no free elections. As Rahim Alhaj told me, all of that made voting yesterday even more powerful.

�It was a great moment, not just for me, but for all nations basically. And this is first time in my entire life that I do go and vote. And it was a very exciting moment, and in fact I was in tear. Because this is my country, my adopted country and I need to make a difference in this country. And I think my voice has been heard.�

When he lived in Iraq, Rahim Alhaj says he opposed Saddam Hussein's regime. He associated with anti-Saddam political parties. That landed him in jail, where he was tortured. And Alhaj was targetted for other reasons too.

�I was composing music against Saddam Hussein regime criticizing Iran Iraq war, and composing music that talked about unjustified Iran Iraq war, and that's what put me in trouble during that time.�

MW: I'd like to play just a bit of a recording you recently made, this is a composition of yours called Missing You and then I'd like to ask you what the inspiration for it was. RA: Right.

�That's a composition called Missing You, by the Iraqi oud master, Rahim Alhaj, who now lives in Alberquerque New Mexico. Rahim, what are you saying in music, what are you saying without lyrics, in that song Missing You? Rahim Alhaj: This is actually my belief in music, that's the music has humongous power, and it has great capacity to make a communication with us as a human being. And this for example, I try to portray some Iraqi faces that always come to my head, kids running, my mother when is doing our meal, and friends around, and all these images that are centered in my head for a long time.

MW: It's a musical expression of your sense of nostalgia for Iraq? RA: Exactly.�

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 tied together the histories and fortunes of the two countries.

Musically, Rahim Alhaj has responded to that. After his first concert in the states a few years back, Alhaj found that a lot of Americans didn't understand the Arabic music he played: its unfamiliar microtones and its rhythms that followed time signatures you couldn't tap your foot to.

So he tried to build some bridges. This composition, "Baghdad, New Mexico" was one of them. The sounds in "Baghdad, New Mexico" don't reflect classical Arabic music. There are hints of western guitar stylings.

That's the point.

Alhaj wanted to open a door to his culture that he hoped Americans would walk through.

�MW: Does an Obama victory do you think and what one can presume from his victory speech last night would be a larger world view for Americans, is the opportunity bigger for you now to share your culture, to share your music? RA: I think this is what we hope for. I mean, we do not know Obama, but he will do all that expectation we have right now. I mean there's a huge challenge right now he has to face basically, from financial problems to global warming and war all the time, and we have two wars for Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, so there's a lot going on. Now what we need from Obama is how can we understand the others.�

But how will the American people find the time and energy to understand other people and their cultures -- their music -- when there are all these other things to worry about?

That is what Rahim Alhaj is waiting to see.But he's eager to be a part of it and to make those connections.After all, that's why he's making music today in the United States. He feels his time has come too.

For The World, I'm Marco Werman.

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