Many of my friends and co-workers expend considerable energy trying to break free from whatever rut they think they're in.
Not me. I like ruts. Ruts are comfortable and I'm a big believer in comfort. I'm not a big believer in trying new things when I already know what I like. I'm no adrenaline junkie. I'm not a weekend warrior. I'm a fan of the great indoors. I like shoes that are falling apart and jeans whose blue has long since faded. I like buying new music as long as it fits nicely into the framework of what I already listen to and understand.
I'm also a walking bag of contradictions. I don't crave adventure or actively seek new experiences (how very Jedi of me, eh?) but they sometimes find me. Sometimes you stumble on to things you never knew you wanted. Such is the case with Rahim Al Haj. I never would have set out to find Iraqi music or oud music, yet here I sit, listening to Friendship for the second time today.
Home Again, Al Haj's most recent record is solo oud music. I love instrumental records, but most of my instrumental records are either soundtracks and film scores or more rock-based albums. Home Again is certainly not that and neither is Friendship, but Friendship pairs the Iraqi-born Al Haj and his oud with a string quartet. I'm probably no more knowledgeable of string quartets and chamber music than I am about the oud, yet the Western instruments sound more familiar to me. I don't know that it would always be true but in the case of Friendship, pairing the more familiar with the exotic has made the music more accessible. Listening to Home Again was by no means a chore, but it did require a little more work to follow the structure of the composition, the tones, and the rhythms.
What the string quartet brings to the music is recognizable sounds filling in some of the spaces in the music. The compositions feel more like traditional songs and the presence of the other instruments fills space, adds texture, and gives my ears something to focus on rather than being forced to follow only the patterns Al Haj produces on his oud.
The contrast between the quartet and oud allows me to better appreciate the oud's musical qualities and Al Haj's ability with it. The interplay between the musicians, all of whom have considerable classical training, is inspired. This is an example where the experiment of taking two sources and styles of music and bringing them together works. Friendship is a beautiful record that deserves to be heard. A little adventure now and then is a good thing. Let Friendship be a soundtrack to yours.
If you're still not convinced, you can sample the entire album online for free. I'd start by checking out "Friendship," "Ali," and "Oak." You can also download individual tracks or buy the full album.