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"If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."

Music Review: Rahim AlHaj – Home Again

Rahim AlHaj was born in Baghdad, Iraq, where he began learning to play the oud when he was nine. He continued his study of the instrument at the Institute of Music in Baghdad under the tutelage of Munir Bashir, widely considered to be among the greatest to ever play it.  He graduated with a degree in composition and also earned a degree in Arabic literature.

His political activism in opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime forced him to leave the country after the first Gulf War in 1991. Following his departure, he lived in Jordan and Syria until he moved to the United States in 2000 settling in New Mexico.

Iraq has gotten plenty of attention from American news media outlets. I can't remember any of it being positive.

Being a high schooler during the first Iraq War, I never thought of Iraq as a place where music would be studied in conservatories or as a place where young men and women would receive degrees for their study of literature. I wasn't being purposefully obtuse. I simply lacked the intellectual curiosity to explore the idea on my own, such information being extraneous to what I needed for my daily rat race routine.

Iraq became synonymous with Saddam Hussein; Saddam Hussein was synonymous with evil. It wasn't until I received Rahim AlHaj's CD Home Again that I realized I never moved beyond thinking of Iraqis as pitiable victims of an awful, evil regime.

Home Again is a musical expression of AlHaj's journey back to Iraq in 2004, following the fall of the Hussein government. During that time back in his native country, he spent time with family and loved ones. He also experienced the effects of the destruction and chaos of a despicable regime, two wars, and the resultant upheaval.

If the present is better than the past – a dubious proposition – it can't be by much. The sad truth of Iraq in 2007 is we seem to have fought problems with bigger problems. Steven Feld, professor of anthropology and music at the University of New Mexico, praises AlHaj's ability to "musically reside in multiple realities." That is the center of this album.

AlHaj isn't the only one trying to reside in multiple realities where this music is concerned. I've not studied composition at a famed conservatory. I didn't know what an oud was until I looked it up on Wikipedia. I had no concept of Iraqi music and even Wikipedia can't bail me out on that. The truth is there is no reason to think I could decode this music and be able to relate it to any of you (now he tells us, five paragraphs in!).

Some people would have flinched at such a proposition. I'll admit I thought about it, but is there any place more terrifying or liberating than the great unknown? Is there anything more exhilarating than letting go of the rails and abandoning everything to the experience of the moment?

I felt like an explorer, listening to something for which I truly had no comparisons or points of reference. I don't get to use crutches like "Beatlesesque," "bluesy," or "pop." I thought I'd have to try to grow new ears to process and understand this music. That proved to be one more faulty assumption on my part; a reminder I was still trying to hold on to the rail.

I didn't need new ears, I just had to open the ones I have and allow the power of the music to affect me on its own terms. When I did, I took a journey of my own. It doesn't matter that my journey through Home Again is different than the one its composer and creator took. To quote George Harrison – it really does all come back to The Beatles, doesn't it? – "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."

I didn't know where this music was taking me, but that doesn't matter. The important thing is that I went. Home Again should be experienced as an album rather than in pieces, but I was particularly moved by "Oak" and "Gray Morning." Your journey will be different than his and mine, but you really should go.

AlHaj was nominated for a Grammy in the World Music category for his When The Soul Is Settled: Music Of Iraq album.

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