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Rahim Alhaj: Little Earth

Chris May By

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With six albums under his belt since he arrived in the US in 2000—two of them, Friendship (Fast Horse, 2006) and When The Soul Is Settled (Smithsonian Folkways, 2007), Grammy nominees—Iraqi oudist Rahim Alhaj is settling into his new homeland with aplomb. Four of the discs have been virtuoso expositions of traditional Iraqi music. But on two more, Alhaj has engaged with other cultures: Friendship was made with a classical string quartet, and Ancient Sounds (UR, 2009) with Indian sarod player Amjad Ali Khan. Alhaj's two-CD set, Little Earth, takes this exploratory trajectory further.

For Little Earth, Alhaj composed a suite showcasing guest players including American guitarists Bill Frisell and Peter Buck and accordionist Guy Klucevesk, Indian sitarist Rosman Jamal Bhartiya, Malian kora player Yacouba Sissoko, didjeridu player Stephen Kent, Chinese pipa (pear-shaped lute) player Liu Fang and Iranian ney (flute) player Hossein Omoumi. Two tracks set him alongside the string quintet Little Earth Orchestra, continuing the meeting of Iraqi and Western classical styles introduced on Friendship; another features the Santa Fe Guitar Quartet.

The music, by intention rather than default, is a series of accommodations—between the Iraqi oud and instruments from other cultures, and between poles-apart rhythmic and harmonic traditions—and is given overall coherence by Alhaj's vision of music as a healing force between nations. In that regard, he can be particularly proud of "Morning In Hyattsville" and "Athens To Baghdad," made with Frisell and Buck respectively, and "Waterfall," with Omoumi. It's balm to the soul to hear an Iraqi musician in such close communion with players from the US and Iran, their three countries between them having been the participants in two decade-long wars (and counting) since 1980. Other standouts include "River (The Passage)," where Fang's pipa combines quite magically with the oud, and "Sama'i Baghdad" and "Going Home," both with the Little Earth Orchestra.

The majority of the music is reflective and equable, as you might expect, although accordionist Klucevsek (on "The Searching") and didjeridu player Kent (on "Qaasim") inject some rougher edges. The album would, perhaps, gain something if there were more such moments—for after two hours of mostly unrequited peace, ears may be hoping, if not for an outbreak of war, then at least for a little noisy discourse. But that is to cavil; the concept behind Little Earth is writ clear, and Alhaj has realized it with elegance.

Track Listing: CD1: Sama'I Baghdad; The Searching; Sailors Three; Morning In Hyatsville; The Other Time; Rocio; Missing You/Mae Querida; Dance Of The Palms. CD2: Fly Away; Going Home; Athens To Baghdad; Lullaby; River (The Passage); Qaasim; Waterfall.

Personnel: Rahim Alhaj: oud (CD1#2-8, CD2); Luis Alberto: violin (CD1#1, CD2#2); Roberta Arruda: violin (CD1#1, CD2#2); Monica de la Hoz: viola (CD1#1, CD2#2); Jesse McAdoo: cello (CD1#1, CD2#2); Robin Abeles: double bass (CD1#1, CD2#2); Issa Malluf: darbuka (CD1#1, 2, CD2#2, 3); Guy Klucevsek: accordion (CD1#2); Katie Harlow: cello (CD1#2); Bill Frisell: electric guitar (CD1#4); Eyvind Kang: viola (CD1#4); Yacouba Sissoko: kora (CD1#5); Roshan Jamal Bhartiya: sitar (CD1#6); Maria de Barros: vocals (CD1#7); Glen Velez: percussion (CD1#8); Chris Dorsey: guitar (CD2#1); Miguel Piva: guitar (CD2#1); Eric Slavin: guitar (CD2#1); Mariano Fontana: bass guitar (CD2#1); Peter Buck: guitar (CD2#3); Lorenzo Martinez: violin (CD2#3); Luis Gerra: double bass (CD2#3); Robert Mirabal: Native American flute (CD2#4); Liu Fang: pipa (CD2#5); Stephen Kent: didjeridu (CD2#6); Hossein Omoumi: ney (CD2#7); Souhail Kaspar: percussion (CD2#7).

Title: Little Earth | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: UR Music

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