Rahim AlHaj - Hossein Alizadeh & Djivan Gasparyan
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Rahim Alhaj
When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq
Smithsonian Folkways

Hossein Alizadeh & Djivan Gasparyan
Endless Vision: Persian and Armenian Songs
World Village

The last century has visited more than its share of tragedy and suffering upon Armenia, Iraq and Iran, and it would be easy to romanticize the musical heritage of the region. The world-music panel at the January 2007 Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference in New York attracted a striking mix of people, among them a young Iraqi exile who related the difficulties he confronts in seeking to study Iraqi classical music with elderly tradition bearers, and spoke passionately to the audience about the music's tenuous future in his homeland and abroad. His concerns are certainly borne out by recent history in Iraq, although the future of Iraqi music may not be quite as bleak as he seemed to suggest.

Consider the work of another Iraqi exile, Rahim Alhaj, who studied oud in Baghdad with Salim Abdul Kareem and Munir Bashir (1930-1997), the latter widely regarded as the most important oud player of the contemporary era, as a master of Iraqi maqam (roughly, "mode"). In Iraq, "maqam" refers to a sense of melodic movement and structure; to a specifically Iraqi vocal tradition; and to the concept of a spiritual station.

Shortly after graduating with honors from the Baghdad Conservatory of Fine Arts (1990), Alhaj fled Iraq, dogged by the Hussein regime. He lived for a decade in Syria and Jordan before gaining asylum in the United States in 2000; Alhaj now resides in Albuquerque. On the strength of When the Soul Is Settled, Rahim Alhaj is a worthy successor to Bashir. The repertoire consists of nine extended taqsim ("improvised") maqamat in pan-Iraqi style. The music represents a continuum that extends from North Africa into the Levant and eastward into Central Asia. Alhaj is ably accompanied by Lebanese master percussionist Souhail Kaspar, trained at the Conservatory of Traditional Arabic Music, Aleppo, Syria, and now resident in Los Angeles. The extensive notes (with musical transcriptions, bibliography and discography) are in English and Arabic.

Endless Vision unites Armenian virtuoso Djivan Gasparyan on duduk (an eight-holed, double-reed flute made of apricot wood, derived from the regional shepherd's flute) and Iranian master Hossein Alizadeh on tar and shurangiz (new Iranian lute). Their live 2003 outdoor performance at Tehran's Niavaran Palace was accompanied by a trio of singers (in Armenian, Azeri and Persian), Armen Ghazaryan (duduk), Vazgen Markaryan (bass duduk), and the Hamavayan Ensemble (vocals, oud, shurangiz, percussion).

Born in the Soviet Republic of Armenia and trained at the Komitas Conservatory of Yerevan, Gasparyan is responsible for elevating the duduk to classical status in Armenian traditional music. His career began in 1948 with the Tatool Altounian National Song and Dance Ensemble and the Yerevan Philharmonic; some listeners may recognize his work from the soundtrack of Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Gasparyan has recorded with Peter Gabriel, the Kronos Quartet, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and numerous others.

Alizadeh began his career in the late 1970s after studying Persian classical music at the University of Teheran's School of Music; he conducts the Iranian National Orchestra of Radio and Television, and enjoys an international reputation as a soloist and composer at home and abroad.

This meld of Persian and Armenian songs unfolds slowly and dramatically; the musicians and singers give one another plenty of room to explore the delicate nuances of these complementary and evocative musical traditions, whose microtonal character is accented by the plaintive duduk and the extraordinary overtone singing of Hourshid Biabani, Afsaneh Rasaei and Ali Samadpour.

Reflecting upon this remarkable performance ought to call into question the wisdom of perpetrating in Iran the militarist folly and human sacrifice that already haunt Armenian and Iraqi history. By contrast, as Gandhi observed when asked his opinion of Western civilization, "It would be an excellent idea." - Michael Stone

Read the RootsWorld interview with Rahim AlHaj

CDs available from cdRoots:
When the Soul Is Settled
Endless Vision

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