Arab Music from Iraq: Rahim Alhaj, oud; Souhail Kaspar, percussion. Part 2 of 2

Iraqi-born musician Rahim Alhaj earned a 2008 Grammy nomination for his CD titled When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq, released on the Smithsonian Folkways label. He studied at the famed Baghdad Conservatory under the late Munir Bashir, who was perhaps the greatest oud (Arab lute) master of the twentieth century. Since arriving in the United States in 2000, Alhaj has released three more CDs, including one of original music for oud and string quartet. Legendary jazz guitarist Bill Frisell calls Alhaj’s music “beautiful, mysterious, and powerful.” This concert on July 31, 2007, was made possible in part through support from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University.


1. Dream (Rahim Alhaj)
2. Home Again (Rahim Alhaj)
3. Maqam Ajam (traditional)
—Song: The Beautiful One Passed Me (Marru 'Alayya al-Hilwin)
4. Maqam Rast (traditional)
—Song: The Night Is Sweet and Beautiful (Il Layla Hilwa)
5. Maqam Hijaz (traditional)
—Song: Atop the Palm Tree (Fawg in-Nakhal)


6. Gray Morning (R. Alhaj)
7. Maqam Segah (aka Sika)
—Song: The Girl with Her Eyes on Me (Ya Bint w-'Enich 'Alayya)
8-11. Traditional Iraqi, Egyptian, and Syrian songs (8:57–19:20)
12. Percussion demonstration (19:34–23:40)

The Oud

The oldest known image of an oud-like instrument is on a clay seal from the Sumerian city of Uruk (4500–3100 B.C.E). A wood-bellied lute also appears on royal seals and other iconography from the same period. It is an instrument tantalizingly similar to (and perhaps a direct ancestor of) the oud itself. Unfortunately, little is currently known about the development of this instrumental tradition between the fall of Babylon to the Persians in 539 B.C.E. and the centuries that preceded the founding of Islam in 622 C.E.

The oud held a respected position as a solo instrument with its own distinct repertoire during much of the Abbasid period (750–1258), during which the royal court and capital of the Islamic empire were established at Baghdad. Iraqi musicians today describe that time as a golden age for Iraqi music. Rahim Alhaj, for example, provides a strong sense of aesthetic and musical continuity, as did his teachers and their teachers. Yet he also recognizes that Iraqi culture, including its music, has changed dramatically in the last century, and that he himself is an agent of musical change. His recording for Smithsonian Folkways is comprised primarily of taqasim, instrumental improvisations offering an early twenty first-century interpretation of maqāms, including material derived from the Iraqi maqām tradition as well as more recently created compositions.
Adapted from notes by D. A. Sonneborn for When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq (Smithsonian Folkways, 2006),

Oud and Iraqi Maqām

While a maqām in Arab music is often depicted as a series of pitches, in the manner of a scale, this kind of representation tells only a part of its story. Each Arab maqām does indeed prescribe its own pitch content but there are always other characteristics. Most prominent among these are the up-and-down direction of melodic movement typical of each maqām and a unique collection of melodic motifs. According to Arab music theory, each maqām is built from three or four notes within the interval of a perfect fourth, less often in a third or fifth. In addition, each maqām tends to modulate, or transition, to particular group of other maqāms. These and other elements offer the potential for infinite variation, and real artistry is attained by their subtle and emotionally effective use by the musician.

In Iraq, maqām carries all the meanings found in the rest of the Near East but also refers to what was, until the early twentieth century, a particularly local vocal tradition: a specific repertoire of pre-composed songs, improvised vocal sections, and other unique identifiers. Counterparts to this Iraqi approach to maqām may be heard in related suite forms, such as the Persian dastgah or Central Asian mogam and mugām.

Traditionally, the instrumental ensemble for Iraqi maqām consisted of the fiddle (jōzā or jawza), hammered dulcimer (santūr), and two or three single-skinned percussion instruments, usually dāf or riqq and dumbak or darabukka, or sometimes naqqara. This group accompanied and cued a singer, providing pitch and rhythmic frameworks, following the melody, and enriching the aesthetic enjoyment for the audience. The instruments, however, always played a secondary role to the voice.

Until the early twentieth-century, there were at least three prominent regional styles of Iraqi maqām, associated with the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk. Alhaj focuses on a later development, a pan-Iraqi style.

Featuring vocal soloists, the Iraqi maqām tradition was the most prominent urban repertoire, one that appears to have remained stable through most of the nineteenth century and up until World War I. By the early twentieth century, modernity was bringing rapid change to Iraqi cultural traditions. Recordings and radio introduced new musical ideas and sounds. Some scholars believe the Iraqi maqām tradition can be traced back to the Abbasids but there is, so far, insufficient primary documentation to support that hypothesis. Other instruments appeared in a new sort of Iraqi instrumental ensemble in the 1920s, including oud and qānūn and with the Western violin replacing the santūr and the jōzā. The Egyptian tabla often replaced the more resonant, deeply pitched Iraqi metal dumbak. The ensemble was called takht al-sharq?, and it performed a lighter, more popular repertoire.

The origin of the Baghdad Conservatory and its emphasis on the oud began with the cellist, oud player, pianist, and composer Sherif Mohieddin Haidar Targan. After studying in Turkey in the early 1920s, he lived and performed in the West from 1924 to 1932. He accepted an invitation from his cousin King Faisal in 1934 to return to Baghdad and create an Institute of Arabian Music in the Abbasid tradition. He founded the Institute of Fine Arts there in 1936, which later gave rise to the Baghdad Conservatory.

Haidar's aesthetic sensibility was of the oud of medieval times, a solo instrument equal to or surpassing any in the Western orchestra. He taught that instrumental music could stand alone in its beauty and effect and not simply provide accompaniment to vocal repertoire. He added a sixth pair of strings to the oud to increase the instrument's expressive capability and liberated his students by allowing them to use all four fingers of the left hand.

Lutenist and violinist Jamil Bashir (1921–1977) was one of Haidar's first students, and certainly the most prominent, ultimately succeeding Haidar as head of the Institute. Jamil's vision and active concertizing was critical to the modern restoration of the oud's high station as a solo instrument in Iraq.

His younger brother, Munir Bashir (1930–1997), also studied at the Institute and went on to become the most renowned oud player of the second half of the twentieth century. Munir Bashir popularized Iraqi and Arabian music in eastern and western Europe. His Iraqi-born students included Salim Abdul Kareem, Khaled Mohammed Ali, and Naseer Shamma. Both Bashir brothers featured the oud within the Iraqi maqām tradition and in other musical styles. Munir Bashir's son, Omar Bashir, currently teaches at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest and gave a solo recital at the Freer Gallery in 2003.
Adapted from notes by D. A. Sonneborn for When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq (Smithsonian Folkways 2006),

Center for Contemporary Arab Studies

The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), the co-sponsor of this concert, is the only academic center in the United States that focuses primarily on the Arab world, the region from Morocco to the Gulf. CCAS was founded in 1975 as an integral part of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, and each year its graduate and undergraduate programs offer more than seventy-five courses in history, international affairs, economics, development, business, culture, and society as well as the Arabic language and the study of Islam. For more information, visit

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