Arts & Culture

Common Fence Music presents Rahim Alhaj in concert

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — Common Fence Music will present a live performance of Iraqi oud music by award-winning musician and composer Rahim Alhaj on Saturday, November 18, 2017, 8 p.m. Doors will open at 7 p.m. The concert will take place at Common Fence Point Hall, 933 Anthony Road, Portsmouth, RI. Tickets to the show are $25 in advance, $28 at the door. Tickets and information may be obtained at, or at by searching Common Fence Music. Tickets will also be available for purchase at the door.

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, virtuoso oud player and composer Rahim AlHaj deftly combines traditional Iraqi maqams – highly structured and semi-improvised songs of a centuries-old Iraqi urban classical music tradition – with contemporary stylings and influences. He has found in his ancient instrument, a lute whose written history spans some 5,000 years, a unique voice that speaks passionately to contemporary listeners of every musical background. AlHaj seeks to translate into music the suffering, joy, anxiety, and determination that he has experienced and witnessed in his lifelong struggle against injustice – as an Iraqi, a refugee, and today as an American citizen. Communicating with a compelling immediacy that bypasses cultural obstacles, his music speaks irresistibly to the heart in a universal language of compassion. Performing in a trio, he will be accompanied throughout the concert by percussion and santour (Iraqi hammered dulcimer).

Hearing AlHaj’s story is like listening to the plotline of a film. Raised in Baghdad, he fell in love with the oud in only second-grade, and, despite his father’s misgivings, began to devote his life to music with the support of his mother. By the age of thirteen, he was already making a name for himself in Baghdad as both a musician and composer and after high school was selected out of 2,000 applicants to receive one of five available positions as a student at the Institute of Music in Baghdad. There, he studied oud under Munir Bashir (argued by many to be the greatest oud player of all time), as well as Western and Arabic music and composition.

At the same time, his awareness of injustice in Iraqi society under the repressive Ba’athist regime – which, led by Saddam Hussein, had embroiled the country in a devastating war of attrition with Iran – was deepening. He soon became active in the underground revolutionary movement, even composing an anthem that gave voice to ordinary people’s dissatisfaction with the regime and was sung with seditious relish across the country. His activities soon attracted the attention of the government, and he was imprisoned twice, in 1986 and 1988, incarcerated for a total of two years during which he was tortured in an unsuccessful attempt to extract information about the movement.

After being released from prison for the second time, AlHaj finally received a degree in composition from the Institute in 1990, with many honors. He was then invited by Bashir, an extremely influential cultural figure who recognized his student’s talents, to tour and perform with him internationally. Typically, such travel required membership in the Ba’ath party, which AlHaj refused to join. Nevertheless, Bashir’s influence prevailed, and AlHaj credits their work together as an important factor in the development of his confidence and skill as a performer, and his personal style on the oud.

By 1991, growing pressure from the regime in the midst of the Gulf War forced AlHaj to flee Iraq in fear for his life. Using false papers procured with the help of his mother, who raised the extravagant funds required by selling her possessions, he escaped to Jordan. However, in what he calls the saddest moment of his life, his instrument was confiscated at the border.

From Jordan, where he lived for 18 months supporting himself as a music teacher, he moved to Syria to evade Iraqi threats. There, he met his wife Nada, and made a comfortable life as a composer and musician, performing throughout the country and Europe. However, after eight years, with relations between Syria and Iraq improving, AlHaj once again found himself at risk.

In 2000, speaking no English, he relocated to the United States as a political refugee, starting a new chapter of his life in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he still lives. After unsuccessful attempts at employment as a dishwasher and night watchman, and determined to focus on his music, AlHaj rented a hall on the campus of the University of New Mexico for a solo performance. The concert ignited an overwhelming response, and he was soon finding receptive audiences across the United States and internationally, playing to full houses in some of the world’s most prestigious halls. 

Since moving to the United States, AlHaj has released several recordings that have earned him high praise, including 2008 and 2010 Grammy nominations for Best Traditional World Music Album. His compositions embrace a broad spectrum of musical genres, routinely and seamlessly marrying Eastern and Western traditions. In addition to solo recordings and performances, he works with a variety of musical companions, from jazz artists (Bill Frisell) and classical Indian maestros (Amjad Ali Khan) to rock groups (REM) and string quartets (Kronos Quartet). In December of 2009, AlHaj was awarded a US Ford Fellowship grant, and in 2015, an NEA National Heritage Fellowship.

In 2008, AlHaj became a citizen of the United States and immediately filled out a voter registration card. In November 2008, for the first time in his life, he cast his vote – in the US general election – an act that filled him with an almost giddy satisfaction and pride. Today, AlHaj continues to compose, perform and speak about his experiences as an artist, a refugee and an immigrant. His constant efforts to promote peaceful understanding between Iraq and the United States and to speak on behalf of the oppressed have earned him the recognition of politicians, religious leaders, and activists worldwide. 

The Common Fence Point Hall is located at 933 Anthony Road, Portsmouth, RI. Per tradition, all shows at CFM’s Portsmouth venue are BYOB & Picnic. Concert-goers are invited to bring food and beverages to enjoy the performances. Seasonal soups, homemade refreshments, and soft drinks will also be available for purchase. The hall is fully accessible. Ticket prices vary. For more information about Common Fence Music, please visit, or call (401)683-5085. 


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