From the moment he took the Lincoln Center stage this past evening, playing material off his new album Letters from Iraq, oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj – one of the world’s most eclectic and riveting musicians – made no secret of the fact that he’d really been looking forward to this gig. He has a wit to match the magic, and gravitas, and vast, global sweep and majesty of his compositions. “Here, I can talk about Trump and not worry that they’re going to take me away,” he joked. More seriously, took care to mention that he was genuinely concerned about his trio getting broken up at the airport by Homeland Security. AlHaj sarcastically calls the group the “Axis of Evil,” since santoor player Sourena Sefati is Iranian and percussionist Issa Malluf is Palestinian. While the trio promote global unity – which is the opposite of terrorism – the concern is that Trump and his minions don’t see it that way. “This administration wants to divide us,” AlHaj warned, but added defiantly that if we all pull together, that will never amount to more than a pipe dream for the extreme right.
The trio followed with a performance that ran the gamut of human emotions: sometimes harrowing, often haunting, but also kinetic and dancing, with a delirious, exhilarating stampede out at the end. They opened on a distantly somber note with an adaptation of a string quartet AlHaj had written for a friend at the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. Soberingly, AlHaj reminded that sanctions against the nation have taken their toll in child mortality, illustrated by the fact that his violinist pal no longer plays: he had to burn his violin one night to provide heat for his critically ill infant. A big, insistent cadenza punctuated the song’s serpentine interweave of notes, Sefati taking a judiciously incisive solo midway through.
By contrast, AlHaj explained that the wryly bouncy Chant was inspired by how his mom would sing to keep the bratty kids around her from getting out of hand. The oudist infused this lilting, practically Celtic minor-key dance with frequent wry bent-note riffage. The trio followed the pensively swaying, chromatically edgy One Voice with a clapalong in 10/8 time, the crowd’s irrepressible energy matching the group onstage, throughout a toweringly moody theme sparkling with intricate harmonies from the santoor and oud.
Sefati opened what was arguably the high point of the night with a suspenseful, Mediterranean-tinged solo taqsim; then the group took it in a far more uneasy, anthemic direction over Malluf’s briskly strolling beats, AlHaj anchoring Sefati’s icepick insistence.
The picturesque Fly Away soared with elegant harmonies from earth to sky from oud and santoor, respectively, a wickedly catchy, interlocking riff at the center. Again, Sefati took centerstage, choosing his spots as AlHaj and Malluf held the melody to the ground. On the number after that, the santoorist had fun with the rapidfire trills that AlHaj had originally written for accordion wizard Guy Klucevsek.
AlHaj explained that he’d written the night’s lone vocal tune when he was 13. That he’d based it on an Iranian maqam as an Iraqi kid during the Iran/Iraq War speaks to his fearlessness. The three musicians closed with a race to the finish line, speeding up again and again over a catchy Kurdish dance vamp. Yet all the energy, and passion, and frequent humorous japes were matched by a somber undercurrent, party music for a city and a world increasingly under siege.
There is another oud performance coming up at Lincoln Center that all New York fans of Middle Eastern music should be aware of. On July 29 at 8 PM, Palestinian brother ensemble Trio Joubran play a tribute to their longtime mentor and collaborator, legendary poet Mahmoud Darwish at the theatre at the Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, 524 W 59th St; $30 seats are available and worth it.