Born in Baghdad, and emigrating to America after the tragedies of the Gulf War, Rahim AlHaj one of the greatest oud players in the world. Karim Wasfi also has a powerful connection to Baghdad, making international headlines in 2015 when he played his cello by the sites of suicide bombings in the city.
The pair of classical masters both hail from the Iraqi capital, and both have crafted their deeply moving stories into their music. However, as they recently told us, the two have never performed together. That is about to change though, as both Rahim and Karim will take to the stage together at MONA’s MOFO festival in January.
MOFO is the powerfully provocative annual Festival Of Music and Art held by Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Entering its tenth and final year at MONA, the festival has built a reputation for showcasing an extremely diverse range of international artists across an equally diverse range of art forms. Nothing lies out of the scope of what MOFO will feature.
We asked the two masters a few questions about each of their powerful stories, and what we can expect from their first performance together in Hobart.
You are two of the most well respected Iraqi musicians in the world. Have you collaborated before? What brought about this tour of Australia?
R: “Karim and I have never collaborated before, but we have been aware of each other and have known one another for some time now. When we came together we based our collaboration on the theme that even with all the troubles in the world and in our homeland, Still There Is Hope!
“This has been central both to Karim’s work, and my own – not only as musicians but as human beings. We felt this union would create a strong musical message to help give voice to those who are most often silenced: women, children, those without means.
“The music we will be presenting is really about those lost voices and is also a musical allegory of an East-West conversation that is based on respect and peace, not fear and war. Our dates in Australia are the world premiere of our project! It was the forward-thinking folks at the Sydney Festival and MONA MOFO that understood what we are attempting to present and enabled us to tour here. Shukran (thank you), by the way!”
Karim, in 2015 you performed your hauntingly beautiful song Baghdad Mourning Melancholy at bomb sites in Baghdad. What inspired you to play at those sites and are you doing similar performances today?
K: “Since 2007 I have been proactively utilizing the power of music and cultural integration towards refinement. In 2015, after again witnessing acts of terror, I adopted transcendence beyond intimidation, to create equilibrium and help societal connectivity to overcome radicalization.
“It is a preventative approach through the power of sound and the voice of civility. I believe civility and refinement should be the lifestyle that people are presented and consuming. I think the arts in general, and music in particular, are powerful ways to convey such a message.
“My performances were a protest against violence by creating beauty in the wake of carnage. All of my performances continue to be about that message and to inspire. That is my obligation. To inspire and share hope. To empower people and help us all persevere and stand strong in the face of terror and insanity.”
— Ali Ajeena (@AliAjeena) April 28, 2015
Rahim, your expertise with the oud is world renowned. What is it about the ancient instrument that speaks to you?
R: “It is mystical, really. I began playing the oud when I was 8 years old. My teacher came to class with the instrument and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It spoke to me right then and there. I got up the courage to ask him if I could touch it and he handed it to me.
“I played some notes and he asked if I wanted to take it home for the evening. I came back the next day playing melodies and he was so astounded at my affinity with it that he gave me the oud! It became my life, I would kiss it goodnight, I even slept with it. It drove my father crazy!”
Your upcoming performance has promised to unite traditional and contemporary classical music from the East and West, can you talk us through the process of achieving such an impressive task?
R: “Both Karim and I are composers. We are very well versed in traditional Iraqi music, Iraqi maqams and Arabic classical styles. We are also both very adept at and trained in western classical music.
“In addition to oud I play the violin, and Karim was, of course, the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. We decided to create music that while based on original contemporary classical compositions would utilise the age-old tradition in Iraq of improvisation, and weave traditional maqams into the pieces.
“My latest work Letters From Iraq, which is performed with oud, percussion and string quintet is very much along these lines as well. Again, it is about the conversation and giving voice.”