Ambient Music

Letters From Iraq, Hawkes Bay NZ, 2022

Rahim Alhaj and the New Zealand String Quartet: Letters From Iraq

19th October 2022
Blyth Performing Arts Centre, Havelock North, New Zealand.

Review by Rob Harbers. Feature photograph supplied.

One of the great virtues of an Arts Festival is the way it brings together a truly diverse program of performances, across a wide spectrum of genres, from a multiplicity of origins. This diversity was amply displayed in this performance, in which master oud player and composer Rahim Alhaj teamed up with the New Zealand String Quartet to present excerpts from his 2017 album “Letters From Iraq”.

The evening commenced with the NZSQ playing Samuel Barber’s “String Quartet Op 11”, which nicely set the tone for the pieces to follow, sharing a common theme of heartache in the face of war and division, while still maintaining an undergirding of hope for a better future. It was also a great way to introduce the Quartet themselves, and witness the complex interplay of the musicians, as they so beautifully gave expression to the music.

With their departure from the stage came the appearance of the man of the evening, playing a solo piece that demonstrated the range and power of the instrument, serving as an introduction for those in the audience who were unfamiliar with it. Thankfully, enough of the audience were familiar to avoid the need for explanation, as Rahim told the story of having charged Barack Obama a fee to explain its history (at the same event at which he was granted the USA’s highest award for traditional arts, including a substantial cash component!) and suggested his fee would need to be higher if he needed to provide any explanations.

After a short interval, Rahim and the Quartet, augmented by double bass and percussion, returned to the stage to present the “Letters” section-a series of pieces telling stories of the tragedies arising from Iraq’s difficult past, facing oppression both external, in the form of sanctions, and internal, in the form of sectarianism dividing the factions and leading to more violence and death.

A theme that came up more than once was that of carbombing, and it’s effects beyond the immediately obvious ones of death, injury and destruction. One of the tales told of the heartbreak felt by a teenage boy whose home was destroyed by a carbomb while he was away setting his homing pigeons off. This held within it a double tragedy for him, as not only would it deprive his pigeons of somewhere to head for, but it was on the roof of his house where he was able to clandestinely meet up with the girl from next door – her under the cover of putting out the laundry, him having the pigeons as a reason for going up there. The music expressed these multiple losses, with soaring strings echoing the birds’ having to stay in the air, and the oud reflecting the melancholy of the loss of a meeting place.

Other pieces told of the difficulty of relationships that crossed the sectarian divide, and seeking a way to get past the seemingly unending need of humanity to factionalise and separate, instead seeking to recognise the need for love and compassion in all things. Rahim spoke of how he has, since starting on his journey at an early age, dedicated his art to the women and children – the ones who are often forgotten when the men play their games of death and destruction!

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, with the indomitable nature of hope shining through, expressed most tangibly in the exuberant “Fly Home”, a piece in which the musicians were given space to have fun while they were playing – the closest thing to an extended bliss-out jam that you’ll see in such settings! This told of the joy of looking forward to returning home to the familiar after a period of enforced separation – reuniting with old friends, getting back to the known quantities and the security and familiarity they offer.

But the overarching quality of the evening was beauty – beautifully expressive music played by an impassioned set of hugely accomplished musicians (within the Quartet alone are three holders of the New Zealand Order of Merit!) delivered to a hugely appreciative audience, who paid tribute to the players with a standing ovation. And such experiences are what festivals are made of, and for – may we have many more over the remaining nights!

Were you there at the Blyth Performing Arts Centre for this Hawkes Bay Arts Festival gig? Or have you seen Rahim Alhaj perform live somewhere else before? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Note: Ambient Light was provided a pass to review this concert. As always, this has not influenced the review in any way and the opinions expressed are those of Ambient Light’s only. 

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