Babylon & Beyond

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IRAQ: An "oud" to better times

January 25, 2008 | 12:47 pm

Exiled Iraqi musician Rahim Al Haj has his share of fans back in the home country all cheering along his nomination for a Grammy at next month’s awards ceremony, but there is good bit of angst among musicians left behind. Due to travel restrictions, the central government’s deteriorating support for the arts and general mayhem, most can only dream of reaching any audience, much less a global one.

Al Haj’s album, “When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq," is competing for the Best Traditional World Music Album prize. The album is a gorgeous rendering inspired by the artist’s immigration to New Mexico and is performed on the oud —the pear shaped, string instrument. Pronounced “ooood,” it is the nation’s most treasured instrument and has existed in one form or another in the Middle East for more than 5,000 years.

When Salman Shukur, Iraq's last traditional master of the oud died recently, no mention was paid by the country’s culture ministry, a fact recalled bitterly by Sami Nasim, the leader of the most famous remaining group of oud players in Iraq, the Munir Basher Group.

“Even in Saddam’s time, we got more support and attention,” he said.

Garrett Therolf in Baghdad

Video: Expat Iraqi musician Rahim Al-Haj plays the oud, a traditional Middle Eastern instrument, for a Smithsonian recording.

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