Rahim AlHaj & Sahba Motallebi Credit: Douglas Kent Hall (left); Jack Vartoogian (right)

During the Iran-Iraq war, Baghdad-born oud master Rahim AlHaj was imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s government for his political activism. He fled to Jordan and eventually found refuge in the U.S., settling in Albuquerque in 2000, and there he’s continued to preserve and develop the music of the oud—the pear-shaped, double-coursed string instrument at the heart of the roughly 5,000-year-old Arabic musical tradition. AlHaj became a U.S. citizen in 2008, and in 2015 he was awarded the prestigious NEA National Heritage Fellowship. Around the time AlHaj was acclimating to New Mexico, Iranian musician Sahba Motallebi was putting down roots in the Los Angeles area after traveling as a member of the Iranian National Orchestra. Motallebi is one of the world’s finest players of the tar and setar, the long-necked figure-eight-bodied lutes central to Persian classical music, and she works to uphold its traditions and incorporate them into contemporary folk and world-music contexts. AlHaj and Motallebi met in 2018 through a project by pianist Arturo O’Farrill that brought an international group of musicians to the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego—including several players from the seven countries targeted by Trump’s 2017 anti-Muslim travel ban—in order to record the album Fandango at the Wall (Resilience) in protest of unjust U.S. immigration policies. The two virtuosos became friends, and a few months ago they launched a series of duo performances that draw from the related but distinct musical traditions of their lands. Both are founded on the maqam, a complex, intricate system of scales that includes melodic phrases and techniques of ornamentation. AlHaj and Motallebi will play individually before joining forces on traditional tunes from Iran and Iraq as well each as other’s compositions—including one that AlHaj wrote at age 13 to protest the Iran-Iraq war. They’re not interested in developing a fusion but rather seek to explore the kinship of their musical DNA. Most important, their concerts are about “activating the notes,” as AlHaj puts it, with the power to bring people from previously warring countries together. “How beautiful is that?” he asks. “To show that animosity and separation are not the key to living in harmony on this planet.”   v