In February 2016, I flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with three Smithsonian Folkways Recordings colleagues—Dan Sheehy, producer; Pete Reiniger, engineer; and Charlie Weber, video producer. Iraqi American musician Rahim AlHaj had rehearsed a first-rate string quintet and percussionist to record Letters from Iraq, for which I would write the liner notes.
The album expresses the love and pain of lives lived by the people of war-torn Iraq. Rahim transposed actual mailed letters and their stories into song, creating eight gripping musical narratives. After dinner, Rahim invited me to his house and played all eight pieces for me on his oud, accompanied by a MIDI track. I was transfixed.
We recorded the strings and percussion all through the next day and into the morning after; only Rahim’s oud was left. He went out on the street to thank the players once again as they returned to their lives. While he was outside, a studio hand accidentally broke the neck of the oud.
This is the precious instrument that, as a daily ritual, Rahim greets good morning, kisses, and plays before others awaken. There was nothing we could do. Rahim’s wail of anguish would have startled the wolves in the mountains, if not for the soundproofing on the studio walls.
Though Rahim had other instruments available to play, he claimed that the broken oud had the most “Iraqi tone,” so we decided to cancel the remaining studio time. I accompanied him to the mountains above Santa Fe, where, as luck would have it, an incredibly talented Eastern instrument repairman named Alan Suits resides.
Our car held the road through five inches of new snow, and the oud was fixed, but we were unable to finish the sessions. Instead, we were forced to wait two months until Rahim could fly out to Washington, D.C., to complete the album.
This video is from our first day together, from before the oud broke. It examines the meaning behind Rahim’s composition “Running Boy,” drawing from a letter written by Rahim’s nephew Fuad. The most difficult pieces—and the tragedy of the oud—were still to come.
Daniel A. Sonneborn is the associate director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.