The Lebanese-born oud player and composer (now a European of long standing) talks to TGD about his new CD "Hungry People" out on Harmonia Mundi. On the way he touches on Arab and Western musical styles and his musical influences from Thelonious Monk to the Mighty Sparrow.
I wanted to ask you what you are working on at the moment?
We have a new CD coming out, it is called “Hungry People”. I have moved to a new record company called Harmonia Mundi. This is a studio album and very different from my last CD. I’m still playing with my band:, Gavino Murgia, Luciano Biondini, Michel Godard and Jarrod Cagwin. We’ve been playing together for nearly 16 years now. We know each other very well so, as you will hear, the band is very tight indeed. It is an intense album. This is completely different from “Trouble in Jerusalem” the last CD which was a very different kind of project.
Can we talk about “Trouble in Jerusalem”?
This was quite an amazing project. It was based on a classic 19th century German novel called “Nathan the Wise”. It’s all about tolerance and is set in Jerusalem in the Middle Ages in a period when Jews, Christians and Moslems lived in agreement with one another, rather unlike today! The movie is quite remarkable, and German television and Arte TV asked me to write the music for it. To be honest when I agreed to do it I didn’t realise it would be two hours long! Maybe half-an-hour I thought – so I had to sit down and compose music for a symphony orchestra for a two-hour film. I enjoyed the experience though, I had a lot of fun doing it. It was new for me to write for a specific context and length, having to compose melodies that would end with one scene and not spill over into the next and not where I wanted them to end. It took quite a lot of work.
Tell me a bit about your early life. You grew up in Lebanon?
Yes, I grew up in Lebanon. My mother said I was about 17 when I started complaining and talking about leaving. So I went to Germany for the simple reason that I had a friend from Lebanon who was already there, so I moved there really so as not to be alone. I finished my schooling in Germany and got my High School certificate, and I studied music.
You also played the flute at that point is that right?
I started playing the oud in Lebanon and later studied the flute. I think that studying classical music gave me an understanding not just of Western music, but of how music itself has developed over the centuries. Western music has been categorised and catalogued, divided into eras and styles. The awareness of what has been done in the past makes artists in the West wary of repeating what has been done before. The concept of “sticking to tradition” in art is non-existent. Composers search for their own language of expression, always avoiding becoming copyists of a past era. It would be ridiculous to ask a Western composer to write like Beethoven! However, different criteria get applied when talking about non-Western music. The term “traditional” does not really mean much, as what is called traditional today was very revolutionary yesterday. Take the big innovators in Arabic music, Sayyed Darwish, Mohammad Abdul Wahab, Riad el Sonbati, Oum Kalsoum. If they had restricted themselves to merely “guarding” traditional music, they would never have had the chance to become great musicians. If art does not evolve, it is destined to die.
Are you from a musical family? Who introduced you to the oud?
For as long as I can remember I have wanted to play music. I never wanted to be a policeman or a bus driver, those phases that kids go through, I just wanted to be a musician. My parents gave me an oud. My father was a poet, which is even tougher than being a musician, so I think that is probably where the talent comes from. I think creative work, be it painting or music, is all about the same thing: emotional expression using different means.
When did you start composing?
Ever since I picked up my first instrument. I have never really done anything else. I recently found some scores back in Lebanon that my mother had kept since my childhood. They were from before I learned how to write music; really just diagrams of where to put my fingers on the fretboard so that I did not forget the melody.
Who were your original musical influences, the great oud masters, Munir Bashir and Farid Al Atrache?
Thelonious Monk! Really! The thing is that I don’t think in terms of instruments. I think a musician should be able to transcend his instrument – at the end of the day, an instrument is just that, an instrument. My oud is part of my hands, it is part of me, I don’t really feel any distance from it. The first thing I do when I wake up is pick up my oud and I put it aside last thing at night. It is an integral part of my thinking. Living in Lebanon, you hear Arab music everywhere, that goes without saying, but my father had a short-wave radio. He used to listen to music from all over the world and I was completely fascinated. I would spend hours just listening to that radio. I was amazed at the richness of variety and expression. Music is something so universal but at the same time completely unique. Every culture has its own and it arouses the same emotions in people whether it be Arab or Japanese or whatever. They just use different instruments and play different kinds of music. Back in those days, like everybody else we listened to pop music. That was what was happening back then. One time I went into a record shop but I didn’t have much money. I saw they had a special offer on for a Thelonious Monk album, so I bought it because I liked the name. I bought a Frank Zappa record for the same reason. Those were my first two albums. Of course I do listen to the great oud players, Munir Bashir, Riad el Sonbati, Abdul Wahab, but I listen more to singers than instrumentalists. What I like about them is that they are perfect examples of perfect phrasing since they have to breathe. But I am not so much interested in the oud on just a technical level. It is, after all, just an instrument. Of course I practice all the time, but not so I can be as fast as possible, but to be able to do so if the need arises. It is not about being an acrobat on stage. The more things I can play on the oud, the more I can express.
Are there national styles – can you tell the difference between an Algerian and a Syrian oud player? Is it a trans-national instrument?
Generally I can tell the difference, again every country has its variations. The Arab world is vast but you can tell a North African or Mediterranean style, just as you can detect an African influence when more importance is given to the rhythm, whereas the Mediterranean style is more about the melody. This is just a generalisation, of course.
There is a strong element of humour in your titles a bit Zappa-esque, are you making sure people do not take you too seriously?
It is not about seriousness. Music is all about enjoyment and that comes easiest when you laugh and not when you take things too seriously. I know that the music I write is technically quite complex, I work a lot with rhythm changes, I make sure that I can go wherever I want with the music. I have never seen music as being a stylistic expression as much as an expression of emotion. I never cared much about putting a label on what I was doing – was it jazz? Was it rock? I realised that I was playing music that was particular to me. Everyone is very concerned about what sort of music it is, or what style it is. This does not worry me.
It looks like you make a point of putting together instruments and styles that nobody could believe would fit together.
This is just my point, I don’t pick styles or particular instruments. I never say to myself, I need a tuba for this part, it seems idiotic to me. I am looking for musical personalities that can work well together. We all have friends that we like very much but when we put them together it does not work out, it is the same with a band. It is not about the instrument but about the people who I can play with. When people say that my music lends itself to a certain instrument, they miss the point. The music works because of the interaction between the personalities of the musicians, not the instruments or musical styles. If I organise a party I don’t invite people according to their weight or height, I want them to get on together as people. My band is an incredible combination of people who just intuitively understand each other even though they are from different countries. I have been very lucky on that score but I have always tried to put musicians together who might work well as a unit. Sometimes the strangest combinations can work really well. Even by my second album I was thinking more globally and thinking of which musicians might work best rather than just choosing them because they happen to live close by.
How do you reconcile the differences between Western music and Arab music, with the differences related to the number of chord changes and improvisation techniques? How do you combine the two traditions?
When you try and “combine” something it means you have sat down and tried to figure out a way to solve a problem. This is not the way I work. I start by letting anything come into my mind. The biggest difference between Western and Arab music is that Arab music has no chords, if there are two instruments playing then you know they are playing the same note. But it does not mean that they are necessarily playing it at the same time. Western music has developed much more in terms of chord harmonies and chord changes where Arab music is more developed in terms of rhythm. Western music tends to stick to traditionally known rhythms and timing. In a traditional Arab musical environment a 4:4 bar would not mean anything. It is the rhythmical subdivision that counts. The melody in Arab music is much more connected to the rhythm. What I do that is so different from both traditions is that I use rhythm changes and odd time signatures to create tension and release. I am looking for the interplay between tension and release. I do not do this intentionally but it turns out that I do this quite frequently. When I started composing and writing notes I had the hardest time trying to figure out what I and the band were supposed to be playing!
A couple of CDs ago, you released Em Portugues with a guest singer Ricardo Ribeiro. This was an interesting incursion into Portuguese fado music, how did that happen?
This is really the most surreal thing I have ever done. I was asked if I could put my music to Portuguese poetry and I don’t speak Portuguese! It was like asking an Afghan who speaks no English to put music to Shakespeare. And it was difficult to find a singer who would do it. I went to Lisbon and listened to a lot of fado singers – there is such a huge music scene there – and the one that impressed me the most was the one who was most in tune with the musicians and not just treating them as a background. This is something that is so important in my band. They listen to each other while they are playing and interact together rather than just waiting for their solos. The key is to play in such a way as to make others sound better. If everyone follows that rule you end up with an incredible band. So I spoke to Ricardo Ribeiro and I was amazed how quickly he got into the project. Initially I tried to keep my writing simple but that went out the window as soon as I met Ricardo. He was incredible. I stopped wondering whether he would be able to do this or that. It was quite clear he could!
What are you listening to for your own pleasure?
You would be surprised! Calypso music. The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener who were around in the 40s and 50s. When jazz came along it gave them a big boost as it had been quite a local music up until then. Then Harry Belafonte came on to the scene, and he started singing other people’s Calypso songs and their music hit the world.
Do you receive criticism from purists of Arabian music who don’t like you diluting it with Western music?
Yes, quite a lot but I don’t really care because they are right! I let myself be influenced by anything I hear. I don’t play like they do but why should I? As I mentioned before if music does not develop and change it becomes a museum piece. But that is what is happening in the Arab world: you either have traditional music or you have pop music, nobody is bothering to develop the music that had reached a very high level. In the 60s and 70s there was some incredible innovation going on in Arab music. But it never really developed further as everyone became concerned with just preserving the excellent music from the past.
You have commented in the past about Third World musicians being encouraged and pushed towards emulating First World music which tends to lead to bad copies.
The thing is, if you work with other musicians from different countries, you really have to know something about their musical tradition. When I said this I was probably referring to World Music where jazz musicians go to Africa and jam with African musicians. It’s all great fun but I am more concerned about the architectural concept, for lack of a better word. I prefer to play with musicians who can find their own culture and express their own music within my compositions. It does not end up being a fusion of the two, it remains my music, but I give each musician enough space to be themselves. This is something that has been lost in a lot of improvised music. Improvisations should emerge from the composition and then return to it after the solo, but remain within the subject of the music. Nowadays, with a lot of jazz and improvised music, as soon as the musicians have finished with the melody they just want to blow! And you lose track of what the music was all about. All of the sudden there is something completely new. Why did they bother playing the melody line at the beginning if they immediately ignore it? You can take the improvisation anywhere you want but you have to bring it back.
So are you beginning a tour to promote the new CD?
We start next month. We are off to Paris!