Anouar Brahem: Innovative Weaver of Musical Heritages

Eyal Hareuveni By

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Twenty years ago a lot of people were saying that the era of the oud, as a leading instrument, was over, and now there is a new generation of oud players who write new compositions for the oud.
Anouar BrahemTunisian oud player Anouar Brahem's eighth solo release, Voyage de Sahar (ECM, 2006), is another testimony to the magnificent way that he manages to weave influences and references from the rich and beautiful heritage of Arabic world with elements of Andalusian music and modern jazz, and to the innovative way in which Brahem suggests the oud as a leading instrument in Western and Arabic music. For the first time in his 15-year relationship with the prestigious German ECM label, Brahem recorded with the same musicians who recorded his last release for label, Le Pas du Chat Noir (ECM, 2002)—French pianist Francois Couturier and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier. Brahem was interviewed by phone from his home in Tunisia.

All About Jazz: Can you speak about the composition process? Are you writing for special musicians?

Anouar Brahem: I don't have an idea who the musicians will be. It is a long and slow process and I am changing my mind almost every day. Sometimes ideas need a long time, even ten years, but sometimes deadlines are a positive thing, otherwise you will keep playing with these ideas forever. Sometimes you have to put an end to it, but usually I like to work with no pressure and no deadline. You know, when I was young I wanted to be a musician who interpreted the great composers. I was not thinking about writing new compositions. Only later I began to compose, and when you are composing you want to create something new, different, that reflects you.

AAJ: Can you take Voyage de Sahar as an example and explain how it was composed?

AB: Voyage de Sahar is the first project that I am doing with exactly the same musicians from my last project, Le Pas du Chat Noir, which was composed mostly on my piano. It is funny, because when we finished recording Le Pas du Chat Noir I did not think that I would tour with this music. But we toured and I felt really comfortable with this music, artistically and musically, and we performed quite a lot of concerts, and now I am happy with it, especially because I did not planned it.

AAJ: For the first time you revisited some of your earlier compositions from Astrakan Café (ECM, 2000) and Khomsa (ECM, 1995)?

AB: These were compositions that Manfred Eicher liked, and suggested that we will re-record them. We played these compositions in our concerts and than recorded them. "Halfaouine," for example, is one of my oldest compositions. It was originally was written for a film as a song with vocals, and only later I recorded an instrumental version for Astrakan Café. The compositions from Khomsa are arrangements of my older compositions for soundtracks. I prefer to take themes from my compositions for soundtracks and rearrange them differently, because in the soundtrack they ask for a certain context, and this is the reason why I am not releasing recordings of my original soundtracks.

AAJ: Is Voyage de Sahar is an imaginary voyage?

AB:I did the titles only after finishing the recording. When I write, I do not think about players or instruments or traditional scales, but only abstract ideas. I want my compositions to be free from any conceptions. Only when I finish composing, sometimes after two or three years, am I thinking about the musicians who will play with me. Voyage de Sahar is an imaginary voyage, and Sahar is a name of a woman. I wanted to relate to an imaginary name, such as Ziryab, because I speak about him a lot. Ziryab left Baghdad many centuries before and went to Andalusia to create a new Arabic music. No one knows Ziryab compositions, but there are many stories about him, and of course he is an influential figure.

[Ziryab, a ninth-century Iraqi oud virtuoso, who is believed to have memorized 10,000 songs, was chased from Baghdad by his jealous mentor, Ishak El Masouli, and fled in 822 to Cordoba where he introduced Moorish Spain to the oud and laid the foundations of Andalusian music. Ziryab's influence is still be heard today in the work of Spanish flamenco guitarists.]

Anouar Brahem

AAJ: Can you explain your relation to Andalusian music and culture, which is very clear from titles on Voyage de Sahar such as "Cordoba," "Eté Andalous" and, of course, "Les Jardins de Ziryab"?

AB: The connection of the Moorish culture and the Andalusian culture influenced the music in Tunisia, Algiers and Morocco. When people talk about the connection of Arabic music to flamenco I'm always surprised because this is apparent, absolutely, in the Arabic music. It is so close to our music and our culture, and, of course, I feel very close to flamenco music.

AAJ: Did you ever wanted to play with flamenco guitarists such as Paco de Lucia?

AB: Why not, why not? I played with a flamenco guitarist 15 years ago. I'm a big fan of Paco de Lucia, and his way of playing. When I was young, thinking of playing with Paco de Lucia was something of treat for me, and maybe, one day, we will do it. I'll be very happy.

AAJ: Can you speak about the role of Manfred Eicher in your music?

AB: He is very important. Without him, I may have written my music in the same way but differently. He is very much involved and we are always in contact, and he sees a lot of my concerts. He has a fine capacity in the recording room.

AAJ: Did Manfred Eicher suggested the Thimar project, with [saxophonist/clarinetist] John Surman and [bassist] Dave Holland, or the Madar project with [saxophonist] Jan Garbarek?

AB: I knew Surman's music for some time, but I did not know Dave Holland very well. So when I began to prepare for my next project and listened to Dave Holland I knew that he would fit the project. Manfred made it possible. I met Dave Holland last year and I hope that we will find the right schedule for a second project. Jan Garbarek heard my first record, >Barzakh (ECM, 1991), and told Manfred that he would like to play with me, and Manfred, who knew that I love the music of Garbarek, arranged this project.

AAJ: Can you explain the renaissance of the oud in the European music with musicians like Dhafer Youssef and Rabih Abou-Khalil?

AB: I have noticed that. When I was a child I was seeing the oud on TV but could not hear it, among all the instruments. The oud player was accompanying the singer, never leading the music. And you know, 20 years ago a lot of people were saying that the era of the oud, as a leading instrument, was over, and now there is a new generation of oud players who write new compositions for the oud. When I went to Paris 20 years ago there were not any oud players there. I really don't know the reason. It's difficult to explain. Maybe it has to do with the medieval lute. These two instruments are very close.

AAJ: A few years ago you said that your music is much more popular in Europe than in the Arab world. Has the situation changed by now?

Anouar BrahemAB: You know, 20 years or 25 years ago, when I wanted to play my music and my compositions for the oud, it was considered very bizarre. But today there are more and more audiences for my music, most of them are in Europe, but also in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. In Tunisia, where I have the biggest audience and I am much more known, there was an audience for my music from the very beginning. But it depends in other Arab countries because music there is very expensive, and the music festivals are organized by the governments, whose officials usually like pop music, and there are less regular cultural activities—but it is growing little by little.

AAJ: Can you say what your next project will be?

AB: Difficult question. I finished recording Voyage de Sahar more than a year ago, last February. I began to compose and I have lots of new material for more than one disc, but I still do not know what my next project will be or who will be the musicians. I have to find the right context or combination. I change my mind every day.

Selected Discography

Anouar Brahem, Le Voyage de Sahar (ECM, 2006)
Anouar Brahem, Vague (ECM, 2003)
Anouar Brahem, Le Pas du Chat Noir (ECM, 2002)
Orchestre National de Jazz, Charmediterranéen (ECM, 2002)
Anouar Brahem Trio, Astrakan Café (ECM, 2000)
Anouar Brahem/John Surman/Dave Holland, Thimar (ECM, 1998)
Anouar Brahem, Khomsa (ECM ,1995)
Jan Garbarek, Madar (ECM, 1994)
Anouar Brahem, Conte de l'incroyable amour (ECM,1992)
Anouar Brahem, Barzakh (ECM, 1991)

Photo Credits:
Top and Bottom Photos: Moncef FEHRI
Center Photo: CF Wesenberg

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