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Makram Aboul Hosn: The Spirit Lives

Photo credit: Lara Nohra

Ian Patterson By

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During the time of Corona, especially in Lebanon, everything felt so disorganized. Everything felt like it was falling apart... That was my perspective on arranging—to try to bring order to my world at this time, just to counterbalance the disorder outside.
—Makram Aboul Hosn, bassist, composer
Music does not have the power to right the wrongs of the world, but when it works its magic, it can soothe troubled souls and uplift battered spirits like few other things. Lebanese bassist/composer Makram Aboul Hosn's second album, Transmigration (Self Produced, 2021) is proof of that.

It is a fine album, steeped in swing as well as more contemporary hues, and brings together some of Beirut's best jazz musicians. For many reasons, the odds were stacked against Aboul Hosn, but Transmigration is a story of resilience, faith and triumph.

It is the dream of many Lebanese jazz musicians to record in Europe or America with top musicians. For Aboul Hosn, who had previously studied in both Europe and America, that opportunity presented itself at the end of 2019, when he was awarded a grant from the Arab Fund For Arts and Culture. With the music written, Berlin beckoned for the thirty-four-year-old musician. That was before COVID-19 rewired the planet's circuits.

The pandemic was the last thing Lebanon needed, heaping yet more misery on a country reeling from deeply rooted political instability, corruption and dire economic hardship. Like many of his compatriots, Aboul Hosn had been down in Martyrs Square to join the anti-government protests held nightly since the October Revolution. The pandemic put the brakes on the mass gatherings and, inevitably, squashed his plans to record in Europe.

Yet every cloud, as Aboul Hosn discovered, has a silver lining.

Before And After

"Before COVID I was leading such a hectic life doing gigs all over the place and the whole situation in the country was going down and we were protesting every night—I didn't have a sense of who I am. Being forced to stay at home made me finally have to confront that, well not confront it, but look at it. So, it ended up being a much more personal album than originally planned."

Aboul Hosn refused to wallow in self-pity about the lost European adventure, nor does he harbor regrets. "Had I recorded before COVID, with what I had in mind originally, I don't think I would have meditated on my work so much and tried to develop it more and more and more."

The music, in the end, took a completely different direction to that originally planned for the aborted European recording session.

"The album was going to take on a much more improvisational direction, really letting loose and not focusing so much on arrangements. It was going to be a completely live session for bass, piano, drums and just two saxophones. During the time of Corona, especially in Lebanon, everything felt so disorganized. Everything felt like it was falling apart. Already we were feeling that because of the protests. That was my perspective on arranging—to try to bring order to my world at this time, just to counterbalance the disorder outside.

"Man, I don't really want to say this, but I am glad the way things turned out, because I think it turned out to be a much more mature idea in my own head."

The Musicians

The nine compositions, eight originals and a beguiling arrangement of Frank Churchill/ Larry Morey's "Some Day My Prince Will Come," draw from swing, blues, post-bop and African rhythms. The core quintet plays with the verve of a little big band, with the multiple horns of saxophonists Tom Hornig and Nidal Abou Samra to the fore. Several guest musicians, including vibraphonist Joe Locke, make key contributions.

The spirits of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus are present in the music, influences that Aboul Hosn readily acknowledges. "A lot of things I'm not conscious of, but the fact is that these two I listen to a lot. And I admire them as individuals—even though Mingus had a temperament, which I would never want to have. But they are heroes for me so definitely some influence is going to come out here and there."

Remarkably, given the rich layering of the horns, Transmigration marks the first time that Aboul Hosn has written arrangements for multiple instruments.

"For a very long time I only played with bass, saxophones and drums, which was Tom and Nidal, and Christopher Michael on drums. We were doing a lot of live gigs and I was arranging standards in a way that I could really bring out the harmony, without any chordal instruments. So, I was writing arrangements for three voices, mostly—alto saxophone, tenor, and sometimes I would give myself a baritone part to play with the bow."

Aboul Hosn was teaching rhythm section dynamics at Beirut's Notre Dame University when he was offered to teach an arranging course for big bands. "I thought, 'I don't know how to do that.' They said, 'Well, study it and then teach it.'"

Thrown in at the deep end, it was sink or swim. Aboul Hosn bought some books on writing for horns and big-bands and soon found himself deeply immersed. "I loved it. That's the great thing about teaching, I think it ends up teaching the teacher more than the student."

His new perspective on arranging fed quite naturally into his writing for the album. "I thought, 'Well, I have experience writing for two saxophones, why not make the whole album for five saxophones now that I know how to do it?'"

On Transmigration Tom Hornig plays alto and soprano saxophones and flute, while Nidal Abou Samra handles five horns, including baritone and tenor saxophones. Together, they weave some glorious lines. Hornig, a thirty-year veteran of Beirut's music scene, has been an important mentor for Aboul Hosn.

"Man, Tom has accompanied my journey, my career. From the second I picked up the bass he was in my face. I was playing gigs with him when I could barely play the bass, really, just three months in. But the guy was so patient and encouraging. To play with him was always insightful because he was one of the most professional musicians.

"He would always show up on time, was always very well dressed and he would have extra gear for the bassist or the drummer in case something went wrong with them. His horn was always in shape. He would practise eight hours if he had a gig in a loud pub where nobody cares, just to be on top. He takes things so seriously and I think that rubbed off on me over the years. I've been playing with him for at least ten years now."

Abou Samra, like Hornig, can be found in multiple musical settings. "Nidal is also one of the pillars of the Lebanon jazz and music scene in general. He's on some of the most iconic recordings, by Ziad Rahbani, Fairouz and many others. Aside from his musical abilities I think he is one of the most beautifully spirited people. He's so giving, whatever you ask of him you'll get. And for me, over the years, that became important. I value character above all."

Though a swing feel predominates on Transmigration, other vibrant musical colors rear their heads. There are pulsating African rhythms and exhilarating flute on "Intro to Modjadji,"/"Modjadji," courtesy of percussionist Khaled Yassine and guest flautist Tarek Amery respectively.

Yassine, who has collaborated with Erik Truffaz, Bojan Z and Anouar Brahem, amongst many others, had returned to Beirut from abroad just before Aboul Hosn went into the studio.

"Khaled had returned to Beirut a year or so before the political crisis. We rarely met, but we had played a concert together with Tarek Yamani at the American University of Beirut just one night before the October 17th revolution. And then we sort of drifted apart for a while, until we did a 7-hour hike together a couple of weeks before the recording session, and I asked him to be on my record. I thought I had a good chance of him saying yes if he was exhausted after the walk. My plan worked!"

Aboul Hosn credits Yassine with introducing him to the music of Sun Ra, which blew the bassist's mind. The killer bass groove at the beginning of Transmigration's opening track, "Betcha Sting"—a reimagining of Thelonious Monk's "Beshma Swing"—was inspired, Aboul Hosn happily admits, by the bass ostinato on Ra's "Angels and Demons."

Amery's participation in Transmigration is a wonderful tale of happenstance. A Lebanese-Canadian living in Canada, Amery visits Lebanon every few years and happened to be visiting Beirut at the time of the October Revolution.

"During the first few months of the revolution everybody was on the streets all the time. It started on the 17th of October, but on December 31st, New Year's Eve, I had a gig to play in the middle of Martyr's Square. All the musicians were playing for free for people who could not afford to go to pubs or clubs. I was playing with a rock band called Meen. We were jamming really hard, and I thought I heard saxophone somewhere. I turned to the crowd and I saw this guy [Tarek Amery] who was playing along with us. So, I invited him on stage and told the singer just to put the microphone in front of his horn. He played an incredible solo on one of the rock songs."

After the gig the two musicians talked. As Amery was staying in Lebanon for several months, Aboul Hosn invited him to play on several gigs and a friendship was forged. "His vibe as a person, as a human being, was so beautiful that I wouldn't have cared if he had played an old tin can—I would still have invited him to play on the album. But he happened to be an incredible flautist, a very, very capable musician, and that's how he ended up on the record."

Christopher Michael, who spent a decade on the New York jazz and Latin scenes before moving to the Middle East, is another multi-talented musician, whose drumming and vibraphones lend much to rich rhythmic tapestry of Transmigration.

"Chris is a guy that makes me feel so secure as a bassist. He has a vast and deep knowledge of styles, a beautiful sound, and he's a great educator, so many of his young students are turning out to be great drummers. Actually, it was him who got me the teaching position at NDU."

The vibraphone solo on "Mine Or Blues," however, is by guest musician Joe Locke. Aboul Hosn met Locke in 2016 while studying at Prince Claus Conservatory, Groningen, in Holland, where the vibraphonist was teaching at the time. Aboul Hosn, who arrived late for his first class with Locke, admits that he had no idea who Locke was. That soon changed.

"During that first week I was walking along the corridor and Joe was walking in the other direction, and I had just seen this great animation on YouTube of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," so I thought, 'Joe, let me show you this.' He had so much appreciation, just because I decided to share it with him. He took it as a really nice gesture, and we became really good friends on a personal level. We talk often and he is a very dear friend to me."

When Aboul Hosn approached Locke to see if he might be interested in playing on Transmigration the vibraphonist was more than happy to help out. "He recorded on "Mine Or Blues" and said, 'This is a labor of love.' That was so humbling. This was the prevailing feeling from the whole album. It was really humbling how generously the musicians were treating me."

Photographs by Lara Nohra of the August 4th recording session of Transmigration suggest a very relaxed atmosphere, where the musicians—plus one uncredited dog-are clearly enjoying themselves. That the session went ahead when it did, and in such a positive atmosphere, is remarkable, coming just three days after the enormous explosion in the port of Beirut.

Shock Waves

The explosion, caused by over 2,700 tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate, was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. The impact, which killed at least 200 people and left many thousands more homeless was felt right across the region. The blast was heard as far away as Cyprus, some 240 miles away. "For me, personally, it was so overwhelming that it took me three days to understand."

At the time, Aboul Hosn was thirty miles away at the family home in the mountains. Doors were flung open by the force of the explosion. "We thought a missile had hit next to our house, or something like that. We thought it was an act of war." Hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of casualties, the disturbing images relayed to a stunned Lebanese nation by television cameras. "It was like a scene from a zombie apocalyptic movie—everybody is drenched in blood, trying to find a hospital, roads blocked, some people carrying victims in their arms. It was like being in a bad dream I was in such a state of shock."

The next day Aboul Hosn felt compelled to go down to the blast area. "I heard that everybody was volunteering to clean up the area and help everybody in any way we can with needs. So many people lost their homes, you know. The young people did all the work. It was so humbling to see the young generation—not the police, not the government—the young generation from all areas of Beirut, of Lebanon actually, all religions, hand in hand. It was so beautiful to see because if you ever bring up the notion of unity everybody laughs at you, especially the older generation, but I actually saw it in the younger generation."

The extent of the damage, the carnage, and people's sense of shock, anger and dislocation is not something that the TV cameras could entirely capture. "It's so difficult to describe. I was in a state of disbelief and denial for a very long time."

Resilience

And yet, just three days later, with the whole country still reeling, Aboul Hosn led the recording session for Transmigration. Understandably, he had his doubts, but important encouragement to carry on as normal came from Yassine.

"I called Khaled and he convinced me otherwise. He said, 'Now more than ever we need to play, so I think you should push.' And I did, but of course gently. If somebody didn't want to record, I completely understood. And we all went there dragging ourselves. Just as Khaled suggested. He said, 'We're going to drag ourselves there, but we will enjoy it eventually.' So, we all had doubts and we all had to drag ourselves there. But it ended up being a very good decision and that is thanks to Khaled also."

The recording was also logistically challenging. A national state of emergency had been declared and many roads in Beirut were blocked. Further protests erupted, with people venting their anger at the government in the wake of the devastating explosion. With all that had gone on in Lebanon in recent times, it was perhaps inevitable that Aboul Hosn would respond musically in some way.

Stupid Is The Man Who Thinks He Knows...

The swinging "WWMD" is the one song on Transmigration that confronts the socio-political malaise afflicting Lebanon, with Sima Itayim delivers an outstanding vocal à la Annie Ross. The song, however, was originally conceived by Aboul Hosn rather differently.

"There were no words to it, there was no singer. It was a song that I wrote half an hour before running to my orchestra job, which is often the case—some great ideas happen when I really have to do something else. Sima's father had just passed away a couple of weeks before the recording session and she was devastated. She was living in Mexico and came back to Lebanon then. I thought, you know, she probably needs to sing, and I was sure I could write a song for her. That was the starting point. The melody was there, the arrangement was there."

The story behind the lyrics is a sobering one, inspired as they are by the true case of an elderly man who, consumed by despair, committed suicide in the street by shooting himself in the head.

"During that period, just before the port explosion, it had started to get really bad in Lebanon. There were stories of suicides all over the country. Every day some guy was killing himself because economically it was simply unsustainable for him. The man who is the subject of the song had a piece of paper with him which you get from General Security. It tells if your record is clean or not. He got this paper from General Security which said he had never committed a crime. He took the paper and then he shot himself in the head. Basically, the guy was saying he didn't do anything wrong, but he can't make ends meet. The guy had a family."

With suicides on the rise in Lebanon, the very worst face of social media showed itself.

"There was so much insensitivity on social media towards the people who actually killed themselves. They were making very ugly jokes, accusing them of being very weak, especially some religious folks were attacking them from a religious point of view. It really angered me because I thought, 'You're not thinking compassionately at all. You say this person is weak, but you didn't think that maybe you have never suffered what this person suffered to reach a point where he says, I want this to end.'

"There is so much misery in people's lives and they still choose not to kill themselves, but those who do, I think it's a degree of suffering that none of us has actually experienced. It is terrible to judge that act as cowardly. The song was mostly a reaction to that."

Loss And Remembrance

Another song that stands out, compositionally speaking, is "Ever Recurring Story in September," a beautifully serene meditation, inspired in no small way by Michael Moore of Instant Composers Pool fame—Aboul Hosn's composition teacher at university.

"I was really drowning in self-criticism. I hated everything I ever wrote. He was neutral. Whenever I gave him a piece of music as an assignment for him to criticize, he would be very gentle. Very gentle. But he would still drive home what I need to know, and how I can improve. I listened to his music and I think I adopted his approach without really knowing exactly how he does it. He had a huge influence on "Ever Recurring Story in September."

Despite the dreamily seductive quality of "Ever Recurring Story in September," it is the one composition on Transmigration that Aboul Hosn tends to avoid listening to.

"It comes from a very sensitive place. The story behind it is that my brother, Shadi, passed away in July, about twenty years ago. He died in a car accident when I was ten years old. That was the first moment of deep suffering that I experienced, on my part for losing a member of the family and the amount of sadness I felt of those around me, my mother, my father, my other brother. The amount of sadness that one person's death can bring into this life..."

If every July revives painful memories for Aboul Hosn, so too does September 18. "It was his birthday. We celebrated the memory, but still in a sad way, of course. So, after that, every single year, between July and September, my body remembers the feeling very well. I feel a lot of heaviness on my chest, a feeling of suffocation. Until 18 September comes—then some relief comes when I visit his grave. At the same time, I was thinking of this composition as an elegy, but also a general meditation on the theme of losing someone."

All the songs onTransmigration have a distinct character. There is a touch of New Orleans second-line joie de vivre about "Papa Bear," which was birthed in a unique manner for Aboul Hosn.

"This is the only composition that I ever wrote without playing it on an instrument. This one I wrote it straight, and that was actually the point. I thought, 'Why don't you write a song without actually playing it?' That was how the theme and the melody came out. The arrangement... in the back of my head I think I still remembered The Jungle Book. I really remembered Baloo and how good it felt to watch him, so I think that's where the title "Papa Bear" came somehow—just a really jolly fellow who is enjoying life, having fun and dancing all the time."

The album closer, the appropriately titled "Let Me Finish," is a rhythmically quirky, harmonically rich composition that defies simple categorization. "It's good to finish on a song called "Let Me Finish," [laughs]. The second thing is that it is the one that resembles me the most—it and "Modjadji"—this one probably more. It kind of conveys how I think about music and how there are different influences, from classical, from Arabic and jazz. It was fitting to finish on the most personal-sounding tune, in my opinion."

Rebirth In The Here And Now

The album title resonates with the stance of many religions and belief systems regarding the life-death cycle.

"I grew up in a Druze environment. In our religion the idea of reincarnation is very prevalent. I don't really know if I believe in reincarnation. I have my doubts, but I still don't want to come to a conclusion. I think that's a great way to stay fresh and alert, because the second you reach a conclusion the idea is dead. If I wanted to just end it there, I would have believed that people reincarnate as humans, they come back in the same gender and in the same religious group, which is sort of a belief of my people."

Ever questioning, however, Aboul Hosn looked to oriental philosophy as well as to scientific perspectives to gain a better personal understanding of transmigration.

"I think I finally got an idea that we experience reincarnation very often in our lives, in one lifetime, so let's not think about what happens after death. Let's see how things reincarnate within my life. I went through several so-called rebirths. I changed a lot over the years and a lot of my friends changed. I mean they changed their roles in my life. Some people leave my life, so their role becomes available for someone else to play. So, that for me is a sort of reincarnation, because a role is reincarnating in different human beings. It keeps everything valuable for me when I think of it that way."

The Nature Of The Thing

Most of the compositions on Transmigration were first takes, with very little post-production editing.

"I wanted to live with things, I wanted things to be imperfect. I think I am much better now at enjoying imperfect things than perfect concepts. The other day I was lying down, looking at a tree, and I thought, man, they taught us circles and straight lines and triangles and there is never this kind of stuff in nature. There's no such thing as a straight line in nature. It's all curved and imperfect and yet it is so beautiful and powerful."

As in music, Aboul Hosn finds comfort and solace in nature. He has nurtured the habit of creating rock piles, or mini cairns. This ancient practise, common to cultures around the world, harbours many meanings. Cairns serve as path markers, burial monuments, coastal guiding beacons, astrological tools and for ceremonial purposes. Or simply for recreation. Perhaps it is another way for Aboul Hosn to seek order, balance and imperfect beauty.

It would take a trained ear to detect any imperfections in Transmigration, though doubtless they are there. No matter. The music is, like nature, beautiful and powerful. It is also deeply felt and compassionate, a work very much of its place and time, and of its architect—Makram Aboul Hosn.

And like prehistoric cairns that stand long after nature has reclaimed the paths, the music will still be there long after the musicians have departed, perhaps one day to be played again by other musicians. Musical reincarnation? Perhaps it is best, as Aboul Hosn says, not to draw definite conclusions.

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