Anouar Brahem - “At this time, when they are trying to build walls everywhere, music always crosses borders”
Let’s get one thing straight from the start. The music that Anouar Brahem and his talented confrères will make in the National Concert Hall on 16 March is not ‘world music’.
“I didn’t take on any jazz musicians for my first recordings with ECM”, says Brahem of his 1991 debut for the German label, “because I wanted to keep my distance from the so-called ‘world music’ that was fashionable then, a kind of hybrid genre where quite a number of musicians turned out to be opportunists, who changed their colours and went in that direction. I didn’t want to be one of them.”
And yet, jazz has long held a fascination for Brahem, and as his relationship with producer Manfred Eicher and his celebrated label has developed over the last three decades, Brahem has explored a rich seam of music that blends the ancient tradition of his instrument with the open-minded improvisatory impulse of jazz, receiving widespread acclaim for his collaborations with accordionist Richard Galliano, saxophonist John Surman, pianist Francois Coutourier, and particularly with bassist Dave Holland.
But the results have always resisted easy description, and that is just as it should be with great music.
Born in Tunis in 1957, Anouar Brahem began his musical life as a confirmed traditionalist. His chosen instrument, the oud – a device of ancient lineage, ancestor of the medieval lute and ultimately of the guitar – is central to Arabic music in the way that the piano is to western classical music, and his first impulse was to immerse himself in that tradition. At the age of 10, he went to study at the National Conservatory in Tunis, and later he apprenticed himself to the great Tunisian oud master Ali Sriti.
“I was listening only to traditional music,” he tells me ahead of his concert in Dublin, “very old traditional music. I was really fascinated, and at that time, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, I was a purist. I never thought that I would play anything other than traditional music”.
But Tunis in the late 60s was a cosmopolitan city, a melting pot of cultures with long established Italian, Maltese, French and Jewish communities, and as he developed as a musician, he began to feel the influence of other cultures and other art forms.
“Many things can happen inside the mind of a teenager,” he says laughing, “I started to be very impressed by the new cinema coming from Europe - Bergman, Fellini, Pasolini, Truffaut, Godard - and I was also very attracted by contemporary dance and theatre, and also painting. Actually, before I decided to be a musician, I was thinking that maybe I would choose painting, or something in relation to art.”
Though over the last decade, he has watched with sadness as the Mediterranean has become an embattled frontier, for the composer of Blue Maqams this crucible of the ancient world has always been a conduit – for ideas, for culture, and particularly for music.
I never think about the colours before I think about the material
“I believe that very strongly”, he says. “From the north of Tunisia, when the weather is clear, we can see the coast of Italy. We are so close to Europe, but we are also an African country, we are also an Arabic country. In our kitchen, the melting pot was not just an abstract concept - it was something that we could feel in daily life.”
So this idea of mixing, of crossing musical frontiers, of reaching out across stylistic boundaries, has been important to Brahem since he was a teenager. And five decades and an illustrious international career later, when he sat down to write the music that would become the critically acclaimed Blue Maqams project, he approached his task without any preconceptions about what the music would be like, or who he might choose to play it with him.
“I always start composing by trying to be surprised,” he says. “When I start to write music for a project, I don’t now where I’m going actually. I just start by writing a few small things, and then when I think there is something interesting to develop, some small sketches, then I try to develop them. And only then comes the idea of the instruments. I never think about the colours before I think about the material.”
“So that’s how I started with the Blue Maqams project. By writing a few simple things, and then suddenly, for example, I realised that there was a place for the double bass. About twenty years ago I made a record with Dave Holland, and from that time, I had a strong wish to play again with Dave and to do a project.”
Holland, one of the most respected double bassists in jazz, played in the seminal groups of trumpeter Miles Davis in the late 1960s, and since then has been to the forefront of the music, leading his own groundbreaking groups and in constant demand as a sideman. Brahem calls him ‘the wings’ that help the music fly.
Jack De Johnette, another Davis alumnus and long time associate of Holland, played drums on the recording, but it was a rising star of a younger generation, Nasheet Waits, who played the live premiere of Blue Maqams in Tunisia in 2017.
“It was really strongly touching” says Brahem. “When we started to rehearse the music, Nasheet was playing so soft, and so deep at the same time, and also he has very strong listening.”
“For me, listening is the strongest capacity of a musician. The most important quality for me, when I am rehearsing or when I am on stage, is how the musician listens and reacts, because this is the thing that gives life to the music.”
Brahem was also sure he wanted the sound of the piano for Blue Maqams, but at first he couldn’t find a pianist that the thought would be suitable.
“For months, I listened to many different pianists and had long discussions with Manfred. Finally, he asked me to listen to a recording he’d just made with Django Bates, and I was highly impressed by his touch and style, a mixture of virtuosic musicianship and lyricism.”
“Since then, I have discovered several other qualities in Django, not only his dazzling piano technique, but also his subtlety, his creative and inventive powers and his outstandingly strong ideas. He does some magnificent things on Blue Maqams that bring something new and unusual to the music”
With such talented jazz musicians on board, the name of the project, Blue Maqams, seems to make explicit reference to this idea of fusion, of cross fertilization between the maqam, the sophisticated melodic system used in Arabic music, and the ‘blue’ notes typical of African-American music. But the composer admits that the reference was unintentional.
“Actually, this was interesting, because usually I never give a title to my albums before I record. I have a strong feeling that the music is born when it is performed by the musicians, and then you can see the real spirit of the music. Before the recording, it is difficult for me to have a precise idea of what the music will be. That’s why I don’t want to give a name beforehand.”
“But for the Blue Maqams project, we started to book concerts before the recording was finished, so I was forced to give it a title. I was not happy about this because I wasn’t sure that the title would be the right one. So I just thought about the maqam - there are some pieces that are close to the Arabic maqam and this is the music I loved when I was young and when I was a teenager.
“And then I just wanted to give it a colour, and that’s why I called it ‘blue’ but I was not thinking about the blue notes,” he admits. “When the record was released, some critics thought that I was making reference to that. To be honest it was not my idea at the beginning, but”, he adds laughing gently, “it was a good idea, because it creates a kind of link between the jazz and the maqam”.
The success of groups like the Gloaming, and pianist Brad Mehldau’s collaboration with mandolinist Chris Thile - two world-renowned acts that have developed a particular relationship with the National Concert Hall in recent years - prove the ear-opening appeal of music that moves beyond category.
The success of groups like the Gloaming, and pianist Brad Mehldau’s collaboration with mandolinist Chris Thile - two world-renowned acts that have developed a particular relationship with the National Concert Hall in recent years - prove the ear-opening appeal of music that moves beyond category. Some may call it fusion, or crossover, or even ‘world’ (as if western music comes from some other planet) but great artists like Anouar Brahem will always resist language that limits their horizons. For them, creating music is about making new connections, exploring unfamiliar territory, embracing the challenge of communication across cultural and artistic frontiers.
“At this time, when they are trying to build walls everywhere, music always crosses borders,” he says. “For me, music is freedom.”
Cormac Larkin 2019