Anouar Brahem: The instrumentalist
"Mr Brahem bases several of the tunes on spare, broken chords, repeated in the childlike manner of Satie. Simple though they are, however, they contain beguiling Arabesques." Thus Adam Shatz on Anouar Brahem in The New York Times. "The three musicians [featured on the CD] rarely appear at once, performing as a trio on only seven of the album's 12 tracks. For the most part, you hear duets -- piano and oud, oud and accordion, accordion and oud. The musicians often double each other's lines, but seldom in unison, which enhances the music's intimacy while producing a floating, echo effect. If every band projects 'an image of community,' as the critic Greil Marcus once suggested, then Mr Brahem's trio -- part takht, part jazz trio, part chamber ensemble -- evokes a kind of 21st century Andalusia, in which European and Arab sensibilities have merged so profoundly that the borders between them have dissolved."
Unlike many musicians, Anouar Brahem is remarkably articulate in words; his Mashriqi Arabic is so fluent, in fact, he waves me aside when I proudly suggest that he should speak in Tunisian, the one Maghrebi dialect I profess to understand. "That will not be necessary," he shrugs, offering the link to his website ( www.anouarbrahem.com ) rather than responding to any form of personal question. "Very ordinary," he will say of his private life towards the end, smiling with the hint of a blush. "I am married and I have children. Nothing at all remarkable." For now, though, he is casting a dubious look in my direction, biding his time. " Samehni," he hastens to add (the most common Tunisian word for 'Excuse me'), "I'd rather you asked direct questions."
Okay, I remark to myself, doing my last bit of dithering, so you're one of those, are you.
It's been nearly a decade since I first heard of Brahem -- a world famous "alternative" composer whose apparent lack of popular appeal made his work all the more enticing -- and the long awaited personal encounter is already proving anticlimactic. So, while spewing out all the formulaic questions I can think of, I resign myself to the modest pleasure of sipping Turkish coffee in the luxurious lobby of the Pyramisa Hotel, the independent culture scene's accommodation of choice for visiting artists over the last few months.
Ah well -- so goes the stream of consciousness, by way of self-consolation -- at least he has something to say. But gradually, as he warms to the conversation, it transpires that, aside from his surface eloquence, Brahem is every bit as inaccessible as other musicians. His sense of an interview is just that -- a formality whereby a representative of the media serves the purpose of publicising his work -- nothing as pointlessly risky as a human encounter.
The oud virtuoso's first ever concert in Egypt, held at the Music Institute on Ramses Road the night before we met, proved at least as engaging as his ECM recordings, produced in France and largely unavailable on the Arab market (see 'Discography'). Part of Al-Mawrid Al-Thaqafi's Spring Festival of Poetry and Music, a truly commendable multi-venue programme that reflected the best of Arab creativity worldwide, Brahem's concert was deemed worthy of bringing the festival to a close. And not half as many tickets were available as were demanded.
Playing to a full house in the duo (with Turkish gypsy clarinetist Barbaros Erköse) -- rather than the more frequent trio (with François Couturier and Jean Louis Matinier on the piano and accordion, respectively) or Tunisian percussionist Lassad Hosni -- Brahem gave what came across more like a studio than a live performance, with limited audience interaction and a sense of detached poise; even his trademark vocal interventions, so subtle they are hardly audible, were a little too polished for the sense of intimacy one expected.
More significantly, in a sense such reserve seems to belly Brahem's professed aim of regenerating the dynamic of the early takht (small oriental ensemble), in which instrumental music makes the most of "a certain transparency through audience interaction and improvisation", as Brahem himself puts it -- a quality described in the Tunisian National Public Radio as "an exquisite balance [with] only subtle changes in tempo or tone [giving a] sense of melancholy... so natural and comfortable it's childlike". Still, there seemed to be surprisingly, perhaps even disappointingly, little difference in the musical interface between a recording and a performance.
This detail would not be worth mentioning if it was not pertinent to Brahem's own narrative of personal development. "I started normally," he recounts, "at the Tunisian Institute of Arabic Music." Indeed considering the various Mediterranean sounds his work incorporates, the multinational ensembles he has formed, his designation as "world music" and his association with jazz, this information in itself comes as something of a surprise.
Though distinctly eastern, Brahem's pieces achieve a kind of multiplicity comparable to that of European classical harmony -- present to Arab heritage only in latent, potential form. According to Bradley Bambarger writing in Billboard, Brahem is "as redolent of the French minimalism of Satie and, even more so, his Catalan successor Mompou as [he] is of traditional Arabic music", while in a Guardian review of Khomsa, G Dyer sees Brahem as a kind of post- modern jazz musician, "at the forefront of jazz because he is far beyond it".
Contrary to expectations, as it turns out, Brahem knows little about classical music. When he started studying, at age nine, the Arabic maqamat (modes) formed the staple of his musical diet; and though he played piano as well as oud and qanoun -- in common with thousands of music students across the Arab world -- he has maintained connections with the modal formulation throughout his relatively short career.
"Today if you asked me while I was composing, I couldn't tell you which maqam a particular line is coming from, I've managed to free myself of this formal restriction."
Still, multiplicity was written into Brahem's genesis.
Almost in the same breath he explains how he grew up in an atmosphere saturated with Tunisian folk music, listening to such early Arab giants as El-Safti, El-Manyalawi and Abdu El-Hamouli and appreciating the (non-modal) Andalusian muwashahat while he did so. With its unique improvisational directness, limited extension of space and infinite possibilities for variation, however, it was the takht that drew him in, driving him to seek out Ali Sriti -- a respected Tunisian composer "of the generation of [the well-known Egyptians] Abdu Saleh and El-Qasabgi" -- who agreed to tutor him in his home, "first on a weekly basis, then almost daily".
This was far better than continuing his formal education following graduation from "the Conservatoire", where he had already encountered two extreme schools of thought, the one seeing Western harmony as the answer to everything, the other against any form of change.
"I later came to consider my formative years at the institute superficial."
In this period -- during which, he confesses, he was enchanted with "those who were considered innovators", like Mohamed Abdul-Wahab -- Brahem made two vows to himself: to live off his music (which would have been easy if not for the second vow); and never to play for singers: "my ambition was to be an Arabic music instrumentalist, and faithful to Sriti's discontent with the state into which the takht had degenerated since the day of El-Safti etc, I would refuse to play in any such takht -- even when I needed the money. Now I'm not saying this was easy..."
He speaks of the integrity of the artist, defined not so much in terms of morality as of "the thing that keeps you together". People who make a compromise now in order to do what they want later, he felt -- and his feeling has been confirmed all too often -- end up never doing what they want. Brahem was only willing to live as he believed he should.
Brahem's life-long connection with theatre and cinema provided an opportunity for lucrative work, on the other hand, something that helped him survive before he started selling CDs. Until recently, indeed, he had maintained a virtual monopoly over Tunisian film scores.
His focus was "the music of the individual", hence his interest in jazz, in which the individual performance is paramount. He felt there was no reason there should not be a contemporary instrumental Arabic music. First he would learn all that there was to know about Turkish music, however, which was closely related to its Arabic counterpart.
Of the work of "the innovators" he disliked both the centrality of vocals and the size of the orchestras, which incorporated too many instruments with sounds that were too incompatible with each other while never breaking with the maqamat.
It was along the same lines that Brahem started composing, in fact -- an attempt "to answer certain, serious questions about the future of Arabic music". He would consciously block out awareness of the maqamat while he worked, striving instead after a freer sense of melody, repetition and intense albeit elegantly controlled emotionality. By the early 1970s, he says -- Brahem was born in Tunis in 1957 -- momentous musical developments were taking place in different parts of the world; in contrast to the proponents of a full-scale adoption of Western values, Brahem was in favour of an organic development, "revolution from within"; and he found in the jazz of the 1960s an inspiring precedent: cultural fusion, emotional import and individual virtuosity.
It is with a certain degree of irony that one follows the course of this determinedly Arab project, for part of its upshot -- as tends to be the case with anything truly contemporary as opposed to simply nostalgic -- was that Brahem has made far fewer appearances in the Arab world than in the West and elsewhere: fewer festivals, he says, fewer commercial channels for non-commercial music, and cultural policies that emphasise "the more predominant forms"...
Brahem has lived in France -- a four-year sojourn he found deeply beneficial and motivating. Once he worked for six years without performing once in Tunisia: no particular reason, he says; rather, it was just the way things resolved themselves. "When I came back with a concert," he remembers, many years later now, "it was a surprise to realise that many young people had found out about me and were keen on my work."
Which is what Brahem has to say about Egypt, too, in a nutshell: as far as he is concerned, a pleasant surprise. "I felt comfortable about Al-Mawrid's invitation," he explains. "It was an invitation to me, not to a body or trend that I represented, and I really appreciated that. But I didn't know," he repeats, the sense of inaccessibility descending over his face like a veil, "I really didn't know I was known in Egypt, because my CDs don't get here."
The conversation is nearly over when Brahem politely asks for a cigarette: "I don't usually smoke. It's just occasionally nice with the coffee."
Then he goes on, in preparation for another pre- emptory silence (this time I'm going to say, "I'm happy with what I've got, thanks'), "It's always nice to have a base."
Le Voyage de Sahar (2006, offered for sale in the Institute lobby following the performance), Vague (2003, a limited-edition selection of previous works), Le Pas du Chat Noir (2002), Charmediterranéen (2002, with Paolo Damiani's Orchestre National de Jazz), the widely acclaimed Astrakan Café (2000), Thimar (1998), Khomsa (1995), Madar (1994, with Jan Garbarek), Conte de l'incroyable amour (1992) and Barzakh (1991, featuring Béchir Selmi's violin).
photos: Iman Hamam