Ibrahim Maalouf: Writing the Lebanese Rhapsody in Blue
Everything depends on the transformational artist. The one who can not only dig deeply into his medium and his traditional style to find the beauty and truth, but can also pull all kinds of other media and styles into that profundity with him. I think of George Gershwin, who took his love of popular music and his passion for classical traditions and brought them forward in ways that dragged all of American music with them. Ibrahim Maalouf is just such a transformative musician in a different time and place, but with a similar energy and a similar opportunity to effect a great leap forward for his chosen genres.
His latest album, entitled Diagnostic, is the work of an accomplished, mature musician who is at home with a variety of instruments and idioms. There are Arabic melodies played on unusual instruments, notably piano and trumpet, harmonic progressions where these would be unfamiliar in Middle Eastern music, there is Janissary drumming and the trumpeting of Turkish sünnet street bands. And just as prominently, there is a large amount of Western melody as well, and Western styles. The sounds are interwoven with the complexity of the East but the elements of the West, just as George Gershwin was able to do in his Broadway music and especially in a piece like Rhapsody in Blue, mixing the jazz of his age with the structures of classical music in an energized celebration of both. That same kind of energy is apparent here, with the result something totally new and innovative. Ultimately, the style that comes to mind throughout is neither Arabic nor European, but a fusion of the two. This is beautifully realized in “Maeva in Wonderland,” a piece dedicated to his sister. Here, riffs on Arabic themes mingle with Salsa, Spanish flamenco and heavy metal rock in the most natural way, stirring each other up into a frenzy.
Ibrahim’s father, Nassim Maalouf, was a classically trained trumpet player who felt frustrated by the traditional three valve instrument, which could only play notes in half steps. He invented a four valve trumpet in order to produce the quarter tone notes needed to play Arabic music properly. Nassim Maalouf is well known for his years as a trumpet soloist in Paris, and during that time, he made sure his son learned the four valve trumpet and got solid classical training in the Western tradition. Curiously, he did not encourage his son to study Arabic styles, either classical or popular, and it was without his father’s approval that Ibrahim moved in this direction. In a February, 2012 interview on BBC World Service, Ibrahim Maalouf explains this with a certain sadness. In any case, traditions and family are important to the younger Maalouf, it seems, as the whole album is dedicated to various members of his family. The tracks dedicated to his father are “Your soul” and “Everything or nothing.”
The album concludes with a piece entitled “Beirut.” In the jacket notes, he explains that he composed the melody on his first trip to Beirut in 1993, when he walked through the streets of the wartorn, broken city with Led Zepplin playing in his earphones. It is a strictly focused piece, with Ibrahim’s trumpet always at the fore, playing an emotional monologue that seems to express his reactions to the experience. In his BBC interview, he says that the trumpet is the instrument closest to the human voice, and you can hear that in this piece. It begins with a plaintive opening sequence, that sounds like a meditation on the city’s name. “Beirut…..” eventually, this melancholy section gives way to a melodious middle section that somehow perceives the beauty rising up from the ruins. Then in Maalouf’s style, the piece builds to a great climax, a tortured primal shout of protest expressed in wailing electric guitar. It is a dramatic and fitting way to finish the album.
But it is not the end of Ibrahim Maalouf. Is he writing the Lebanese Rhapsody in Blue? Only time will tell. But undoubtedly, he has opened up a vast new genre to explore for a long time to come. Go to amazon.fr or fnac.fr to see other discs which are available in France and check out some tunes to found on itunes and youtube.
On Monday, March 19, 2012 BBC World Service will dedicate a part of Harriet Gilbert’s daily feature to Ibrahim Maalouf. It airs at 04:05 GMT.
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