Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem is considered a master of this complex stringed instrument that has been a staple of Arabic music for centuries. In several albums recorded for the esteemed ECM label of Germany, Brahem has collaborated with musicians from around the world and combined his oud with an array of complementary sounds that give the traditional rhythms of North African music a modern, even avant-garde twist. Though he is often hailed as the oud's greatest living player, Brahem avoids dazzling displays of virtuosity in his live playing. “Intensity and sincerity are the most important aspects of my performance,” he once said in a Guitar Player interview with Hank Bordowitz. “I seek to be good inside the music. Audiences do not react well to an exhibition of technique.”
Brahem was born on October 20, 1957, in the medina, or old part, of Tunisia's capital city of Tunis. His father, a printer and engraver, encouraged his musical ambitions, and at the age of ten Brahem entered the National Conservatory in Tunis. There he studied with renowned Arab musician and theorist Ali Sriti, a highly regarded expert in the maquamat, the complex system of modes used in Arabic music. By the time he was in his late teens, Brahem was playing regularly with orchestras in the city, but eventually quit the Conserva-tory not long before graduation to embark on a private course of study with Sriti.
Only when he broke free from the Conservatory curriculum did Brahem realize how little he knew about mastering the oud. Sometimes spelled “ud,” the fretless, six-stringed, double-stringed instrument is the precursor to the lute of European medieval music. “Little by little,” he told Seattle Times journalist Paul De Barros, “I discovered that the oud is a very big traveler. It came from Iraq or Iran and it goes to the Middle East and to Greece and to the Balkans, and to North Africa … and to Cuba, too." A variant, called the laud, was played in the acclaimed 1999 documentary about traditional Cuban music, The Buena Vista Social Club. While studying under Sriti, Brahem also realized that a more intensive approach was necessary, one that bore similarities to jazz musicianship. “You can’t learn it from having a few classes," he explained in a Down Beat interview with Peter Margasak. “You have to listen, practice, play with other musicians and learn about improvisation."
After four years of private study, Brahem began to gather other North African musicians to form takhts, the traditional Arabic music ensembles that include an oud as well as the kanun, ney, violin and one or two percussion instruments. Eager to expand his horizons, he became enamored of avant-garde European composers and musicians like Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stock-hausen, and pianist Keith Jarrett. From there he was inspired to begin composing his own music. His first performances in Tunis were at first met with mixed reviews. “Some people said very positive things,” he told Margasak, “because they were expecting something new in Arabic music, while others were suspect; my compositions were so far from the tradition."
In 1982 Brahem moved to Paris and spent the next few years there trying to establish himself as a musician. It was difficult in those days, he told Margasak. “Now it's a fashion to play with jazz musicians, but not back then. It was closed off. They considered what I was doing bizarre." During this time, however, Brahem also began to explore other creative forms, including the visual arts, dance, and film. He would eventually become a renowned composer of music for the Tunisian film industry. In 1985 he assembled a group of French and Turkish musicians and played at the International Carthage Festival, a long-running cultural event held in Tunis. The performance of the Liqua 85 group resulted in a Grand National Prize for Music from the Tunisian government, and helped establish Brahem's reputation as an innovative yet classically grounded musician. In 1987 he was named director of the Music Ensemble of Tunis, a position he held for the next four years. He was able to successfully alternate its traditional performances of Arabic music with more experimental programs.
Brahem finally landed an international record deal after sending demo tapes to the prestigious ECM label in Munich, Germany. The company's initials stand for “Editions of Contemporary Music,” and for some years it had been issuing well-received records that mixed jazz and world music. His debut, Barakh, appeared in 1991 and featured fellow Tunisian musicians Béchir Selmi on violin and percussionist Lassad Hosni. The record, recalled Margasak, "beautifully demonstrated his striking break with Arabic tradition. The spacious music unfolds slowly with Brahem's open-ended compositions allowing for lengthy and deeply contemplative solo passages."
For his 1992 release on ECM, Conte De L'Incroyable Amour, Brahem invited Turkish musicians Kudsi Erguner and Barbaros Erköse to play with him. His next LP, Madar, featured a collaboration with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and tabla player Ustad Shaukat Hussain, followed by the acclaimed Khomsa in 1995. This album took a more jazz-related direction, centered by the accordion playing of Richard Galliano, prompting Down Beat reviewer John Ephland to note that here Brahem "brings together his most cosmopolitan aggregate yet…. Brahem uses his cast in different combinations, orchestrating alluring and confounding pieces that leave this listener wondering: Is this old, new or otherworld music?"
Thimar, Brahem's 1998 LP, featured his oud and the work of saxophone player John Surman and double-bassist Dave Holland. "The music defies tidy description: it sounds rooted in an Arabic tradition, but yet sounds modern," noted a critic for Sensible Sound, while San Francisco Chronicle music writer Octavio Roca asserted that Brahem's newest release "raises stimulating questions about the origins of jazz and its relation to rhythmically complex music of the Middle East." Astrakan Café, issued in 2000 on ECM, borrows its title from the venerable port city near the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus region of western Asia. Here Brahem's oud joins Erköse's clarinet and Hosi's bendir and darbouka, both traditional Arabic percussion instruments. A Sing Out! reviewer termed it "magnificent. The title cut is a flawless example of how the spare sounds of a hand drum, the oud and the penetrating clarinet can pack quite a musical punch."
For the Record . . .
Born on October 20, 1957, in Tunis, Tunisia; son of an engraver and printer. Education: Attended the National Conservatory of Tunis, c. 1967-75; studied with Ali Sriti, c. 1975-79.
Oud player with orchestras in Tunis after 1972; formed Liqua 85 with Tunisian, French, and Turkish musicians for the Carthage Festival, 1985; Music Ensemble of Tunis, director, 1987-91; released first LP, Barakh, and made small tour of United States and Canada, 1990; composer of film scores; involved with the creation of the Centre for Arab and Mediterranean Music, Sidi Bou Saïd, Tunisia; toured United States with Barbaros Erköse and percussionist Lassad Hosni, 2003.
Awards: Government of Tunisia, Grand National Prize for Music for Liqua 85 performance ensemble at the Carthage Festival, 1985.
Addresses: Record company— ECM Records, Postfach 600 331, D-81203 Munich, Germany.
Much of 2002's Le pas du chat noir was composed on the piano, a first for Brahem. Some reviewers felt that, as a result, its songs had a far more European sound to them. Down Beat 's Jon Andrews found that "the influence of ancient Arabic music blends with chamber music reminiscent of Frederic Chopin or Erik Satie" in this work. Brahem followed the record with a tour of select North American cities, and he regularly performs in top European venues, such as Munich's Prinzregententheater. Unlike some musicians, he enjoys touring, relishing the change of scenery. "The passing countryside ties all the concerts together, yet each one is unique," Brahem reflected in an International Herald Tribune interview. "The shifting elements and the upside-down schedule provides at least the illusion of great personal freedom. It's like being on parole from everyday life. And there is an opportunity to touch new souls every evening."
Barakh, ECM, 1991.
Conte De L'Incroyable Amour, ECM, 1992.
Madar, ECM, 1994.
Khomsa, ECM, 1995.
Thimar, ECM, 1998.
Astrakan Café, ECM, 2000.
Le pas du chat noir, ECM, 2002.
Vague, ECM, 2003.
Down Beat, June 1995, p. 43; March 2003, p. 30; April 2003, p. 69.
Guitar Player, April 1993, p. 14.
International Herald Tribune, October 4, 2000, p. 10.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 11, 1999, p. 44.
Seattle Times, September 13, 2002, p. H5.
Sensible Sound, June 1999, p. 68.
Sing Out!, Winter 2002, p. 158.
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