Music Requires Time

The music of Tunisian oud player and composer Anouar Brahem is rich in contrasts, calm and flowing, varied and compact, traditional yet open. Brahem's work is an art form, based on models, but free of dogmas. Ralf Dombrowski reports


Anouar Brahem, photo: &copy
To Anouar Brahem, music is a precious plant that grows slowly – and he sees himself as the gardener who can one day help it to blossom

​​Anouar Brahem smiles to himself. He says he has no idea why so many people assume that he lives in Paris. Aside from a short period in the early 1980s, Brahem has always lived in Tunis.

But there is a positive side to this confusion, since it tends to shelter the musician from some of the more taxing aspects of fame and success, such as journalists clamoring for interviews and the demands of being in the public eye.

Brahem thrives on seclusion as an essential ingredient to the creative process. His compositions for the oud – a traditional Middle Eastern string instrument – require time and patience to achieve full maturity.

The artist's music resists the subtle pressures of today's rapidly changing world, focusing instead on an inner strength that conveys exquisite power and opens up new cultural horizons.

Ignorance of Arab music

These days just about everyone is an ambassador. We live in an age of genuine and self-styled specialists whose opinions are disseminated via television and the Internet to homes around the world. Anouar Brahem rejects this postmodern form of superficiality, especially when it concerns the world of art.

"Nobody knows the first thing about Arab music in the West" he says. However, he is quick to add, "but it's not much better in the Arab world, either."

Then he talks of clichés and preconceptions and the unsung praises of so many things in the world. He goes on to say that it actually takes a lifetime to acquire even a limited notion of the immense richness of Arab musical traditions. This statement in itself sounds like a popular figure of speech, yet it holds special meaning for Brahem.

The musician as a gardener

Music requires time. It is a precious plant that grows slowly, and he sees himself as the gardener who can one day help it to blossom.

This involves great care and restraint. There are periods when Brahem won't touch his oud for weeks, sometimes even for months. As a widely respected master of his instrument, he needs these breaks to catch his breath in between the many concerts that he performs for audiences around the world.

"Please don't get me wrong. But I'm happy when I don't have to stand on stage," he admits, smiling again to himself, and talks again of the importance of having a refuge where he can retreat from the world.

Brahem has no special recipe for cultivating his compositions. His album "Le Pas du Chat Noir" (2003), for example, was developed on the piano and inspired by many new impressions that he gathered during a period of intensive tours playing with bassist Dave Holland and clarinetist John Surman, following the release of "Thimar" (1998).

The oud was introduced to the project very late in the game, as was the accordion, which lends a special quality to the album. When it came to "Le Voyage de Sahar", however, Brahem opted for another approach:

"I tend to choose a new combination of instruments for each project. Once a recording has been completed, then it's time to move on. I initially wrote the tunes for 'Le Voyage de Sahar' to be played solo on the oud, without any precise idea of how they would later be arranged. But when I rehearsed with François and Jean-Louis, and we tried out some of the new compositions, we realized that combining the oud with piano and accordion also produced some very exciting results. So I broke my own rule, and we went back to the studio for yet another recording."

Pan-Mediterranean sound

It turned out to be an excellent decision. In the series of concerts that followed the release of "Le Pas du Chat Noir", audiences could hear a clear difference. Brahem and his fellow musicians François Couturier on piano and Jean-Louis Matinier on accordion now harmonize in a way that gives the music a unique individual quality and a light sense of melancholy.

At the same time, "Le Voyage de Sahar" models itself more concretely on the different backgrounds of the group's members. Matinier's southern French folklore, Couturier's Debussy-accented modern piano, and Brahem's Arab-Andalusian richness of style and coloring combine to create a pan-Mediterranean sound, in which each instrument makes an equal contribution to produce a cohesive, poetic effect.

These elements merge to create a finely balanced music that is both calm and flowing, varied and compact, traditional yet open. It is a work of art, based on models, but free of dogmas, making it an expression of Brahem's personal vision of cultural understanding.

Ralf Dombrowski

© 2006

Translation from German: Paul Cohen

Recommended listening:
Anouar Brahem: Le Pas du Chat Noir (ECM, 2003)
Anouar Brahem: Le Voyage de Sahar (ECM, 2006)

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Anouar Brahem's Website