Golden Boy between Paris and Beirut

The young Lebanese musician Ibrahim Maalouf has played trumpet for Amadou & Mariam, Lhasa and Bumcello, and has also enjoyed a brilliant classical career. On his debut album, Maalouf fuses oriental and electronic sounds into a unique musical language. Stefan Franzen met him in Marseille

Ibrahim Maalouf (photo:
Ibrahim Maalouf: "There's something that's simply stronger than the fear of bombings"

​​Videos of classical concerts feature Maalouf with a mop of curly hair, but the 27-year-old musician arrives for our meeting with a closely cropped head. He virtually vibrates with energy, and has just completed an acclaimed show at the Marseille world music fair Babel Med. Surrounded by arrangements of rocky energy and cool electronics, he brought the stage to life with his trumpet – which harbours a very special secret.

"In the 1960s my father Nassim developed a trumpet with four valves, one more than the European version. That meant he could play the Arabic scale with its quarter tones. It was his dream that this trumpet would spread across the entire Arab region, but it was too complicated for the instrument manufacturers. Even today, there are only a handful of trumpets with four valves, and I'm one of the few people continuing this tradition."

Making his home in both worlds

Ibrahim learned to play this special trumpet from a young age, taught by his father. As a young man, Maalouf – born in Lebanon but constantly travelling between Paris and Beirut – took up a career as a classical musician at the Paris Conservatoire. He studied under the old master Maurice André, playing baroque concertos like an angel. In parallel to this career, however, traditional Arab music has always made up part of his repertoire, and Ibrahim Maalouf has become the only trumpeter to make his home in both worlds.

​​"I have the privilege to play oriental music on an instrument that is actually occidental per se," the up-and-coming star explains. "And that's why I really feel like a human bridge. Plus, I feel both identities within me, on my constant journeys between Lebanon and France. I feel at home in Paris, but at the same time I have a strong feeling of belonging when I'm with my relatives in the Lebanese mountains. We Lebanese always have to return home for a while, and my family even did so during the war. There's something that's simply stronger than the fear of bombings."

Out of these mixed identities comes Ibrahim Maalouf's own music, featuring on his debut "Diasporas" – following prizes and awards in the classical world and collaborations with world music stars such as Lhasa de Sela and Amadou & Mariam.

The debut album "Diasporas"

His classical career gave him the technical tools he needed to go in any musical direction. And that's just what he does with his favourite musicians from Montréal, who he met when working with Lhasa. He fuses electronic beats, rock and jazz vocabulary with oriental melodies and his own visions. He called the album "Diasporas", he says, because he felt solidarity with communities living in foreign countries.

And he has a precise picture in mind of how to make the best of globalisation:

"In the title track, you hear a métro – and isn't an underground train the perfect metaphor for cultures living together? Black people, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Chinese all travel together, and like to I imagine there's an underground train that takes you from Paris to Beirut in two minutes, and then on to Tokyo and New York. That's a kind of motto for the album."

Homage to his father and Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie (photo: AP)
Revolutionary of the trumpet and jazz music itself: Jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie

​​The album also features other expeditions between worlds. As an homage to his father Nassim, Maasouf has layered his trumpet to form a veritable brass orchestra –putting his father's dream of an oriental four-tone fanfare into reality at last. There is also a tribute to another bridge-builder between jazz and the Arab world: with his version of Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia", the young musician honours the old doyen of the jazz trumpet.

"He revolutionised the trumpet and jazz itself, but at the same time he radiated an unbelievable joie de vivre and energy. That smile he always had!" And looking at the golden boy Ibrahim Maalouf with his great esprit, there's no doubt he has the potential to become an oriental Dizzy for the 21st century.

Stefan Franzen

© 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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