A fence turns to water

On their fourth CD "Irade" (willpower), Masaa has left its piano sound behind, yet continues with its new guitarist to pursue a path that bridges jazz improvisation and Arabic sounds. By Stefan Franzen

By Stefan Franzen

"A fence protects people. People protect the fence. A fence protects a fence. It comes to touch people, to transform people." These are the unusual opening lines, recited in Arabic, of the new Masaa album "Irade". They continue: "Your fence is clear water, your fence is light and shadow, and that is all joy." In a world in which the general political climate is predisposed towards the setting up of walls and fences, these are very optimistic verses.

"I like to look for meaning in things that already exist. When you demonise something, you can become so embittered that it is no longer possible to get over it," said Rabih Lahoud in an interview with Qantara.de.

"I often think about why people very frequently exclude others. And I see this happening in Germany, too. But then I can remember to see the people behind such acts. People who exclude others are also people. And I try not to let myself get bitter or judge them as being contemptible. In this way, the act of exclusion can be transformed – it should flow, so that it drifts away, runs its course, and forges ahead, just like water."

A multilingual artist

Lahoud has already distinguished himself on the group’s last three albums as an expressive and multilingual poet. He manages to underscore issues with short, incisive utterances, providing the listener with ample food for thought. His approach to poetry has literally "condensed" itself once more on "Irade". Similar to the haiku, the Japanese highly concise form of poetry, his words float in space surrounded by long, wordless passages and his sensitive, soulful voice.

The path to this new work was far from straightforward. Masaa first had to absorb the loss of Clemens Poetzsch on piano and then had to reform the group. "It came as a great surprise to us," recalls trumpeter Marcus Rust on the departure of their keyboardist.

The three remaining musicians, Lahoud, Rust and the drummer Demian Kappenstein, deliberated together on how they should move forward. A new pianist would only invite comparisons with the previous one. And so the choice fell on an old acquaintance, the guitarist Reentko Dirks, who had always raved about Masaa being his favourite band as well as having had previous experience with oriental music.

Versatile and talented

"His guitar has two necks," explains Rust. "This gives him other performance options, like playing quarter tones, for example, and it can sound like an oud or even a bass." The continuing members all agree that Dirks reflects the spirit of the band to connect disparate elements, like the "maqam", the scale system used in Arabic music, with the power of flamenco and intimate lyrical ideas.

"Reentko can go from being an ethereal being to frantic rocker," laughs Lahoud. "But generally, his guitar offers even more access to tender worlds. When I immerse myself in Reentko’s playing, I find that my voice is then able to explore a whole range of quiet nuances."

It is especially these passages that make "Irade" a very moving album. Most prominent is a piece entitled "Herzlicht" (heart light), in which Lahoud’s voice quite literally glows. No other piece on the album bears a German title; those Germans among the listeners will therefore expect to hear a few lines in their native language.

Allowing for different worlds

But they do not come. Instead, a wonderfully flowing melody, free of any text, ends by leading into a brief description of a landscape of the soul in a style reminiscent of Khalil Gibran. "Whenever people hear me on the telephone, they don’t expect me to look the way I do," says Lahoud, explaining this game with idioms. "And then when they meet me, there is a massive conflict between what about me is supposed to be German and what is Lebanese. I play with these expectations in this piece as well. For my part, the conflict is intentional. After all, the aim is simply to enjoy what one finds beautiful and to allow both worlds to display the beauty of their being."

This means allowing different worlds to be just what they are. If this is a maxim of Masaa, then one can understand why in another piece the band makes mention of the philosopher and scientist Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who lived in Cordoba and helped shape its lively and fruitful – though not always frictionless nor peaceful – golden age of co-existence between various ethnicities and religious groups in Moorish Andalusia.

Marcus Rust originally created this composition for the Pergamon museum in Berlin. Lahoud finds it remarkable that not only the faiths, which today are increasingly "fencing" each other off again, were closer together 1,000 years ago, but that art was also a close neighbour of science.

Communication beyond words

"Not splitting things apart is something I find fascinating and this also corresponds to my desire to be exactly what I am. And here is where music has the power to humanise society. Music does not require a cognitive and analytic response to questions like 'Who am I?' and 'Where do I belong?'. Time and again I encounter people who are moved by a kind of music that they have never heard before."

With its multiple interconnections between worlds, Masaa’s album "Irade" offers an opportunity for communication beyond words. Their music also enables a space for pain and suffering. This can be heard in "Lullaby For Jasu," which openly addresses the topic of war.

Rabih Lahoud grew up during the Lebanese civil war. His parents still live in Beirut and are experiencing the current unrest in the country first-hand. "Living in Germany, I thought I had gained a greater sense of distance. But I have realised that I have to distance myself internally from such events in order to be able to function once again and not to be sucked into war paralysis," he admits. "On the other hand, the news has a habit of becoming all-involving. I see now how this sense of being frozen never really disappears. You need to be constantly on your guard to ensure a war can never happen again."

With Masaa, Lahoud employs his talent for peace in the best possible way.

Stefan Franzen

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by John Bergeron