Impulse
Impulse

13 octobre 2015

Ibrahim Maalouf: Kalthoum

KALTHOUM is a celebration of women who overturned the course of history, women whose artistic influence has had an impact that reaches all the way down to our lives today. So I chose an emblematic figure, a genuine monument in the history of Arab people, and incidentally someone whose voice is the one I’ve listened to the most, ever since I was a child: Oum Kalthoum.

She was known as the Star of the Orient, and my father was a great fan. He was fond of many sublime voices — Feiruz, Abdel Wahab, Wadih El Safi, Souad Mohamed — but for him, Oum Kalthoum reached the heights of the art of the “Mawal”, the tradition that consists of improvising at length for many minutes. It calls for all the technique and virtuosity that belong to the historical Arab styles.

He taught me to sing her best-known songs, and always took care that I should sing them as correctly and precisely as possible. He made me pay so much attention to those songs that they have had a long-lasting effect on my vision of lyricism and vocal performance. And because I’m not a singer myself, I try to use my instrument to convey the love I have for an art that, in the end, is hardly practised at all: the “Tarab”.

Obviously, trying to explain the “Tarab” in music is a very complex matter; it is not only an emotion and a sensation of ecstasy, but also an art of living one’s life with happiness, and so I thought it would be wiser to attempt an experiment, and translate this into music as a stylistic exercise.

Pianist Frank Woeste and I have “transcribed” one of the Egyptian diva’s greatest songs, “Alf Leila Wa Leila” (“The Thousand and One Nights”), translating it into jazz that respects the conventions but, hopefully, innovates in the way it mixes cultures.

This song dates from 1969 and was composed by Balighe Hamidi; it takes the form of a suite lasting around an hour (as was often the case in those days with works of this type), with a three-minute chorus and verses of between five and twenty-five minutes.

A large part of the piece, both in the original version and in this one, is reserved for improvising, but this suite is above all a series of tableaux, and the way they are set up was very exciting to transcribe.

Because our version is exclusively instrumental, the poetry of the original song has not been reproduced, but this leaves room for a much freer performance in terms of style.

With this piece, as far as it would allow, my aim was to intensify the contemporary aspirations of music that is anchored in a tradition from which it continuously seeks to free itself.

The writing, for the time, was already a compromise between Arab tradition and western orchestration, and that artistic vision is also for me a way of proving in music that Arab culture, quite simply, is compatible with western codes without renouncing any of its original identity.

These Arab melodies we’ve revisited, although fundamentally traditional, mingle very easily with the harmonies and rhythms of New York jazz.

Improvisation is the common denominator between these two music cultures, and this is where the dialogue is situated; it is what makes “exchange” possible.

We recorded and mixed it in New York with the same crew as for the album “Wind” in 2011, which was a homage to Miles Davis, and so I naturally thought of “Kalthoum” as a continuation of that fine adventure on record, with Larry Grenadier (double bass), Clarence Penn (drums), Mark Turner (saxophone) and Frank Woeste on piano.