Anouar Brahem speaks quietly in a calm and poised voice, though he has every reason to be boastful. The 51-year-old Brahem is one of the greatest living oud (Arabian lute) players in the world. His is a love story - boy meets music - that has remained constant throughout his life. Brahem and two fellow musicians will display that passion tonight at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage's Dhafra Auditorium at 8.30pm as part of the Music of the World concert series.
Brahem loved listening to the radio in his native Tunis, and he begged his father to let him play an instrument. His father, a printer, agreed to let him try his hand at the oud and enrolled his son in the National Conservatory of Music in Tunis when Brahem was 10 years old. After studying classical technique with the oud master Ali Sriti at the conservatory, the young Brahem decided to devote himself entirely to private study with his professor.
Tunis's musical landscape was dominated at the time by entertainment-specific music such as that of wedding bands, with a heavy emphasis on vocalisation, lyrics and singing. Instead of joining a troupe of party performers, Brahem decided to forge his own way - performing without a singer and using the oud as the main point of interest in compositions. "In the Arabic world, the music that you hear is mainly singing," says Brahem by phone from his home in Tunis. "In Tunis at that time - it was the very beginning of the Eighties - I gave concerts of only instrumental music and played solo concerts, but it was at the time very bizarre to give this kind of concert."
In a short time, Brahem had built up a fan base, but he decided to move to Paris to immerse himself in jazz and other European traditions of music-making. Upon his return to Tunisia, he formed a group called Liqua 85, a celebrated combo of Turkish, French and Tunisian jazz musicians - what we would call "world music" today - that garnered him a national reputation and Tunisia's Grand National Prize for Music. Since then, Brahem has been busy composing songs for theatre, dance and cinema as well as for his performances and recordings. Over the decades that he has worked as a professional musician, Brahem has created more than a dozen film scores for Tunisian cinema.
"It is interesting for me to work for movies because I have passion for the cinema in general and the images sometimes give me inspiration that I don't get when I am working on my own music," says Brahem. "But to be honest, the most important thing for me when I start to compose and play is that I try to be very free. I just start as a writer, and I try to build it day by day." In Abu Dhabi, Brahem will be performing with the Romany-Turkish Barbaros Erköse on clarinet and the Tunisian Lassad Hosni on Arabic percussion instruments. The trio will be playing songs from their 2000 album Astrakan Café, which features a mix of Eurasian and Arabic sounds and virtuoso technique. "It's not a new project but I am continuing to play with this band because I like to play with Barbarose Erköse," says Brahem. "Now I am just recording my new CD, which will be released next autumn."
Brahem's soaring, delicate pieces take inspiration from Iran, Turkey and the Indian subcontinent and have a twinkly, jazzy syncopation. "Of course, as with all musicians and composers, I listen to many things from Arabic music and non-Arabic music and I certainly have also many influences because I love many types of music from around the world," he says. "I try to be as spontaneous as possible and not think about influences. It's very important to be yourself when you play - if you start to think about influences, maybe you will lose your inspiration."
He has played in the UAE previously, about three years ago. Though Brahem says he is excited about revisiting Abu Dhabi, he will take care not to be overly showy; he has often said that his audiences don't like fancy displays of technique. Neither does the oud player like to pinpoint the essence of work - that is something for the audiences to ponder. "I am a musician who really doesn't want to define the music," he laughs. "I prefer to let the people listen to it and have their own ideas."