x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Blowing his own trumpet: how jazz inspired the classically trained Ibrahim Maalouf to go his own way

The award-winning trumpeter is continually fusing genres and styles from West and East.

Ibrahim Maalouf performing at Juan-Les-Pins Jazz Festival in July 2013. Maalouf was trained in classical and Arabian music, but discovering Miles Davis changed his life. Didier Baverel / WireImage / Getty Images
Ibrahim Maalouf performing at Juan-Les-Pins Jazz Festival in July 2013. Maalouf was trained in classical and Arabian music, but discovering Miles Davis changed his life. Didier Baverel / WireImage / Getty Images

Ibrahim Maalouf’s virtuoso trumpet travels from Arabian maqams to classical music, funk, hip-hop, heavy metal and folk, crossing boundaries and calling for ­dialogue.

The song Busy, for instance, opens with a smooth electronic beat, followed by melancholic trumpet notes. Gentle percussion slowly creates a mysterious, nocturnal atmosphere – enveloping and sensual. The percussion intensifies, then is joined by loud electric guitar until it all eventually collapses in cacophony – and finally the chaos subsides and the quiet mood returns.

The composer Ibrahim Maalouf wrote this piece, which is featured on his latest album Illusions [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], as a child during the Lebanese civil war, when his father turned on the speakerphone while waiting for his relatives in Beirut to pick up the line. In these moments of angst, not knowing if there was life or death on the other end of the line, young Maalouf walked over to the piano and played soft melodies to soothe his family’s nerves.

Maalouf, who is now based in Paris, carries these painful memories, as well as joyful ones, everywhere on his nomadic journey.

One of the leading, and best-selling, jazz musicians and composers in France today and the winner of countless awards, including the Victoires de la Musique (Best World Music Album, 2014), Victoires du Jazz (Artist of the Year, 2013) and Unesco’s Young Artist for Intercultural Dialogue Between Arab and Western Worlds, he moves fluidly between genres and cultures to compose rich, multilayered sounds that range from darkness to whimsicality.

Maalouf has played with performers as varied as Amadou & Mariam, Lhasa de Sela, Sting, Arthur H and Marcel Khalife. He directed the slam poet Grand Corps Malade’s fourth album, Funambule, and created the soundtrack for the recently launched Yves Saint Laurent biopic, for Red Rose by the Iranian filmmaker Sepideh Farsi and for La Crème de la Crème by Kim Chapiron. He has composed for orchestras and pop musicians, teaches at several institutions and now produces young artists under his label, Mi’ster Productions.

Illusions is his fifth album and ­pushes his boundary-crossing even farther while adopting a lighter tone, allowing a wider audience to appreciate his music. He is touring internationally to promote the album until the end of the year and will be playing at the Byblos International Festival in Lebanon on August 6.

Maalouf, now 34, is often described as a prodigy – indeed, his musical training began very early in his childhood. Exiled at a young age, he learnt music from his father, Nassim, and mother Nada, a piano teacher (his uncle is the writer Amin Maalouf; his grandfather was the musicologist, poet and journalist Rushdi Maalouf). At the age of 9 he began touring with his father internationally, playing a baroque repertoire.

“It was always obvious to me that music was my life,” explains Maalouf on a break between concerts. “It was always the most important thing in life. Playing with my dad allowed me to get closer to him and so we shared the stage. He taught me classical and Arab repertoires.”

In fact, Nassim had crafted an “Oriental” trumpet with an additional valve that allowed him to play the quarter tones of Arabian music. At home the Maaloufs listened to the Arabian classics and to classical music; slowly young Ibrahim discovered pop, hip-hop and hard rock.

It wasn’t until his teens that he discovered jazz, when a friend told him about Miles Davis’s soundtrack for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Davis’s sensual, moody style struck Maalouf, who had always been taught to play with a big, full sound. “I wanted to play much more slowly, with a much softer sound, and I had previously thought that it was not allowed. Miles showed me that it was,” he remembers. Jazz, the sound of freedom, was an escape from a childhood of rigorous training and flawless interpretations – a world of sensuality, expression and innovation.

At that time Maalouf was pursuing scientific studies and playing the most demanding pieces of the classical repertoire by Vivaldi, Purcell and Bach with his father. When the great trumpeter Maurice André saw Maalouf interpret Bach’s extremely challenging Brandenberg Concerto No 2 at age 15, he urged him to pursue music professionally. Maalouf enrolled at the regional conservatory then at Paris’s Higher National Conservatory, entered several competitions and earned 15 international awards – but he felt oppressed and exhausted by the rigid and demanding standards of the classical music world and contemplated giving up.

In 1999 Maalouf started playing his own compositions, which he had been working on since childhood, with his band Farah – mixing nay, buzuq and Arabian percussion with traditional jazz instruments. The highlight of his artistic exploration, however, came in 2004 with his encounter with the American musician Lhasa de Sela, who drew a cult following with her heartfelt songs inspired by Mexican, Spanish and French folk traditions.

“It was the most beautiful encounter I’ve ever had,” remembers Maalouf of the deceased singer. “She made me realise that I could make a very personal sound, a strong identity. She had such freedom. She had this incredible capacity to bring together all the identities she had in this music that only she could make. That’s why she spoke to everyone. Her voice was unique; no one sang or composed like Lhasa.”

Maalouf began to experiment with electro, funk, African, Latin, free jazz, hip-hop and hard rock, playing with different musicians both live and in the studio and seeking a voice of his own. He also delved into free improvisation, on stage and in the studio. His first album, Diaspora (2007), reflected his cross-cultural wanderings – and his search for a personal musical identity. Electronic samplings mingled with Oriental melodies, mad percussion, electric guitar riffs and Maalouf’s signature trumpet solos – enchanting whispers, moments of quiet meditation and poetry. He reinterpreted Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia, the first in a series of playful takes on classics – Fairuz on his second, Michael Jackson on his third and Rihanna on his latest.

Breaking free from the dogmas of classical music and jazz, indeed from categories and boundaries altogether, Maalouf has been obsessively searching for a true individual expression – a quest he has sometimes compared to psychoanalysis, a personal saviour. Yet through his collaborations, through his sonic voyages, mash-ups and rule-breaking, he has opened up broader – and essential – questions about society and dialogue. Why must we label things, and order them in categories? Why can’t we understand the other’s point of view? How can we hang on to our identity while opening up to the world?

Wisely, Maalouf insists this journey is a personal one, and is adamant about playing solely for pleasure – his own and the audience’s. “I never believed in a militant vision of music,” he says. “Music is a necessity, not a militant act. This is just how I express myself most naturally. I have things to say, and all I want is for people to listen.”

Shirine Saad is a regular contributor to The Review.