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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Kamal Musallam on playing with Sting, meeting John McLaughlin, and a whirlwind two years

Kamal Musallam onstage. Courtesy Kamal Musallam
Kamal Musallam onstage. Courtesy Kamal Musallam

A stalwart of the UAE music scene for more than a decade, Kamal Musallam is a busy man. Never more so than the past two years, when the Jordanian jazz-fusionist has taken on more ambitious projects than ever – only you might not have heard about them, as the lion’s share have taken place on far flung soil.

To correct this perceived wrong, the oud and guitar virtuoso has shared a moving mail-out listing his happiest moments of the past 18 months.

Topping this list of jaw-droppers is Musallam’s collaboration with none other than the mighty Sting. That rather special evening actually took place at Dubai World Trade Centre in March – but it was a private party for the Young Presidents’ Organization, so few fans got to hear the magic.

The short set featured Police songs and improvisations, with Sting on vocals and guitar and Musallam on oud, alongside tabla player Rashmi Bhatt.

“This was a one of a kind, totally improvised experiment,” remembers Musallam.

“What a courageously talented man. The crowd was just stunned, with a standing ovation in a hall of 3,000 people.” Watch a video of Desert Rose below.

However, of longer lasting significance is Musallam’s role in a new fusion super-group, combining esteemed players from three different nationalities and faiths. Premiered at Jakarta’s Jazz Kota Tua festival in October, the World Peace Trio features Musallam alongside London-based Israeli sax and clarinet trailblazer Gilad Atzmon – one of the most famous faces on the UK jazz scene – and Indonesian pianist and film composer Dwiki Dharmawan. The footage is compelling, so it’s great to hear the trio have already recorded a debut album, set for release later this year. Check the preview here.

Both bandmates also feature in a recent revival of Musallam’s silk road-inspired EastMania project. Originally premiered at the 2010 Asian Games in China with an all-star cast including American drumming great Billy Cobham, the new line-up performed at the inaugural Bali World Music Festival in December, and also featured bassist Adi Dharmawan, percussionist Nasser Salameh, drummer Asaf Sirkis and Sisca on guzheng harp. Watch a clip here.

At home, Musallam also showcased a blisteringly new regular live trio, featuring drummer Sangoma Everett and bassist Soren Hansen, glimpsed onstage last month at Jazz@PizzaExpress and at the new Jazz Beach series in Jumeirah.

As a producer and label head, Musallam has also been busy. Notably, he was the man behind Moldovan violinist Pasha Cazan’s instrumental collection Back From the Souq – released by his K&G imprint, and recently declared the second bestselling UAE album of the past 12 months (see the full top ten here).

Musallam also broke fresh ground by collaborating with local groove-centric DJ Mostyn Rischmueller [AKA Megadon Betamax] to create a track for an international fashion brand’s Campaign 4 Change concept. Watch it here.

Other recent highlights include gigs in Madagascar alongside Malagasy musicians in October, at the Frankfurt Book Fair in August, and performing alongside two other string virtuosos – harp guitarist Jason Carter and Sting session man Dominic Miller – at Abu Dhabi’s Volvo Ocean Race in December 2014, under the banner A Sea of Strings.

However by far the most inspiring moment came in late 2015, when Musallam met his ultimate hero, John McLaughlin – the guitar master renowned for both his contributions to Miles Davis’s 1970s electric records, and his long and restless solo career.

It was actually the pair’s second encounter. Shortly after recording his first album On A Jordan River’s Side, Musallam cornered McLaughlin at Lebanon’s Beiteddine Festival in 1999, where the British guitarist told his admirer “music is everything – work hard”.

This time, 16 years later, Musallam had rather more music to share – thrusting copies of his six releases at McLaughin.

“Expressing gratitude to the master is always a blessing,” he says. “Even with only a few wise words of advice, when said from the heart, those can change the world.”

Find out more at www.kamalmusallam.com.