The French-Lebanese jazz musician marks Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening with a show dedicated to legendary Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum and her classic hit
Ibrahim Maalouf to bring own interpretation of Alf Leila wa Leila to Louvre Abu Dhabi
To consider how far Arabic pop music has moved on from the Golden Age of the 1950s to early 1970s, consider this fact: one of the biggest hits of the era was Umm Kulthum’s Alf Leila wa Leila (One Thousand and One Nights) – a lush, expansive suite of songs stretching up to an hour with a series of verses ranging from five to 25 minutes. More like a concerto, in fact.
Released in 1969, it remains a pinnacle of the classical Arabic music form called Tarab.
Egyptian master composer Baligh Hamdi’s orchestral arrangements undulate from meditative moments to propulsive flourishes. Kulthum’s crystalline vocals are dynamic; in one moment she battles with the yearning strings, while in other parts she is resigned to a hushed intimacy as she details the vagaries of love.
Indeed, Alf Leila wa Leila’s lyrics are full of quotable lines pertaining to matters of the heart; the most popular being the starry-eyed declaration: “What is life, but a night like tonight.”
Ibrahim Maalouf will conjure some of that grandeur tonight through his own interpretation of this classic. The French-Lebanese trumpeter and his band will perform the full composition of Alf Leila wa Leila as part of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s series of concerts to celebrate its opening.
Maalouf’s instrumental treatment has already been recorded on the 2015 album Kalthoum, which became one of the biggest-selling jazz titles in France, in addition to winning plaudits from New York’s jazz aficionados when it was performed at Jazz at Lincoln Centre last year.
Maalouf says the project began with the idea of celebrating influential women in history. “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,” he says.
After fleeing to Paris as a child with his family during the Lebanese Civil War, the 37-year-old recalls one of the first musical tasks he received from his musician father was to learn the songs of Umm Kulthum.
“He just absolutely loved her,” he recalls. “He made sure that I paid attention to these songs and to sing them correctly. So her music was being played in our home nearly every single day, and remains so until today.”
Teaming up with American pianist Frank Woeste to transcribe the songs, Maalouf says he wasn’t looking to produce a faithful instrumental cover. “I look at it as a form of translation,” he says.
“I'm taking this music, which is based on one language, and reproducing it in another language. And, like any translation, you need to keep the integrity of the original work. You still need to be as accurate as you can and as honest as you can.”
In Kalthoum, Maalouf straddles both artistic worlds; on one side you have the modern jazz stylings courtesy of United States musicians, with Woeste joined by Mark Turner (saxophone), Larry Grenadier (double bass) and Clarence Penn (drums), while the region is evoked through Maalouf’s unique quarter-tone trumpet. Invented by Maalouf’s father, the trumpet’s unique configuration boasts a fourth valve, allowing the instrument the tonal flexibility to play the Arabian modes often restricted within the trumpet’s traditional three-valve setting.
That said, Maalouf is wary of the album being viewed under a “fusion” or “world music” label. He explains that he was not attempting to infuse jazz music with Arabic flavours, or vice versa. The music in Kalthoum, he explains, all shares a common history.
“Jazz music already has quarter-tone maqams. And it’s actually very logical because jazz’s heritage is blues and its ancestor is African music which has the same quarter tones as Arabic music,” says Maalouf.
“So when a jazz musician is playing some avant-garde piece in a little club in New York, he is actually playing Arabic music, even though they don’t know it.”
Not everyone appreciates Maalouf’s inclusive approach – he says that in some French jazz circles he is still viewed with suspicion. He recalls that nearly all his albums have been rebuffed by conservative critics who see his music not as jazz but as instrumental pop music riding on the coattails of the genre.
“There was one musician... a trumpet player, who posted a picture online of himself spitting at a picture of me. So this idea that the jazz world is all about freedom is not always the case, there are still people involved with limited thinking,” he says.
“It does make me sad at times. It’s like me arriving at your house for a meal and I bring some of my own food that we can share. Some people will find this interesting and they will blend and mix the food, while others will be upset and think that this is totally wrong and weird.”
Ibrahim Maalouf performs at the Plaza, Louvre Abu Dhabi, tonight. The show starts at 9pm. Tickets are Dh200, from www.louvreabudhabi.ae