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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Mawazine 2018: How Ara Malikian tells his story with the violin

The Lebanese-born Spanish musician wants to expand people’s perceptions of the instrument

Ara Malikian performs at the Mawazine Festival in Rabat, Morocco. Picture by Hakim Joundy
Ara Malikian performs at the Mawazine Festival in Rabat, Morocco. Picture by Hakim Joundy

If you've got a good story, then it needs to be told.

Such was the thinking for the Lebanese-born Spanish violinist Ari Malikian as he embarked on his latest year-long world tour.

And judging by its success, including a high-profile showing at London’s prestigious Barbican in May and last week’s sold-out show at the Mawazine Festival in Morocco, The Incredible Story of Violin is a melodic tale that has well and truly resonated with audiences.

It begins with Malikian's birth in Beirut. It was 1968 and before long Lebanon was experiencing the full scourge of civil war. Although he did not know it at the time, the violin sessions shared with his father from the age of 8 were as as much about taking his mind away from the carnage as the development of his talent.

“The war was going on at the time” he recalls before his Mawazine show in the Moroccan capital Rabat.

“We would play in bomb shelters. My father would bring his guitarist friend and there was also a singer. Even during those times, we found a way to have fun.”

Knowing your roots

But it was also a rigorous learning process. Malikian recalls stemming tears from all the intensive training his father – a renowned bandleader in Beirut at the time – gave him.

Malikian learnt from early on that it was more than just the music for his father. The violin he was entrusted to play as a child belonged to his grandfather, who brought it with him to Lebanon after escaping the mass killings of Armenians by Turkish troops in 1915.

Amid the chaos of the Lebanese civil war, Malikian realised that playing his grandfather’s violin and being trained by his father was a way to remain rooted before he grew up to take on the nomadic life of a musician.

Indeed, this a tale Malikian repeatedly tells during his shows from South America to Japan, all the while playing his grandfather’s violin on stage.

But Malikian’s shows are not just steeped in his memories. Now aged 50, he has forged his own path as virtuoso player who has managed to blend his Middle Eastern roots with various other genres ranging from flamenco to samba to classic rock.

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Having performed with esteemed European orchestras and even enjoying a short spell touring with 80’s pop star Boy George, Malikian – who now resides in Spain – says he wants to be remembered as someone who expanded people’s perceptions of what the violin can do.

“It has long been thought of as this stiff instrument,” he says.

“But if people come to our shows they will see the different ways we can play the violin and the different kind of feelings that it can bring.”

Paganini was the first true rock star

Indeed, Malikian’s show at the Mawazine Festival can be best described as “strings on steroids”.

Dressed in ragged black leather pants and combat boots, Malikian and his two fellow strings-men resembled extras from a Mad Max movie. Backed by a guitarist, two percussionists and a pair of cellos, they conjured a thunderous sound with a repertoire that moved seamlessly from upbeat gypsy jams and plaintive Armenian folk tunes to a dramatic cover of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir.

Malikian says the latter track wasn’t done simply as a crowd-pleaser. In fact, he sees a clear correlation between the violin and flamboyant rock.

“The violin in a way was the first rock instrument of its time,” he says.

“Take the [18th-century Italian violinist and composer] Paganini for instance. As far as I am concerned, he was the first true rock star. He changed the concept of what a concert could be. People from all over would travel not just to hear him play, but to see his performance as well. His shows were visual and full of stories, and I feel that I am also following that by telling my own story with the violin.”

Check out Arts & Culture for all the latest news and interviews from The Mawazine Festival in Morocco. The festival continues until June 30

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