Ibrahim Maalouf: “Culture is made to change over time”

DUBAI: For a man who has 16 albums to his name, who has sold tickets from Paris to New York, has performed with Sting, Juliette Gréco and Jon Batiste, among others, who is managed by legendary American producer Quincy Jones and who became in the first French virtuoso of the trumpet, the Franco-Lebanese musician Ibrahim Maalouf maintains a strange relationship with the instrument that gave him international fame.

“I grew up playing the trumpet, because my father (Nassim) was a trumpeter. But I didn’t like it,” Maalouf told Arab News from his home in the Paris suburbs.

“I know it’s strange to say that now, given how much this instrument has given me. It may seem a little rude to my father, but I have to be honest, ”he continues. “I played classical music on the trumpet and my dad played it really loud. He liked the trumpet. He loved the piano and played it all the time. When he had to play the trumpet, it was not really a pleasure. It was mainly because the sound hurt my ears. My father played high notes that show that one is strong. I was not like that at all, he was very shy and intimidated by everything. He didn’t recognize me in his style of play.

Maalouf has a strange relationship with the instrument that made him famous internationally. (Photo provided)

Maalouf was born in Beirut in 1980, five years after the start of the Lebanese civil war. “My mother gave birth to me in a hospital under bombs,” she says. They emigrated “immediately” to France, intending to stay there only until the situation in Lebanon calms down. They have not lived in their native country since then.

“My father left Lebanon at the age of 24. He was a farmer in the Lebanese mountains. He didn’t know anything about French culture, but he loved the trumpet above all else. He left everything to come to France, where he didn’t know anyone,” says Maalouf. “He wanted to be a trumpeter and a classical musician; He didn’t want it at all.”

This meeting coincides just before the International Jazz Day, which is celebrated every year on April 30. For Maalouf, who grew up listening to classical Arabic and Western music, listening to jazz for the first time as a teenager was a true turning point in his life.

Maalouf grew up listening to classical Arabic and Western music. (Photo provided)

“I bought a Miles Davis CD, listened to it and…boom! I realized that “we have the right to play the trumpet with soft notes, something that whispers like a human voice”. “Since then, everything has changed for me,” he says. “I started listening to Chet Baker, Jon Hassell and Miles, of course. They were playing the trumpet in a way that I thought was forbidden. It was seeing people softly play and whisper their instruments without having to sound aggressive that I fell in love with jazz.”

Maalouf regards jazz as the “music of freedom” and rejects purists who reject experimentation in this musical genre.

“They love it so much that they are afraid it will change over time and become something else,” he says. “But in fact, culture is made to change over time.”

Ibrahim Maalouf’s repertoire often incorporates elements of Arabic music, including the deep tarab and the slow, soulful mawaal. To achieve this sound, he plays quarter tones, notes unique to Arabic music and not found in Western music, on a special trumpet that has an extra valve, invented by his father. “It’s my culture,” he said. That’s how I express myself.”

Maalouf is known for putting a surprising and unique spin on classic songs like Oum Kalthoum’s 1969 hit Alf Leila Wa Leila, which he performed with a jazz quintet on his 2015 album ‘Kalthoum’.

Franco-Lebanese trumpeter, teacher, composer and arranger Ibrahim Maalouf walks down a Beirut street with Baalbeck International Festival president Nayla De Freige on May 25, 2017. (Photo provided)

“People would say to me, ‘You’re playing a traditional tune. You will hurt him. Don’t change it; people are going to be mad at you.” And I thought, “Why? This melody is so beautiful and I give it a different shape.

During the July 14, 2021 celebrations at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, he put his own spin on La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, by giving this traditionally loud chant a quieter, more relaxing beat. She knew that his performance would arouse emotions.
“Obviously we will be deleted on Twitter,” he said in a video on his Facebook page at the time. “If that’s the price to pay, I’m delighted.”

Maalouf is often described as a musician who “connects two worlds” with his music. However, it is a description with which he does not agree.

“I don’t see myself as someone who brings together Middle Eastern culture and jazz,” he explains. I just see myself as an ordinary person, painting a picture of the times we live in with music. I don’t even mind mixing jazz and Middle Eastern, it just mixes naturally. I’m just witnessing the natural mixing that happens through human beings all over the world. Thanks to the internet, and we are the internet generation, it exists everywhere.

Maalouf is often described as a musician who “builds a bridge between two worlds” with his music. (Photo provided)

“I understand that to market music you have to name it,” he continues. “But when it comes to the music itself, that’s where we have to be very careful. Why do we have to reduce everything that we are, everything that you are and what I am to simply being “an Arab living in France”? Should we give ourselves names and give names to cultures? You name a culture and a second later it’s something else.”

He offers an example of the “natural mix” he speaks of. “When he was at the Lincoln Jazz Center in New York, he played in front of jazz fans; listening to the melody of Oum Kalthoum, they exclaimed: “He is so cool!” You see? We share the same melodies, it’s just a matter of how you shape them.”

Maalouf refutes attempts to categorize him and his music. He composes film music. He produces rap records. He is interested in hip-hop culture. “The older I get, the younger the music I listen to,” he says. “I’m like a researcher in a lab, working with tubes and chemicals, and I get interesting colors and textures. I prefer to be defined as an experimenter.

Leave a Reply