Anouar Brahem was born in 1957 in Halfaouine in the Medina of Tunis. Encouraged by his father, an engraver and printer, but also a music lover, Brahem began his studies of the oud, the lute of the Arab world, at the age of 10 at the Tunis National Conservatory of Music, where his principal teacher was the oud master Ali Sriti. An exceptional student, by the age of 15 Brahem was playing regularly with local orchestras. At 18 he decided to devote himself entirely to music. For four consecutive years Ali Sriti received him at home every day and continued to transmit to him the modes, subtleties and secrets of Arab classical music through the traditional master/disciple relationship.
Little by little Brahem began to broaden his field of listening to include other musical expressions, from around the Mediterranean and from Iran and India...then jazz began to command his attention. "I enjoyed the change of environment, " he says, "and discovered the close links that exist between all these musics".
Brahem increasingly distanced himself from an environment largely dominated by entertainment music. He wanted more than to perform at weddings or to join one of the many existing ensembles which he considered anachronistic and where the oud was usually no more than an accompanying instrument for singers. A deepfelt conviction led him to give first place to this preferred instrument of Arab music and to offer the Tunisian public instrumental and oud solo concerts. He began writing his own compositions, and gave a series of solo concerts in various cultural venues. He also issued a self-produced cassette, on which he was accompanied by percussionist Lassad Hosni.
A loyal public of connoisseurs gradually rallied around him, and the Tunisian press gave enthusiastic support. Reviewing one of Brahem's first performances, critic Hatem Touil wrote: "This talented young player has succeeded not only in overwhelming the audience but also in giving non-vocal music in Tunisia its claim to nobility while at the same time restoring the fortunes of the lute. Indeed, never has a lutist produced such pure sounds or concretized, with such power and conviction, the universality of musical experience."
In 1981, the urge to seek new experiences became ever stronger and his departure for Paris, that most cosmopolitan of cities, enabled him to meet musicians from very different genres. He remained for four years, composing extensively, notably for the Tunisian cinema, and performing in festivals around France (Avignon, La Chatreuse, Printemps de Bourges), in Yugoslavia, Spain and Italy. He collaborated with Maurice Béjart on the stage of the Palais des Sports in Paris for the ballet "Thalassa Mare Nostrum" and with Gabriel Yared as lutist for Costa Gavras film "Hanna K.".
In 1985 he returned to Tunis and an invitation to perform at the Carthage festival provided him with the opportunity of bringing together, for "Liqua 85", outstanding figures of Tunisian and Turkish music and French jazz. These
included Abdelwaheb Berbech, the Erköse brothers, François Jeanneau, Jean-Paul Celea, François Couturier and others. The success of the project earned Brahem Tunisia's Grand National Prize for Music.
In 1987, he was appointed director of the Musical Ensemble of the City of Tunis. Instead of keeping the large existing orchestra, he broke it up into formations of a variable size, giving it new orientations: one year in the direction of new creations and the next more towards traditional music. The main productions were "Leïlatou Tayer " (1988) and "El Hizam El Dhahbi" in line with his early instrumental works and following the main axis of his research. In these compositions, he remained essentially within the traditional modal space, although he transformed its references and upset its hierarchy. Following a natural disposition towards osmosis, which has absorbed the Mediterranean, African and Far-Eastern heritages, he also touched from time to time upon other musical expressions: European music, jazz and other forms.
With "Rabeb" (1989) and "Andalousiat" (1990), Anouar Brahem returned to classical Arab music. Despite the rich heritage transmitted by Ali Sriti and the fact that this music constituted the core of his training, he had, in fact, never performed it in public. With this "return" he wished to contribute to the urgent rehabilitation of the music. He put together a small ensemble, a "takht", the original form of the traditional orchestra, where each instrumentalist plays as both a soloist and as an improvisor. Brahem believes this is the only means of restoring the spirit, the subtlety of the variations, and the intimacy of this chamber music. He called upon the best Tunisian musicians, such as Béchir Selmi and Taoufik Zghonda, and undertook thorough research work on ancient manuscripts with strict care paid to transparency, nuances and details.
With "Ennaoura el achiqua" (1987), Brahem presented a performance of song, a result of his association with the poet Ali Louati. In this exploration of vocal music, he revealed a desire to reacquaint himself with its elaborate classical forms, such as the "Quassid", in the footsteps of Khemais Tarnane, Saied Derwich, Riadh Sombati and Mohamed Abdelwahab. "Ennaoura el achiqua", a marginal work, going against the grain, nevertheless had considerable impact on both press and public.
"Ennaoura el achiqua" was not to be his only incursion into the field of song. He would return to it from time to time, for film music or in association with a singer and often with the complicity of Ali Louati. For instance, he collaborated with Nabiha Karaouli whom he introduced to the public, Sonia Mbarek, Saber Rebaï, Teresa de Sio, Franco Battiato and Lotfi Bouchnak, who sang "Ritek ma naaref ouin", composed in the spirit of "imaginary folklore", and which, by an ironic twist of fate, became extremely popular, a "must" for every wedding party.
In 1988, before an audience of 10,000 he opened the Carthage festival with "Leilatou tayer". The newspaper Tunis-Hebdo wrote: "If we had to elect the musician of the 80's, we would, without the least hesitation, chose Anouar Brahem ".
In 1990, he decided to leave the Musical Ensemble of the City of Tunis and embarked on a tour to the USA and Canada where he was invited to perform in New York (Washington Square Church) at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, in Atlanta (Center Stage), in Chicago (Southend Music Works) and in Toronto (Afro Fest). It was upon his return that he met with Manfred Eicher, the producer/founder of the German label ECM Records, and from the meeting resulted a fruitful collaboration that without a doubt marked an important evolution in his work. So far, four albums have resulted from this association, received extremely well by the international press and the public.
The same year he chose to make his first record Barzakh with two outstanding Tunisian musicians with whom he had already established a close artistic relationship, Bechir Selmi and Lassad Hosni. Considered by the German magazine Stereo as "a major musical event" this record confirmed his position as "an exceptional musician and improvisor".
In Conte de lincroyable Amour, recorded in 1991, improvisation was at the heart of the game, and the tone was quite different, due in particular to the remarkable presence of Barbaros Erköse and the expressive power of his clarinet, and to the Sufic inspiration of Kudsi Erguners nai. According to Le Monde, "the album unfurls around the poetic talent of Anouar Brahems lute. One follows him with delight around the subtle arrangement of the melody, the silences of the musical phrasing, across the unspoken into oriental paths, in a poetry of light and delicate beats". The same paper selected Conte de l’incroyable Amour as one of the best records of 1992.
In 1994 he recorded Madar with the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and Pakistani master of tablas, Shaukat Hussain. The story of this record is simply told: Jan Garbarek was impressed by Brahems first two albums and had expressed the wish to work with him. Brahem, for his part, had admired the musician for years and shared the same wish. The meeting therefore came quite naturally, warmly encouraged by Manfred Eicher. Brahem and Garbarek were united in a common quest for a universal tradition. Madar constitutes a strong statement on how the mingling of traditions can be achieved without harming the essence of each.
Anouar Brahem has composed the original scores for many films and plays, amongst which, "Sabots en Or" and "Bezness" by Nouri Bouzid, Ferid Boughedirs "Halfaouine", Moufida Tlatlis "Les Silences du Palais" as well as for "Iachou Shakespeare" and "Wannas el kloub" by Mohamed Driss, "El Amel", "Borj El hammam" and "Bosten Jamalek" by the Theatre Phou. In "Khomsa" (1995), he picked up a few of these pieces which he had always dreamed of performing in a free, airy and purely musical manner, "freed from the chains of images and texts" as he put it.
He assembled an eclectic formation to perform this music, including Richard Galliano (accordion), Palle Danielsson (double-bass), Jon Christensen (drums), François Couturier (piano), Jean Marc Larché (saxophone), and Béchir Selmi (violin). The sextet brought together by the composer, also featured on oud of course, is constantly being divided into solos, duos, trios, "hence the dominant and delicious impression of being on a motionless voyage full of secret passages, of novel tones, of suspended endings", as Alex Dutilh put it in France Musique. The British daily The Guardian declared that "Khomsa is one of the great records of the year. Brahem is at the forefront of jazz because he is far beyond it".
Anouar Brahem's new album, Thimar, recorded with Dave Holland on bass and John Surman on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, will be released in May 1998. The same month the Brahem/Surman/Holland trio makes its live debut at the ECM festival in Badenweiler, Germany.
Oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem has travelled widely. In addition to countries already mentioned he has performed in Lebanon, England, Japan, Algeria, Morocco, Norway, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain...
In January 1995, he was invited to participate in the inauguration concerts of the new Cité de la Musique in Paris and was one of the first, after Boulez and Barenboim, to have set foot on its stage. He continues to perform regularly in Tunisia.
In 1992, he was appointed Advisor for Culture and was called upon to conceive and participate actively in the creation of the Centre for Arab and Mediterranean music in the palace of the Baron Erlanger at Sidi Bou Saïd.
In November 1993, he fulfilled a dream very dear to him for a long time: that of paying a worthy tribute to his master Ali Sriti, who for the occasion, agreed to return to the stage after having left it nearly thirty years earlier. Brahem set up "Awdet Tarab", a concert of traditional instrumental and sung music, at the Erlanger Palace. The Tunisian public will most certainly retain the indelible memory of the duos of the master and his pupil, accompanied by the voice of Sonia Mbarek.
Anouar Brahem is an artist who, while profoundly imbued with his Arab heritage, is unequivocably modern, well-anchored in his times and headed toward the future. He is, furthermore, an artist unperturbed by the clash of cultures. He has always enjoyed initiating meetings with musicians of different horizons: Jan Garbarek, Richard Galliano, Dave Holland and John Surman, of course, but also Manu Dibango, Manu Katché, Taralagati, Fareed Haque, Pierre Favre...finding in each meeting the means of renewing himself while retaining his own identity.
When questioned as to his inspiration, Brahem refers to "the tree which, while rising above the ground and taking up more space, continues to develop and dig its roots deeper into the ground", an image which quite obviously has references to Tunis, his native city, a multi-faceted city, rooted in its Arab-Moslem culture and nourished on its African and Mediterranean influences, a solar universe as it were, its traces always present in the artists work. In fact, he believes that a tradition which is unable to change and adapt is doomed to die. This is why he unhesitatingly takes up challenges and opens his music to new forms of expression. "It would seem," wrote Wolfgang Sandner in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazin, "that the man from Tunisia has gone much further than many jazz musicians in energetically seeking out new music".
Anouar Brahem Trio Astrakan café
Anouar Brahem oud; Barbaros Erköse clarinet; Lassad Hosni bendir, darbouka (released October 2000 - ECM)
The lute is an instrument laden with symbolic significance that marks like an acoustic icon the convergence of Asia, Europe, and Africa as they come together to form the irregular circumference of the Mediterranean. An oud player like Anouar Brahem, who has explored the most secret depths of sound and pondered long and lovingly on the legacy of the artistic music of the Arab world, and of the Islamic world in general, is thus a witness to cultural transformations as complex as they are profound.
The way Brahem's music resists classification is a measure of the quality of his artistic career. By eluding labels, or better by slipping through all kinds of definitions from jazz to, by way of world music, he has sanctioned a freedom of expression that is uncommon in the musical context within which he works. Between popular songs and large orchestras with a plethora of instruments there would seem to be little room for a soloist. Yet, with tenacious patience, Brahem has successfully carved out a niche for himself, in places where his instrument would seem relegated to a supporting role. If many young lutists of today think of the oud as a particularly expressive instrument then it is thanks to the example set by this Tunisian musician, as well as to that set by the Iraqi brothers Jamil and Mounir Bashir. Brahem's taste for the cosmopolitan forms of Arab music, influenced by the Turkish school, at once reveals his concept of the oud - a concept intimately linked with the essence of the traditional language, that transnational frontier represented by the modal constellations known to Arab musicians as maqamat - and the organological kinship between the various members of the great Mediterranean lute family. Hence the allusions to the guitar, the saz, and the baglama, seen as elements of a composite identity that highlights the affinities between these instruments.
Brahem's questing out towards the East, from Tunisia and the Arab world towards Asia, from Turkey to India, suggests a restlessness of spirit that has never been allayed. And there is no doubt that accuracy and perfectionism are highly significant, even quintessential, traits of the art of Islamic music. On the one hand there is the "classical" legacy, a certain penchant for melodic geometries and symmetrical patterns, and on the other a capacity for abstraction: from the present, from history, and from the material world. In Brahem's music all this combines to create a characteristically sublime and ethereal sound, a personal trademark if you will.
Fascinated by the cinema, the theatre, and dance, Brahem seeks out musical signs in all other forms of artistic expression in order to decant them into his pure distillate of sound. Elegance, transparency, simplicity, and above all an unmistakable style and touch. His mastery of the instrument springs from a school as illustrious as it is little known, that of his teacher Ali Sriti, a lover of "eastern" Arab music, in other words of the Syrian and Egyptian schools. From the subtle combination of the different modal sensibilities of the Mahreq and the Maghreb, and from the confluence of different improvisational styles, the Tunisian artist has created a fascinating and highly personal idea of Arab music, far removed from stereotypes, and one that makes no concessions to the fad for the oriental "revival" now afflicting a part of the musical output of this area. The gap between his work and current musical praxis in the Arab world is the mark of his awareness of a steady and rapid decline in artistic values. But rather than look to the past Brahem looks beyond, adumbrating a music free of any form of parochial self-satisfaction, a music that fortunately avoids the hybrid juxtapositions that spring from the mania for globalization. Shunning all forms of aesthetic or social theorizing, he lets the music speak for
itself, with a synthetic power that surprises and moves the listener.
Titles and footnotes tend to be pretexts for disquisitions on the creative process in music, which is stimulated by highly diverse factors. But Brahem's music can be listened to without any knowledge of his origins and culture, and it goes straight to the target all the same. The mellow and persuasive sweetness of his themes call up an acoustic imagery that knows no frontiers while the apparent tranquillity of his musical discourse conceals an explosive charge of silences, behind which there lurks a positive barrage of interrogatives.
If one were to seek a nexus or a direct comparison between the places evoked by the titles, from Asia Minor to the Caucasus, from Turkmenistan to Tanzania, from the Balkans to Azerbaijan, one would risk misleading listeners, accustomed to looking for correspondences between an artist's works and his biography. The most exciting thing about Brahem is precisely his capacity to project a contemporary dimension into the world of lute playing. While his music embraces the signs of the times it also seems to transcend them, but having said this it cannot be denied that his music has, perhaps unconsciously, absorbed much of the anguish caused by the events that filled the international pages of the newspapers between 1999 and 2000.
Over and above all these considerations there stands the instrument. The oud is the most evocative symbol in Arab music. It is its commonplace, essence, synthesis, and development. The theory of modes was based on and explained by the oud, from whose strings legends and cosmogonies have sprung. Its sounds have been compared to aspects of the human temperament itself. The oud player is the creator of a concept of music made
up of an extraordinary balance between technique, form, and inspiration. Brahem's instrumental explorations never stray from the model of the takht, that little ensemble of musicians capable of improvising to the point of inebriating themselves and the public alike. Barbaros Erköse's clarinet is not merely a clarinet, it is an instrument-region that runs straight across the Balkan world to express a wordless song of rare intensity. Brahem's first meeting with Erköse, a Turkish clarinettist of gypsy origins, took place in 1985 on the occasion of a project entitled Rencontre 85, which had an enormous impact on the Tunisian scene and which was the first of a series of creations that consecrated Brahem as his country's most original and promising artist.
Later, the Turkish virtuoso was to become a member of the quartet that recorded Conte de l'incroyable amour, a superb disc cut in 1992. The timbre of the clarinet is the ideal accompaniment for the lute in its modal forays and Brahem has often called in one of the Erköse brothers to accompany him during live concerts. The lucid and precise touch of the percussionist Lassad Hosni, who frequently co-operates with Brahem on his various projects, represents the perfect balance between accompaniment and musical ideas.
The elliptic and penetrating titles full of conceptual resonances that characterized his previous record production have given way to the image of a café. A place where people meet, come together, and move on, a place where geographical references never have a descriptive intention but call up modal nuances that refer in their turn to the world of the original classical tradition in which the mode is a place of the spirit encapsulated in the memory of various lands and peoples.
This record includes recent compositions and reinterpretations of older pieces performed by a trio made up of lute, clarinet, and percussion. Taken as a whole it is a portrait d'auteur that epitomizes different aspects of Brahem's creative activity, as it has been developing since the mid Eighties. For example, the disc contains the popular theme from Ferid Boughedir's film Halfaouine, which tells the story of life in the working-class district of the same name in the medina of Tunis, where the artist was born, and Parfum de gitane in which Brahem revisits the indissoluble bond between Iberian and Maghrebi culture, as well as versions of some "classics" from the Arab-Ottoman tradition - ever central to his musical development - the relatively explicit traces of which form the bases for some of the pieces on this CD, his sixth. It is precisely these classics that give us an overview of the career path taken by this Tunisian musician, today highly thought of in many countries.
His need to get out of the mainstream of the tradition, understood as the stratified sum of recognizable musical patterns, and to explore different territory has led him to cross the paths taken by other musicians, interpreters of musical cultures from various epochs and regions, from Renaissance music to flamenco, from jazz to classical Indian music. At a time when the dialogue between different schools of music was still innocent of today's frenetic vanity, Brahem was experimenting with encounters that have brought his capacity to assimilate and compare to maturity. The profound tension generated by respect for traditional models, on the one hand, and the desire for innovation, on the other, a tension that was moreover the mark of the most prestigious and renowned masters of the past, is the inspiration behind the music in Astrakan café. The overall effect is a perfect synthesis of the artistic personality of Brahem, now an outstanding figure in the world of Arab music.
The quality of this recording is also due to the complete acoustic equilibrium of a sacred place in which the three instruments can be heard to perfection. Brahem's oud leads us to discover a world that, although it may sound familiar, is nonetheless a source of unceasing fascination thanks to its capacity to reveal novel aspects of itself.