A major Tunisian artist, Anouar Brahem talks to Qwest TV about his latest album, his career, his years in Paris and his passion for the cinema. He will appear at the Jazz in Marciac festival on August 4.

With expressive prowess, Anouar Brahem sums up the essence of his musical signature for the past three decades in two words: maqam blues. “Maqam” for the system of melodic modes whose variants range from Maghreb to Central Asia and China, and “blues” for the color of the note associated with jazz, which has been abused almost to the point where it has become a sickening cliché. Trained in one and drawn by the other, the oud player has allowed his curiosity to be his guide, a map of exploration that today is enriched with the collaboration with two titans of jazz, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland, and a pianist who has already become an idol, Django Bates.

Blue Maqams, his twelfth album for ECM

Blue Maqams was recorded with a jazz rhythm section (piano, bass and drums), which is unusual in your discography!

I’ve only done it once before. I made a CD in 1995 where I did a reprise of several themes exclusively from film music. It featured François Couturier on piano, the excellent Palle Danielsson on bass, Jon Christensen, Béchir Selmi, Jean-Marc Larché and Richard Galliano on accordion. After that disc, I never recorded with a jazz rhythm section again until now.

Instead, there’s the recurring presence of clarinet and accordion, In terms of timbre, are these two instruments that go especially well with the oud?

Bass clarinet sounds wonderful with the oud. There’s a whole range of sound between the lows, the mid-tones and the highs… It has such a warm sound. It’s an instrument that’s special to me and that really inspires me.

In terms of writing?

For playing the melodies. It’s like an extension of the voice. That doesn’t mean that it’s the only instrument that interests me, but when I have to choose one to accompany my melodies, my choice leans more toward the clarinet! It can have great power or great sensuality… In the low range, there’s also a little roughness to the texture. It’s a sound that can be very delicate, very earthy in the low range, but also very airy. It has a whole range of rich colors. And it’s an instrument made of wood!

Were you looking for something specific when you were searching for a pianist?

A connection to what I wrote. Anyway, that’s what I found in Django Bates when Manfred made me listen to his debut recording without telling me who it was. I’d been looking for months. Manfred was coming to record a CD with a musician. I didn’t know him. Listening to this CD gave me the feeling that it would be good to work with him, and I don’t regret it!

In your introductory text to the album, you write that there’s a delicate relationship between the piano and the oud. Could you be more specific?

The piano is an orchestral instrument. It has a full range of dynamics. Meanwhile, the oud has a tiny sound. Also, I make excessive use of pianissimi, which makes it even more difficult for a pianist to accompany me. That, among other reasons, is why I was looking for a pianist who could play with great subtlety. And in jazz music, it isn’t always evident, because the pianists often have the tendency to play a little loud. I’m not a fine connoisseur of either jazz or classical music. But I have the tendency to think that the classical music repertoire gives musicians the capacity to play piano and pianissimo. The pianist I chose would need to have this somewhat classical perspective.

And Django Bates has experience in the area of classical music?

I got that feeling because of how his playing goes to the very heart of the piano, how he caresses it… I thought he did. Seeing his touch, I was led to believe that he had classical training. But not so much, actually. It has more to do with his musical sensitivity.

Has working with jazz musicians for such a long time taught you to get away from the idea of perfection and precise interpretation of what you’ve composed?

When recording, I focus a lot of my concentration on the interpretation and the playing, expressly to make that kind of freedom possible. It’s true that, in the studio, you always feel like you can do two, three or even four takes. But the first ones are often the best because they’re the freshest. It’s kind of like the takes in a film. You often lose something in the retakes. That’s why it’s better to accept the first ones, which are more inspired, even if they aren’t perfect.

Even after a concert, I have to wait a long time before I can listen to the recording. I think it’s common for many musicians to never be satisfied with their performance. It’s something that haunts all of us because you see yourself in a mirror. You’re always looking for perfection, but with time, you learn to accept that it’s impossible.

The ECM venture and the role of Manfred Eicher

Why did you choose ECM?

For a musician like me, it was a dream to be with a label like ECM. It was the preferred one. I followed its evolution, I knew the music of the artists who made their recordings on it and I knew the high artistic standards of this label… Its whole reputation! I read articles about it and interviews with Manfred. It was the ultimate for me to be able to record for them, just as it was for any other young or not-so-young artist at the time.

In Tunis, it was more difficult at first, but I was starting to become a little more well-known and giving concerts. There was no record publishing company in Tunisia. There were some cassette producers, but they mostly just produced pop. And anyway, it was right at the time when I was looking for a label so I could record my music. I sent a cassette to Manfred. After that, he called me and offered to record my first disc.

What is your arrangement with him?

We’ve formed a wonderful bond over time. The idea of liberty is essential to me because music is, first and foremost, a place for freedom. Personally, I don’t give myself any specific guidelines when I start working on a project. I need the ideas to come on their own and then see how they develop. That’s the only way I work, and Manfred is very respectful of that—of every musician’s identity. And yet he still plays an important role in the creative process. I might happen to have an idea of the musicians I’d like to work with, just as one happens to be talking about it. I spontaneously thought of Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette for the rhythm section. But I hadn’t found my pianist. We talked about it a lot. He’s someone who knows musicians and music very well, He’s the one who made me listen to, and then meet, Django Bates. After which, I decided to do the CD with him.

We talked on the phone and exchanged ideas. It’s rare for him to listen to music before the studio. But once he got there, he also played a very important role. I learned to trust him. In the studio, I was playing the role of composer and musician at the same time and was a bit torn between the two. And he could be helpful. So it depends, whether you take the recordings home with you and spend weeks listening to them before returning to the studio or whether you mix right away. Anyway, Manfred Eicher has one hell of a talent for seeing the big picture when I’m too hung up on the details to step back and see things clearly. That’s why I have total faith in his expertise. Except for the mic I use to record with, I completely trust him with everything.

I read that, at the time, you found Arab music to be very conservative and conformist. Has that changed?

Yes, without a doubt. It was a different time. My idols and my teachers were all traditional musicians. They were much more creative and innovative in their day. There was a kind of golden age at the beginning of the twentieth century with a whole slew of musicians in cities like Cairo, which at that time, was for jazz like New York City is today. There was a generation of oud players with strong personalities. It was a very creative and free time. But by the fifties and sixties, the pendulum swung the other way. Things became very conservative. Right now, everything is possible for musicians. They still need to have the means to be well-trained, to have the possibility of performing… There are a lot more openings now. But the necessary means for this generation to get a serious music education and for them to express themselves are still lacking.

How did you fall in love with jazz at that time? Is there a change in the way it’s received by the public today?

There’s been a huge change. I remember when I gave my first solo concerts—I was playing my own compositions—in Tunis, the musicians thought I was crazy. Arab music is primarily vocal. There wasn’t a tradition of hearing instruments. But strangely, people came! It was in a small hall with a relatively small audience, but there was one! Today, despite what one might think, there’s a significant young audience. A solo oud player can fill a concert hall. Also, you can have a much larger audience in Tunis than in Europe.

Paris, cinema and film music

You lived in Paris in the early eighties. Did you go there to study?

No, not at all. I’ve never done any higher education studies in music. I only went to the Tunis Conservatory. Afterwards, I had the good fortune to have a teacher in Tunis. Those were important years for me.

In 1980, I came to France for a new experience. In 1980, I started giving instrumental music concerts in Tunisia, with no singing. It was an oddity at that time. Arab music is primarily vocal. I wanted to meet musicians from diverse horizons. After being curious and listening to different kinds of music, I had the irresistible urge to meet the musicians who made it. That was the main reason I went to Paris. But it wasn’t only the music.

If I have one strong memory of my time in Paris, it’s the cinema. At that time, it was fascinating for me to be able to see four masterpieces in a single day. A Fellini film in the morning, then one by Pasolini… To me, Paris is the capital of cinema, in the original versions. I was interested in cinema, but it was hard to have films. And access to the cinema isn’t the same as to a concert. It’s more immediate. You buy your ticket and then go into a dark theater.

And compared to a concert?

You have to get the tickets a little bit ahead of time. At that time, films were more accessible in terms of price. This isn’t to say that I didn’t go to concerts. But I went to the cinema more often. I found more interesting things there. It’s weird, but that’s the way it is!

Has the role of cinema evolved in Tunis?

Unfortunately not. In France, theater operators have struck oil with their multiplexes and such. In Tunis, theater chains are shrinking like crazy because people watch films on DVDs that are often pirated and sold for practically nothing. Unfortunately, theater chains are withering away little by little. There are some people who purchase the old theaters and refurbish them. The films come, but the selection isn’t anything like it is in Paris. Even though the situation in Paris has also gotten worse. The films aren’t on the marquees as long. I have more trouble finding what I want to see. The runs end too soon. I often hear about a film, but by the time I get to Paris, it isn’t playing anymore. And the problem is that I can’t bring myself to watch films on DVD. I just can’t.

It ruins the film.

My wife knows everything that’s going on because she watches it on DVD. As for me, I can’t watch a film on a small screen. I feel like it completely changes everything. And there’s also a certain kind of magic in the theater: the sound, the darkness of the room, the attitude, the moment… It’s a total experience! Instead of watching it all alone, you’re with other people, and you aren’t interrupted by the phone or your kid.

And memories are created! When you pass by a theater, even years later, you remember all the films you saw there.

Personally, I remember the cinema-clubs in Tunis. I had a friend who was very interested in cinema. Back in the seventies, after you’d see a film, you’d walk the deserted streets of Tunis for hours, talking endlessly about it, recreating the world. It was quite an experience. Sometimes I’d catch several films on TV and fall upon a real gem. But I’m not going to put in a DVD on my own.

Were there some theaters you went to more than others?

Was there always that circle of independent theaters? I don’t remember the streets anymore…

On Rue Champollion, there are three, below Place de la Sorbonne: the Reflet Médicis, the Filmothèque in the Latin Quarter and the Champo.

Exactly! And I lived in Les Gobelins. So I mostly went to the cinema over there. I wasn’t far from Montparnasse, so I also went there. And then, those theaters in the Latin Quarter.

So it was a real attraction to cinema that led you to record film music? Something like that doesn’t just happen because of professional circumstances!

Right! I often say that I didn’t have an interest in film music per se, but rather in cinema, in the films, themselves. When I was younger, I was closer to the world of cinema, theater and the plastic arts than to the world of music. To me, the music world seemed isolated. Musicians aren’t usually interested in many other forms of artistic expression. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the world. I found the people very interesting, open and cultured. When I started giving concerts, some filmmakers came to me and asked me to do the music for their film. And it was my interest in cinema that drew me in. And it was cinema that gave me the opportunity to enjoy musical experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. At that time, I didn’t have a producer. And there wasn’t any demand for what I wanted to do musically. In the early eighties, things were still very compartmentalized. And in my case, as a non-European musician, I fell automatically into the ethnic or even folk category. At the time, I wasn’t into that at all. Even if I came from traditional music and knew it, I wanted most of all to play my music calling on musicians from diverse horizons. Cinema gave me that opportunity. It brought joy to my heart to invite musicians from all over to record this film music. They were independent films, and the directors gave me carte blanche. And that’s what interested me. Today, in the film industry, things are very different. Everything’s more controlled and directed.

Do you still do it a lot?

Much less. It’s a question of time, linked to the constraints of cinema production. I’m not a professional. I can’t compose a film score in ten days. I need time. And I need to know well in advance. The way cinema production works, there are very short deadlines. That’s why they often work with whoever is available. In my most recent experiences, the timing was often off. We would be expecting the editing to be finished at a certain time so I could have three or four months to work. But it was never ready on time. I’d find myself with an unrealistic deadline. It was complicated from that perspective.

Anouar Brahem, Blue Maqâms (ECM, 2017)

Concerts :

  • 14th October, Le Colisée, Roubaix, France
  • 18th March 2019, Auditorium National, Lyon, France

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union