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Balkon3 interview with Rabih Abou Khalil: Bridging Cultural Divides

“When people speak about multiculturalism, it has never been different since humans left Africa and spread throughout the world. There is no pure culture. Anyone who thinks there is a pure culture… that is a fascist thinking. Everybody moved from one place to another – the Greeks, the Romans, everyone, everywhere. You can see blond people in Lebanon”.DSC_2889

Rabih Abou Khalil is one of the most respected virtuoso oud players and composers whose wide range of interests and insatiable curiosity for new music from around the globe has significantly enriched his own work. His music is his own universe where an ongoing dialogue between Khalil and the rest of the world has been occurring. He was born and raised in the cosmopolitan climate of Beirut, Lebanon, before the civil war that ravaged his homeland forced him to leave for Germany where he studied classical flute. In the past 30 years and with 20 albums behind he has carved out a unique niche where his works explores melodies and rhythms that incorporate compositional and improvisational elements that are common in Arabic, classical and jazz music. His philosophy of using music as a tool to bridge cultural divides has won over audiences everywhere. Among some of his pan-global projects is his recent venture with cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road band and has been composing music for various classical orchestras. Khalil, who has performed several times in Macedonia at the Skopje Jazz Festival, 2013 he performed at the Bitola World Music Festival when he premiered Hungry People (Harmonia Mundi, 2012), a reaction to happenings during the “Arab Spring” occurrences as well as other things that have been happening during that time. Khalil was in a jovial mood during the interview. He is a person of depth and thoughtfulness, spiked with a healthy dose of humor, which also has won him audiences worldwide, much like the one at the festival.


Your career has been characterized by endless risk takings, cross cultural endeavors that have reflected in unique music. What was it that inspired you to take a different route, to go upstream and not following a strict tradition thus entrenching into your own culture as many artists do these days?

Maybe it is because I am entrenched in my culture. That’s the reason. The musicians I play with, each one of them is profoundly ‘in’ their own culture. I think this is the only way this could work, to be comfortable with your own culture and then to be able to transcend it, in order to be able to do something more. When people ask me, which is natural, about how and why, I really have no plan or I don’t even try to do anything. For me, music is an emotional expression and not stylistic one. Therefore, naturally, everything I hear affects me. Everything I see affects me. Everything I feel affects me. But I didn’t have a plan where I would bring some multiculturalism. I was only working with musicians I could work with. They just happened to be from everywhere. So, if I hear somebody in Portugal, I’ll say great, I would like to work with this guy. He sounds like I can relate to him. Here is someone from a different culture. I lived for a long time in Germany, but I played very little with German musicians because I didn’t care if I live in Germany that I should necessarily play with them. That would have been practical if I had chosen German musicians. I wasn’t trying to avoid them as much as I was looking for personalities.

And when people speak about multiculturalism, it has never been different since humans left Africa and spread throughout the world. There is no pure culture. Anyone who thinks there is a pure culture… that is a fascist thinking. There is nothing pure. Everybody moved from one place to another – the Greeks, the Romans, everyone, everywhere. You can see blond people in Lebanon. My grandfather was blond and had blue eyes, and he comes from a village in the mountains in Lebanon. Multiculturalism is the basis of the human culture. Without it we wouldn’t go even one step ahead. Look at the Americans and their culture. It is not a culture at all. They are a bunch of people from around the world and they got together because of a certain interests to do some things.

DSC_292011So the meeting of cultures, of people from different corners of the Earth has always made cultures grow. Look at jazz—it is a meeting of Africa and Europe (not because they wanted to). The whole Roman Empire brought slaves from everywhere. In Rome, if you look at the Roman times it was the pinnacle of multiculturalism. They had slaves from everywhere. Even the emperors were from different corners of their empire —from Syria, Germania, everywhere. And each of them had added something to whatever was there. So when Mussolini came and said we want to keep the Italian culture pure, wait a minute—(laughs) this is already a mix of so many things. Thinking that we should keep things very pure is very, very wrong. Nothing grows when it is pure. You don’t drink pure coffee. You put water in it, milk, and sugar. Nothing we do is pure. Not even the emotions we have are pure. It’s always a mix of many things. It was a long answer (laughing)!

What was it like to be growing up in the 60s and 70s in a cosmopolitan city that pre-civil war Beirut was? Did that surrounding influence your way of thinking?

I think more than growing up in Beirut, really, was growing up with a certain mindset in the family. My father came from a small village in Lebanon and like it is the case sometimes with people from different corners of the world, he was interested in everything. He studied 8 languages which he spoke rather well. It wasn’t something that obviously ran in the family as his father worked with leather. But he was interested in that and he was not a religious man. So probably that helped all of us to be open to everything. We weren’t thinking, “Oh they are different,” so I think that was the part that made me at least feel I can open and take everything I need and to mix with different ideas. And it was of course that Lebanon was open back then. Actually, the whole of the Arab world was very open back then. It was not like it is today. Today we look at it and we think of it as something awful. Maybe that is true, but back then it was much more open. The Arab societies knew more about Europe than Europeans knew about us. That of course, helped in understanding them. And you know, my father is a poet and he was very much interested in everything that had to do with the word. That also transported itself into my thinking as well as the thinking of all of us. Of course today he would be the wrong person in that area (laughing).

What are people’s reactions in the Arab world or beyond to your endeavors in different music from around the world and then incorporating those influences into your own?

I have been receiving very mixed reactions, like with everything you do. It’s like when everyone agrees that something is good then it must be bad. People never all agree when something is good. There are all kinds of reactions. There are people who think that this is great and that this is something new and there are people that say, “Oh, but you have to keep with the tradition,” which is always a question I’m very touchy about, as when it comes to tradition, there is no such thing. What is traditional today was revolutionary yesterday, and if you study anything, if your memory goes anywhere beyond one generation you will realize that nothing was built the in the same way. Even if you try and make it and keep it the same, it just never stays the same. Everything changes. And so thinking that you have to stick to something actually kills it and suffocates it more than lets it grow.

Abou Khalil and Nenad Georgievski

Abou Khalil and Nenad Georgievski

When you delve into other people’s cultures and music you are passing through different spiritual elements that are interwoven in those cultures? Does spirituality play any part in your music?

Spirituality is such an incredibly vague expression that is very, very difficult to define what it is. In fact, we speak about it very little. For me it is important and I think it is something more that keeps the group going than anything that we might call spirituality or tapping into other people’s cultures or anything. I try to create families of the musicians that I work with. We are a family. We have been working together for 15 years now and we are still friends. We eat together, we sit together, we enjoy our time together, and we make music together that is something that is very likely to happen in the family. So if you want to call that spiritual, which in a way it is, and friendship is that and having the need to communicate each other, and still try to do new things every time we get to work together. We still play some of the old songs and every time it’s different. We look at them from a different time and different perspective. So that has changed. So, spirituality, in terms of anything religious, I think there is no room for that in anything creative.

Your new record, Hungry People was inspired by recent happenings in the Arab world, like the Arab spring, among other things.

I think it is a reference to a lot of things, including the Arab spring. Actually, it was done during that period, and maybe more than a political thought, it is more an emotional one. Of course I suffer because of many things, mainly maybe because of the impossibility to choose a side because I’m not acceptable (laughs). But in terms of being hungry, I think, the idea of hungry things is something that is very broad. We are always hungry for new things, for trying new things, and not just about eating. The hunger for everything you need and want is what keeps people do whatever they do, for whatever reason, right or wrong. I think hunger is what keeps everybody going and wanting to do something. It’s a driving force for anything. It’s what has made us move.

One of your recent projects was composing music for a silent movie, a powerful drama which was long thought to be lost, titled Nathan the Wise performed by the German Youth Orchestra.

That was music for a silent movie and was recently shown in Jerusalem. It was based on a book from the 19th century that was a basis for the movie. The book’s title is Nathan the Wise and was written by Ephraim Lessing, a German author who lived in the 19th century. The book is about tolerance which was very new at the time when it was written in the late 19th century Germany. It is a parable of tolerance between basically three religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and the story plays in the middle ages in Jerusalem. It was a reference to that. I have always admired the book and the story. It’s a theater piece, a drama. So when the people actually asked me to do the music for the movie, which is a silent movie, the interesting thing about it was that the movie was never shown anywhere because the Nazis shut it away. They had enough power to do that in 1922 when it came out. The film was filmed in Munich and the first time it was shown the Nazi party said, “No, this is not okay,” and it was prohibited. They found the only remaining copy in Moscow about 12 or 13 years ago. They took the copy and then they restored it. Then they asked me to do the music and I was very, very interested in doing that because it was a beautiful thing to do. That’s how it happened, which I think the CD which was supposed to come out with the film, because it is difficult to understand it without knowing actually what’s it about. But then, it just didn’t work out.

Has the film been out?

No, the film is not out, but you can see it at the museum it was shown at couple of times at three or four o’clock in the morning, which is the fate of these films (laughing). That is a pity because it is a beautiful film. It is two hours long. So, when I said yes, I will write the music for it, I said to myself, “It is a silent movie, what could be difficult here?” But writing two-hour material for an orchestra is not an easy task. To rehearse it, record it and actually do it was amazing. So far we played it twice to promote the film. It was wonderful. It would be nice if we could do it with the Macedonian philharmonic orchestra sometimes.


You still have fond memories of playing with the orchestra at the Skopje Jazz festival in 2008?

Yeah, I had a great time doing that. I enjoy working in Macedonia. As you know I like working with people and the culture. I don’t try to make my people, like the Frenchman to sound like an Arab or Italian. I’d rather like to see if we could find something that we could all speak about at the same time. And Macedonian music is close to my understanding and it is very easy to communicate with the orchestra regarding that side. It would be nice I could work with them again.

It’s your fourth performance here with various projects.

I feel understood here, funnily enough— musically understood. Usually people everywhere like my music and there is always a good response. Maybe it’s because this place is also a mix of so many different cultures. Even the food! I can taste something and would think, “Oh my mother could have made this.” So there are things that are similar, and in Macedonia, the music has a sense of rhythm that I feel very connected to. It was very easy to play because when I usually play with European musicians, the biggest problem is always the rhythm. I try to make them understand that it is not 1-2-3-4. It is not about this, but how it swings, and the rhythm which speaks. And I had no problem working with the Macedonian musicians. Of course, they are so easy to work with and then we can work on the music rather than technical parts.

Because folk music, which is very popular, is what our DNA is made of, and everyone grew up with it. Some of them also play it in their spare time.

Of course, that’s what everybody does and it’s very special in Macedonia. It’s very rare to see someone who doesn’t play an instrument. And if he isn’t playing, he is listening, which is the same thing. If you listen, you don’t have to play. It’s enough. This is very rare and I don’t see that in any other country, not even the countries around Macedonia. There is something very special about this subject. It was there from the first moment that we played here. It was like… whoa… it’s a different kind of audience.


You also took part in a multicultural musical project led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, The Silk Road project which gathered musicians and composers from more than 20 countries in Asia, Europe and South and North America.

They called me because they knew my music and wanted to do this. When they asked me again, I was a bit overworked and I wrote another song for them. For me, I arrive somewhere and I sit and see what people are working with, and I just try to work on the music. I really don’t think much about where they come from. I can sense what I’m comfortable with. I can sense people’s strengths, what they do best. And I like to work with that, to start from there and to work on that. This was a mix of many different people. Everybody had weaknesses and strengths, trying to get something there. It was a lot of fun. We stayed at a wonderful place and when he came he came to France (I live in the south of France), I saw him there. In fact it was my birthday, so we celebrated it together, which was a lot of fun. He does things which are similar to what I do. We share our minds about it. He is more serious about the cultural impact. All I care about is the music, really. At the end of the day, for me these are nice side-effects. This is not what I’m really looking for. I want to do music as much as I can. In that sense I had a very good rapport with Yo-Yo Ma and he is maybe even one step further than that because for him, all of that is a project. I’m trying to invent a word for that eventually—a “musico-political” project. It connects two words and this is something I really lack, at least that I consciously lack. I don’t really care where the people I work with come from – they can be blue, green, Christian, Jewish or Muslim. All I care is the music and to see how we can get it together.

Nenad Georgievski

photo: Bekim Mustafa