Before world renowned trumpet player Ibrahim Maalouf blew Egypt away with his first concert at the foot of the pyramids, he sat down to talk with Sanabel al-Najjar about his love for the instrument, his musical diversity, and how he makes his music speak.
Music is constantly playing in the background of our everyday lives - an old man turning on the radio for some classical music that evokes in him a nostalgia to older times, smiling as memories rush to his ears; music blasting at the wedding of a couple who have fought the world to finally be together; scratchy music coming out of a tiny, dusty radio next to a Khan el Khalili store owner enjoying his morning shisha; a Fayrouz song playing in the car as a family takes a long-awaited road trip; and that tough night when nothing on earth was a consolation but a song playing in our ears on repeat, walking with headphones past a world that momentarily was non-existent.
What is perhaps most staggering about music as an experience is the myriad of ways in which its elements can be fused and merged, creating a world of intangible greatness. We see that more often nowadays, with the vast exposure of musicians to each other's works, coming from different backgrounds, times, and tastes. Naturally, one of the musicians who easily comes to mind when thinking about this is the legendary trumpeter, Ibrahim Maalouf.
Lebanese-French Maalouf, at an astonishing age of only nine years old, was already touring with his father Nassim Maalouf, the ingenuous trumpeter who added a fourth valve to the trumpet thus creating the microtonal trumpet that allowed for playing Arabic music on the instrument. Nassim Maalouf taught his son, who was already very receptive of the wonders of this instrument, to play different kinds of music, such as classical, modern, contemporary and others. Only six years later, 15 year-old Maalouf was able to interpret one of the most difficult pieces played on a trumpet: Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto.
His deep exposure to the trumpet and the different genres of music, together with his ever-growing curiosity about the instrument and, of course, the abundance of his innate talent, provided Maalouf with a strong head start to pursuing his passion. However, as his music career evolved, he chose to introduce a very rich combination of Arabic music into his classic and contemporary Jazz playing. He also added Funk, Hip Hop, and even Electro to the mix. The outcome is a very rare musical synthesis made up of unique musical genres that - somehow - converge perfectly into each other.
This can be easily heard in any of his musical pieces. Beirut, which starts off with a melancholic air and gradually rises to climax, is one such song that showcases the stunning combination of instruments and musical genres. Kalthoum, his most recent album (released in 2015), pays homage to el sett -the great Oum Kalthoum - by creating his own cover of her most renowned song, A Thousand And One Nights (Alf Leila o Leila).
On Sunday, and for the first time ever, Ibrahim Maalouf held a concert and played at the foot of the pyramids. Yes, it was as fantastic as it sounds. On top of that, I got the incredible chance to actually sit and chat with him before the concert. Yes, it was as fantastic as it sounds.
I took the liberty to ask the question that had been on my mind since I found out about the quarter note trumpet and read more about the accomplishments of Maalouf Senior; I asked Maalouf whether he would still have been as interested and as passionate in playing the trumpet had his dad not been an excellent trumpeter. “He loved the trumpet so much and I believe that my father’s love for the trumpet definitely made me get more into it,” Maalouf responded.
The trumpet, however, is not the only instrument the world renowned musician plays; he also plays the piano (he plays the keyboard in concerts) and the drums. “I also love singing, even though I am not a singer and I am not that good, but I like singing," he added.
No worries, Maalouf, I am sure we can find it in our hearts to forgive that.
Maalouf also added that he is very interested in anything computer related. When asked whether this was why he would infuse his music with Electro, he said, “Maybe. I also think that electronics have a richness to them that is not found in acoustics and vice versa. You can go crazy with acoustic instruments in a way you could never do with electronics.”
When asked why he did not just keep to classic Jazz or Oriental music only, Maalouf replies that, as is already evident in his musical pieces, “I’ve never really enjoyed being put in a box. I like the fact that music and culture are always changing, and even though I love Classical music and Jazz, and many other genres, when it comes to me creating something, I don’t like copying or imitating. I really like to go deep inside what I have to say so I can bring to the table ideas that actually suit each other, even though they might be completely different from each other. My music always reflects me.”
Maalouf and I discussed an important issue that most artists usually find themselves battling with: how to include their message in an artistic context. “Every musical piece I create has a meaning, a reason; there is always a story behind it. It’s never music for music's sake, it’s music because I’m saying things. This is part of music and I can’t separate it from the songs.” In the video for Maalouf's Run the World, two French cops drive to a certain place where they were told immigrants would be. They head there with feelings of hostility but are surprised to see Maalouf playing the trumpet and a girl dancing, after which they all shake hands. The message in the video was clearly about breaking stereotypes and embracing other human beings without racism or discrimination.
I asked Maalouf about why he chose to articulate such a political message through his music even though most artists would have shied away from doing so. Maalouf, however, did not see that it was a political message and usually does not like to voice anything political; but, in this case, “it was difficult not to express oneself, and the video is not political as much as it is social. I try my best to make people understand that when there is something that is not right happening somewhere else, it has consequences on us and we need to help those who are suffering.”
By now, it should be easy to deduce that Maalouf doesn’t like going down the beaten path. In fact, he told me that he always tries his best to incorporate new elements in his music so that he never ends up creating a repeat of a previous album. This is the case, even though sometimes people try to convince him otherwise since producing a similar album to one that did very well is a guaranteed option, Maalouf knows that his fans are receptive to and very much like the changing flavours in his music.
After thanking Maalouf for his time, strolling around, and of course grabbing a bite (or two) with friends, it was time for the concert!
On stage at the Sound and Light Theatre, Maalouf, along with the other international musicians accompanying him, played as the pyramids stood in all their majesty behind them, even more majestic by night. The Sphinx on the right was showered in the blue stage light while the sound of Maalouf’s glorious trumpet merged in perfect unison with that of the beating drums, the piano, and the guitar, creating a perfect harmony of a distinctly jazzy feel. Many among the audience were dancing in their places or with partners. The music was resounding beyond the stage, creating an invisible shell of musical echo that was definitely an exceptional experience, to say the least. The tunes were joyous, festive, and celebratory of life; and, together with the once-in-a-lifetime scenery, it made for an unforgettable night indeed.
Music is constantly playing in the background of our everyday lives. Music carries entire universes to us and places them, invisibly, in our palms. Enjoying music should not be perceived as a luxury, but more of a reaffirmation of life in us and a celebration of it. As Maalouf played the trumpet, sending beauty into the space embracing the pyramids, one could not but help feel a surge of gratitude for being present and alive. Music is constantly playing in the background of our everyday lives; we just need to sit back and listen.
Photo shoot by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions
Photography by Ahmed Najeeb and Ali Bahr.
Interview shot on location at Mena House Hotel.