Kamal Musallam on Five Arabic Instrumental Tracks

By Adam Grundey - UAE

The Dubai-based oudist and guitarist discusses his latest projects and selects five great instrumentals you have to hear

Kamal Musallam at Asean Jazz festival, Singapore
Kamal Musallam at Asean Jazz festival, Singapore © Wisnu Haryo Yudhanto

Two decades and counting into a career in which he’s established himself as one of the Middle East’s most acclaimed instrumentalists, you’d forgive Dubai-based oudist and guitarist Kamal Musallam if he was thinking of slowing down a little. He’s been on the go pretty much constantly since the late Nineties – whether composing and performing with one of several projects he leads, or arranging and producing the work of others, or releasing records on his independent label K&G (which recently released Syrian singer Racha Rizk’s debut album). It seems, though, that he has no intention of taking life any easier.

“Music is such a vast, vague subject. There are so many things you can do,” he says. “I don’t think I could gather all my musical desires into one thing. I need to diversify and have several channels. All these projects have their own spirit and they function on their own.”

Kamal Musallam
Kamal Musallam © ANDI SALAKAESA

Arriving sometime this month, he says, will be the debut album from “a fantastic project” called World Peace Trio, which features Musallam, Indonesian pianist Dwiki Dharmawan and the London-based saxophonist/clarinetist Gilad Atzmon. Their self-titled debut will be released on the much-admired independent German jazz label Enja Records, and they have a short European tour booked for July.

Dharmawan is also a part of another Musallam project called Eastmania, whose debut should drop later this year (although recording started back in 2010). Eastmania also includes jazz greats Billy Cobham on drums and Kai Eckhardt on bass, and it’s clear Musallam is excited about it.

“It’s a platform through which I wanted to celebrate the connections between the Middle East and the Asian cultures of the Silk Road, with a backup of Western music from the modern world underneath,” he says. ”Traditional instruments from Asia and traditional ways of playing them all meeting with Middle Eastern sounds. There’s so many influences that have travelled between the Middle East and [Asia] through the route of commerce, but also through religion, languages and traditions. And music as well.”

And Musallam’s newest project is a (still unnamed) trio with Dubai-based electronic artist and classical cellist Aaron Kim and UK-based tabla player Sarathy Korwar. In early May they played a gig at The Fridge that was unusual even by Musallam’s standards – and he’s done a lot of last-minute, semi-improvised performances.

As Musallam tells it, Korwar was invited to Dubai to perform by the British Council. Via The Fridge, they reached out to Musallam to see if he would be interested in collaborating with Korwar. “I said, ‘Why not? But why don’t we involve something different too?’ And Aaron’s name came to mind immediately. We’d been talking for a long time about doing something. I like Aaron. He’s very creative in his electronic approach – analogue electronic music. I’ve always been interested in electronic music, but I never knew where to start, and I thought this could be a good opportunity.”

Kamal Musallam at  Sikka 2017
Kamal Musallam at Sikka 2017 © Janelle Bernardo

The three musicians met just once, for eight hours, before their performance. “We tried things out, made some notes and created four or five tracks,” Musallam explains. “Then three days later we did the concert.”

He admits that having so little time to put a coherent show together is a little daunting. “It is a bit worrying,” he says with a laugh. “But, when you’re working with professionals, they’re not there to nag you and pick at things, they’re there to get the job done properly. So you can really work fast.”

As nerve-wracking as an on-the-spot performance can be, Musallam says there’s a thrill and beauty to it as well. “I love the instinctive stuff,” he says. “In those situations, the only thing we need to focus on is the dynamics of the show. We just avoid anything that will bring any of us into monotony, or into a zone we can’t get out of, because people will feel that and then it all just drops. So let’s keep the dynamics – if we need silence, we make silence; if one of us needs to pull out at some point, just do it. Don’t worry. Anyone who’s not sure about something, don’t do it. The others can replace. We’re all awake; we’re there, and we’re all creative. As long as we’re listening to each other, paying attention, then we can create something on the spot that sounds as if it was prepared.”

That crucial ability to listen, he says, doesn’t always come naturally to musicians. “We all have egos,” he says. “But it’s like, you don’t just enter a house without knocking and start telling everyone about yourself. You ring the bell first. And you wait for someone to open it. Then you go in and say ‘Hi.’ You can’t just impose yourself on other people without getting them ready for that. So you have to listen well, and you have to observe well. Get input from around you, know who you’re meeting, and whether they’re ready to receive from you. But most of the time, that doesn’t happen. Musicians impose themselves on others. It’s about self-management, and listening is a major tool in that.”

Kamal Musallam at Sikka 2017
Kamal Musallam at Sikka 2017 © Janelle Bernardo

To get an idea of how Musallam honed his listening skills, we asked him to recommend five instrumental tracks with a Middle Eastern flavour that music-lovers should check out. Here’s what he came up with:


Ziad Rahbani – “Abu Ali”

He’s one of my biggest influences. He’s so talented. This track is a very famous one from the early Eighties. Very fusion-y with some Arabic parts. It was so fresh and up-to-date at that time, and still is today. It has all these jazz elements, but with all these Arabic sounds.

Ziad Rahbani – “Mais El Reem”

This is another very famous track from Ziad. It was the introduction to one of Fayrouz’s theatre pieces [Fayrouz is Ziad’s mother]. This was his first composition – he would have been only 22 or so. I think the melody’s very intelligent. These two pieces have something in common; they were really the first time I heard layers of music from different worlds working together properly. So he kept the tradition of each instrument doing its thing, and he succeeded in marrying those traditions without diluting them. He found a common ground where they can play together, and speak together in one piece, and you end up in such a fresh journey that’s so enjoyable, and it expands your mind because you end up going East and West in the same moment. It’s uniting cultures in one song. And you end up feeling enriched. You finish the song and you want to hear it again. I love this kind of music. It’s why I do what I do.

Ammar El Sherei – “Rafat Al Hajjan”

This is the music from a TV series in the late Eighties and early Nineties. It’s orchestral, so obviously it has this big sound, but it also has these parts where the Arabic instruments come in, whether it’s the oud or the ney or percussion, and they’re played in such a sensational way, improvising between the orchestral sounds, which makes a nice contrast. It lifts the Arabic sound to another level.

Marcel Khalife – “Jadal” [album]

I don’t remember the individual track names. This is a full instrumental album with two ouds and one bass oud, which they built especially for this record. It was the first time I heard two ouds in conversation. Usually, in the classic Arabic set-up, you just find one of each instrument, so this was really interesting, because with two ouds it’s a dialogue, more of a friendship. It’s a different spirit and it really shows the oud in a different dimension. It’s not just a lead instrument or a backing instrument; it’s something that can be both at the same time.

Omar Khorshid – “Laylet Hob"

Omar’s an Egyptian guitarist who’s kind of forgotten now, but he used to be big. He was the first person who put quartertones on an electric guitar. One of Umm Kulthum’s composers was also a fusion composer; he introduced Western instruments into her music and he asked Omar Khorshid – who was a rock & roll guitarist at the time – to join her band and play Arabic lines on a guitar. Omar Khorshid says, ‘I can’t do that. A guitar’s all semitones.’ So they put quartertones on a couple of frets and he managed to play those lines. This was late Sixties/early Seventies. After Umm Kulthum died, Omar Khorshid re-recorded lots of the introductions to her songs on electric guitar with keys and Arabic percussion. Those records became so famous – they still sell today. And this is one of those tracks.

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