Shifting between genres, French-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf has become one of the most popular European instrumentalists worldwide at the age of 41. He will make his Belgian return on Thursday evening in Arena 5 in Brussels.
Ibrahim Maalouf ended up in Paris as a child when he fled Beirut with his parents in the 1980s from the violence of war. In the French capital he perfected his trumpet playing with his father, who himself had once traveled to the city of lights to pursue his musical dream.
‘It is impossible to understand my path without knowing my father’s,’ says Maalouf. He released ’40 melodies’ last year. He then returns to the foundation of his music: the melodies that he played together with his father as a little boy.
‘My father Nassim boarded a boat to France in the 1960s, without money and without speaking the language. But he did have a dream: one day to study the trumpet at the Paris Conservatory. At 21 he had fallen in love with the instrument. That dream seemed out of reach for an illiterate person who dropped out of school at nine because my grandparents couldn’t afford it.’
‘Yet little by little he has succeeded in making his dream come true, initially thanks to his teacher, the French trumpet legend Maurice André. Later on, my father revolutionized the trumpet by adding a fourth valve together with a Parisian instrument builder, so that he could play the often somewhat mystical sounding Arabic quarter tones and compose oriental classical music.’
Without that fourth valve, Maalouf would never have started trumpeting, he readily admits. ‘With that extra valve I could play both powerfully and softly, bringing music from my Lebanese and Arabic culture as well as from France. This allowed me to accompany chansonniers such as Georges Moustaki and Vincent Delerm, but also to interpret jazz, blues, rock and even hard rock. I thought it was magical that one instrument could be such an engine of creativity and connection.’
My father was strict in classical teaching and told me I was wrong if I wanted to mix classical or Arabic melodies with other genres again. But it was my way. Later he would be at peace with it.’
The open mind with which Maalouf seeks out cross-fertilization is also reflected in ’40 mélodies’. This is the trumpeter’s twelfth studio album on which he adapted pieces from his entire oeuvre – from his 2007 debut album ‘Diasporas’ over the numerous soundtracks to his recent Latin foray ‘S3NS’ – into duets. He brings them together with the Belgian guitarist François Deporte. The result sounds more intimate (and sometimes even more nostalgic) than we are used to from him.
The double album was launched with a video in which the duo performs a corona-proof version of the breakthrough track ‘Beirut’ in the empty amphitheater of Nîmes. You can recognize the wide range of genres from which Maalouf draws inspiration from the choice of guest musicians. Pop musician Sting, Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, American jazz bassist Marcus Miller and the renowned Kronos Quartet, among others, make their appearance.
Commuting between genres has never been a problem for Maalouf. ‘It is difficult to be recognized as a classical trumpeter with my Arabic background. At international competitions I was always the odd guy with that extra valve.’
His origins also played tricks on him in the French jazz world. ‘Until today I experience the consequences of a certain artistic fascism, while jazz stands for freedom for me.’ Maalouf found the explanation of this contradiction in the book ‘Les identités meurtrières’ – translated as ‘Murderous Identities’ – by his uncle, the journalist and writer Amin Maalouf. ‘Fragile cultures that fear disappearing often do the exact opposite of what they should do to survive. Instead of becoming an open house and continuing to evolve, they will shield themselves from the outside world for fear that their place will be taken.’
The other daddy
Maalouf once had an animated but painful discussion about it with the American trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis. ‘He’s my god, in jazz and on trumpet, in everything really. But just before a joint concert in Marciac, he stunned me. I never pretended to be a jazz man, but I love the genre and would love to belong to ‘the family’. If he, as the daddy of jazz, acknowledged that, it would mean a lot to me too, I told him.’
‘ But he explained to me that if I called my music jazz I would take his culture away from him, as if jazz could only be the jazz of New Orleans and the black community. To me, identity means something completely different. People are afraid of multiculturalism. They think that if we mix colors, we wipe them out. But mixing colors has never suppressed an original culture. On the contrary. Isn’t it because you mix yellow and blue and green is created that yellow and blue suddenly serve no purpose?’