Beginnings

Anouar Brahem was born on October 20th 1957 in Halfaouine, in the Medina of Tunis. Encouraged by his father, an engraver and printer but also a music-lover, Brahem began his studies of the oud, the lute of Arab world, at the age of ten, when he attended the Tunis National Conservatory of Music; his principal teacher was the oud master Ali Sriti. An exceptional student, by the age of fifteen Brahem was playing regularly with local orchestras, and at eighteen he decided to devote himself entirely to music. For four consecutive years Ali Sriti would receive him at his home every day, transmitting to him the modes, subtleties and secrets of Arab classical music in the traditional master/disciple relationship.

Little by little, Brahem began to broaden his field of listening to include other musical expressions from around the Mediterranean, Iran and India; and then jazz began to command his attention: "I enjoyed the change of environment," he says, "and I discovered the close links that exist between all these kinds of music".

Brahem increasingly distanced himself from an environment largely dominated by popular music. He wanted more than to perform at weddings or join one of the many existing ensembles; he considered them anachronistic, and the oud was usually no more than an accompanying-instrument for singers. Brahem was convinced that his instrument, a favourite of Arab music, should be given pride of place, and he began giving concerts to Tunisian audiences where the oud was a solo instrument. He also began writing his own compositions, giving a series of oud recitals in various cultural venues, and issuing a self-produced cassette on which he was accompanied by percussionist Lassad Hosni.

A loyal public of connoisseurs gradually rallied round him, and the Tunisian press gave him enthusiastic support. Reviewing one of Brahem's first performances, critic Hatem Touil wrote, "This talented young player has succeeded not only in overwhelming the audience, but also in giving non-vocal music in Tunisia its claim to nobility, while at the same time restoring the fortunes of the lute. Indeed, never has a lutist produced such pure sounds or concretized with such power and conviction the universality of musical experience."

The Eighties

In 1981, the urge to seek new experiences became even stronger for Brahem. His departure for Paris – that most cosmopolitan of cities – enabled him to meet musicians coming from very different genres and horizons. He remained there for four years, composing extensively, notably for Tunisian films and theatre. He collaborated with Maurice Béjart for his ballet "Thalassa Mare Nostrum", and with Gabriel Yared as the lutist for Costa Gavras’ film "Hanna K."

In 1985 he returned to Tunis; an invitation to perform at the Carthage Festival provided him with the opportunity to bring together, for "Liqua 85", many outstanding figures in Tunisian and Turkish music and French jazz. They included Abdelwaheb Berbech, the Erköse brothers, François Jeanneau, Jean-Paul Celea, François Couturier and others. It was Anouar Brahem's first great project and it met with huge success: aged only twenty-eight, he was awarded the "Grand Prix National de la Musique". He remains the youngest musician and composer ever to have received this distinction.

In 1987, Brahem was appointed Director of the Musical Ensemble of the City of Tunis (EMVT). Instead of preserving the large existing orchestra, he restructured it into formations of varying size and gave EMVT new orientations: one year the tendency was for new creations, and the next more for traditional music. The Ensembles' main productions were "Leïlatou Tayer" (1988) and "El Hizam El Dhahbi" (1989), in line with his early instrumental works and the main axis of his research. In these compositions, he remained essentially within a traditional, modal space, although he transformed its references and reordered its hierarchy. Following a natural disposition for an osmosis absorbing Mediterranean, African and Far-Eastern heritages, he also touched from time to time upon other musical expressions: European music, jazz and other forms.

With "Rabeb" (1989) and "Andalousiat" (1990), Anouar Brahem returned to classical Arab music. Despite the rich heritage transmitted by Ali Sriti, and the fact that this music constituted the core of his training, he had in fact, never performed it in public. With this "return" he wished to contribute to the urgent rehabilitation of this music. He put together a small ensemble, a "takht", the original form of the traditional orchestra, where each instrumentalist plays as both a soloist and improviser. Brahem believes this is the only means of restoring the spirit, the subtlety of the variations and the intimacy of this chamber music. He called upon the best Tunisian musicians – Béchir Selmi, Taoufik Zghonda – and thoroughly researched ancient manuscripts, taking rigorous care over transparency, nuances and details.

With "Ennaoura el achiqua" (1987), Brahem presented a performance of song which resulted from his association with the poet Ali Louati. In this exploration of vocal music, he revealed a desire to reacquaint himself with elaborate classical forms such as the "Quassid", following in the footsteps of Khemais Tarnane, Saied Derwich, Riadh Sombati and Mohamed Abdelwahab. "Ennaoura el achiqua", a marginal work which went against the grain, nevertheless had considerable impact on both press and public.

"Ennaoura el achiqua" was not to be his only incursion into the field of song. He would return to it occasionally, either in film-music or in association with a singer, and often with the complicity of Ali Louati. For instance, he collaborated with Nabiha Karaouli, whom he revealed to the public, and also Sonia M’barek, Saber Rebaï, Teresa de Sio, Franco Battiato and Lotfi Bouchnak, who sang "Ritek ma naaref ouin", composed in the spirit of an "imaginary folksong", and which, in an ironic twist of fate, became extremely popular, a must wedding celebrations…

In 1988, playing in front of an audience numbering 10,000, he opened the Carthage Festival with "Leilatou Tayer". The newspaper Tunis-Hebdo wrote: "If we had to elect the musician of the 80's, without the least hesitation we would choose Anouar Brahem".

The ECM Years

In 1990 he decided to leave the EMVT and embarked on a tour of the USA and Canada. It was on his return that he met Manfred Eicher, the producer/founder of the German label ECM Records in Munich, and their meeting resulted in a fruitful collaboration which undoubtedly marked a major evolution in Brahem's work (so far, nine albums have been born of their association, all of them extremely well-received by the international press and public on release). To inaugurate this collaboration, that same year Anouar chose to make his first record – Barzakh – together with two outstanding Tunisian musicians, Béchir Selmi and Lassad Hosni, with whom he had  already established a close artistic relationship. Considered by the German magazine "Stereo" as "a major musical event", this record not only allowed Anouar Brahem to reach a larger international audience; it also guaranteed his status as "an exceptional musician and improviser."

The following year, the heart of Conte de l’Incroyable Amour was improvisation. Recorded in 1991, its tone was quiet different, due notably to the remarkable presence of Barbarose Erköse, whose clarinet displayed its expressive powers, and the Sufi inspiration of the ney played by Kudsi Erguner. According to the French paper "Le Monde", "The album unfurls around the poetic talent of Anouar Brahem’s lute. One follows him with delight, around subtle arrangements of melody, through silences in musical phrases, and across the unspoken into oriental paths lit by the poetry of delicate beats." The same paper selected Conte de l’Incroyable Amour as one of 1992's best releases. That same year, he was solicited to conceive and take an active part in the creation of the Centre for Arab and Mediterranean Music at the palace of Baron d’Erlanger in Sidi Bou Saïd.

In November 1993, he fulfilled a dream that had long been dear to him: that of paying a worthy tribute to his master Ali Sriti who, for the occasion, agreed to return to the stage after an absence of nearly thirty years… Brahem set up "Awdet Tarab", a concert of traditional instrumental and vocal music, at the Erlanger Palace. The Tunisian public would retain an indelible memory of those duets played by master and pupil, accompanied by the voice of Sonia M’barek.

In 1994 he recorded Madar with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and the master of the tabla Shaukat Hussain, from Pakistan. The story of this record is simply told: Jan Garbarek was impressed by Brahem’s first two albums, and had expressed a desire to work with him; Brahem had admired Garbarek for years, and shared the same wish. So their encounter happened quite naturally, warmly encouraged by Manfred Eicher: Brahem and Garbarek were united in a common quest, the search for a universal tradition. Madar was a strong statement on how to achieve the mingling of traditions without harming the essence of each.

In parallel with his personal work, Anouar Brahem pursued occasional collaborations, notably composing original scores for many films and plays, among them "Sabots en Or" and "Bezness" by Nouri Bouzid; Ferid Boughedir’s "Halfaouine"; Moufida Tlatli’s "Les Silences du Palais" and "La Saison des Hommes"; "Iachou Shakespeare" and "Wannas El Kloub" by Mohamed Driss; and "El Amel", "Borj El Hammam" and "Bosten Jamalek" by the Theatre Phou.

With Khomsa in 1995, Brahem returned to some of the pieces he had always dreamed of performing in a free, airy and purely musical manner, a manner "freed from the chains of images and texts," as he put it. He assembled an eclectic formation to perform this music, including Richard Galliano (accordion), Palle Danielsson (double-bass), Jon Christensen (drums), François Couturier (piano), Jean-Marc Larché (saxophone) and Béchir Selmi (violin). The sextet put together by the composer also featured on oud – of course – and the ensemble was constantly divided into solos, duos and trios, "hence the dominant and delicious impression of being on a motionless voyage full of secret passages, of novel tones, of suspended endings," observed critic Alex Dutilh on the French radio-station France Musique. As for the British daily "The Guardian", it declared that "'Khomsa' is one of the great records of the year. Brahem is at the forefront of jazz because he is far beyond it."

Three years later Anouar Brahem was back in the studios. He picked up where he had left off with Madar, passionately exploring the orchestral form of the trio that much further, but this time in a context that was wide open to the infinite variety of the “worlds” of jazz. Brahem was flanked by two monumental musicians, both of them stalwarts of the ECM label for the last thirty years: saxophonist John Surman and double-bass player Dave Holland. They were the heralds of British free music in the late 60’s, and both have since pursued their own universes with great coherency, individualism and artistic perfection. With infinite delicacy, Anouar Brahem exposed the refined poetry of his instrument to the “risk” of improvisational concepts far removed from his own universe. The result was in keeping with the challenge: the album Thimar was an outstanding success, a meditative and supremely musical work permeated with intense poetry, and where each piece was played in a contemplative atmosphere of extreme concentration, as if in a waking dream. On this record, without deviating from his personal aesthetic, Anouar Brahem explored the “mysteries of jazz” to an extent he had never reached before. In Germany, Thimar received the “Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik", an award which was followed by “Best Jazz Album of the Year” in the British magazine Jazz Wise.

Astrakan Café, his sixth album in ten years for ECM, was released in September 2000. To the inattentive listener it appeared to be, if not a work of transition, then at least an introspective pause in Anouar Brahem’s career. This would be a misreading of this music of maturity, for although the oud player undoubtedly revisited the Oriental and Mediterranean roots of his universe, he did so, undeniably, with the benefit of the wealth of imaginary, aesthetic journeys contained in his preceding albums. Playing once again with his two most faithful partners – the clarinettist of Romany origin Barbaros Erköse, and Lassad Hosni, the Tunisian percussionist – Brahem drifted away on a wonderfully intimate, eminently personal line, celebrating the syncretic spirit of Arab music while enhancing the approach to improvisation and collective sound which had been a feature of his two great, all-embracing works Madar and Thimar.

2002 undeniably marked a turning-point in the career of Anouar Brahem: his album Le Pas du Chat Noir was a totally atypical, extremely personal and quite ambitious work, not only in its aesthetic choices but also in its fantastic orchestration, which caused a sensation while considerably renewing the components of Brahem's poetic universe. The album was another trio recording, but this time Brahem was accompanied by an old accomplice, pianist François Couturier, and, even more surprisingly, by the accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier. Anouar Brahem produced an extremely refined work of contemplative music whose richness of timbre – especially its miraculous, formal balance – referred listeners as much to the elegiac impressionism of French music from the beginning of the 20th century as to the meditative, sensualistic traditions present in Arab music. In "The New York Times", Adam Shatz echoed the general enthusiasm of the international media in an article where he stated, "If you consider that each orchestra collectively projects in its music a singular manner of being in the world, then the trio of Anouar Brahem, at once a jazz ensemble, a chamber orchestra and a traditional group, evokes a kind of 21st century Andalusia, where Arab and European sensibilities will have fused together so intimately that no frontier can any longer exist between them. All that might seem Utopian, but the beauty of this project is indisputable." The release of the record was followed by a long tour on both sides of the Atlantic, during which the group gained enormously in collective cohesion, while Anouar, every night, left a little more freedom to his companions in performing the repertoire.

In 2005, for the first time in his career, Anouar Brahem decided to take the same group into the studios for a second recording. Following an aesthetic line similar to Le Pas du Chat Noir – and perhaps delving further into the expressive outline by founding its essential discourse on nuances of timbre and increasingly sophisticated orchestral dynamics – the album Le Voyage de Sahar diffused its hypnotic poetry in subliminal fashion with a repertoire of new compositions filled with emotions, lyricism and elegance, accompanied by a reprise of three of the composer's most famous pieces – "Vague", "E la Nave Va" and "Halfaouine" — which became totally transfigured. It was a work of maturity, and it earned the musician an Edison Award in The Netherlands while providing the group with material to take on a new tour in Europe. It was a triumph.

The following year (2006), Anouar directed and coproduced his first documentary-film, entitled "Mots d'après la Guerre". It was a strong work of political commitment, set in Lebanon and articulated around interviews with Lebanese artists and intellectuals just after the cease-fire introduced that summer in the war between Israel and the Hezbollah. The film was selected for the 2007 Locarno Film Festival and met with great critical esteem. Brahem's increasing personal commitment to the world of films opened doors for him: in 2010 he was appointed to the Jury for the official feature-film selection shown at the Carthage Festival in Tunis.

That year, in a break with the "chamber-music" aesthetic of his two previous albums, Anouar Brahem released The Astounding Eyes of Rita, a record which proposed other bridges, other types of balance between modernism and the Arab tradition: it renewed with the tone of some of his previous works, like Barzakh and Conte de l’Incroyable Amour. Fronting a new group whose instrumentation was decidedly hybrid – a carpet of percussion laid down by Khaled Yassine, the misty bass clarinet of German reed-player Klaus Gesing, and the flexible electric bass of Björn Meyer from Sweden –, Anouar Brahem, as if playing his oud in zero gravity, invented a fleecy, dreamlike universe which derived its poetic refinement and immensely dilated sense of space as much from Scandinavian jazz as from Oriental meditative traditions. Dedicated to the great Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), this magnificent, intimist journey into the heart of sound marked a new phase in the constantly renewed marriage of Arab-music and Western traditions to which Brahem tirelessly continues to devote himself. The Astounding Eyes of Rita went on to receive one of Germany's most prestigious awards, the 2010 "Echo Deutscher Musikpreis" which, like the American Grammy Award, is attributed every year to the greatest national and international artists.

On December 9th 2009, following his new quartet's first Parisian concert (at Salle Pleyel), Anouar Brahem was decorated "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister for Culture and Communication, Frédéric Mitterrand.

In 2012, shortly after the revolution in Tunisia, Anouar Brahem was named a Life-Member of the Tunisian Academy for Science, the Arts and Literature.

In 2014, after a six-year recording-silence, Anouar Brahem published Souvenance, an ambitious work proposing a kind of synthesis of the multiple paths taken by his music since the end of the Nineties, and continuing his quest for a language common to both western and oriental traditions. The melodic enchantments of Anouar Brahem's oud, combined with the solo contributions of the members of his brand-new quartet -François Couturier on piano, Björn Meyer on electric bass and Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet- plunge into the drapes of sound furnished by arrangements for a string-ensemble which are at once sumptuous and minimalist, with the result that the music has become even more refined in its melodic lines and orchestral textures, revealing both contemplation and narrative subtleties in developments whose inspiration shows great purity.

Deeply permeated with his Arab music-legacy, yet also resolutely modern in his tastes and aesthetic orientations, Anouar Brahem is the very definition of “an artist of his time“, in other words, a musician turned towards the future and open to the great mutations of the world. This is no doubt the reason why he has no fear of "culture-shock". Better than that, Brahem has always delighted in provoking encounters with musicians of different horizons: Jan Garbarek, Richard Galliano, Dave Holland and John Surman of course, but also Manu Dibango, Manu Katché, Taralagati, Fareed Haque, Pierre Favre — all of them musicians who have at one time or another crossed paths with this adventurer in the world of Arab music. From every one of these encounters, Anouar Brahem has drawn the means to renew his universe while preserving his own identity. When asked about his inspiration, Anouar freely evokes the image of a tree which, "while rising above the ground and taking up more space, continues to develop and dig its roots deeper into the ground", an image which quite obviously has references to Tunis, his native city, a multi-faceted city rooted in its Arab-Muslim culture and nourished on its African and Mediterranean influences: a solar universe, as it were, one whose traces are always present in the work of this artist. Anouar Brahem believes that a tradition which is incapable of change and adaptation is doomed to die: which is why he has never hesitated to take up a challenge and open his music to new forms of expression. "It would seem," wrote Wolfgang Sandner in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung", "that the man from Tunisia has gone much further than many jazz musicians busily seeking out new music." There's no better way to put it.

 

Awards

Echo Jazz Award, Germany – 2010

Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, France – 2009

Edison Award, Netherlands – 2006

Prix National de la Musique, Tunisia – 1985

 

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