Grumblin’ Ole Geezer @ Ibrahim Maalouf

Goosebump-inducing microtonal escapades

I only became aware of Ibrahim Maalouf and his work recently, a few months ago… But as soon as I heard the first track by Maalouf by pure coincidence (True Story, it just played on Deezer one day), I knew I had to hear more. Since then I’ve “studied” his whole discography and was very happy when I heard he had a gig scheduled here in Berlin for 23 February – I went out and bought tickets immediately. It was the right decision, because yesterday’s concert was one of the most goosebump-inducing events I’ve attended recently.

Admittedly, I was quite a bit concerned when I found out the concert would take place in Konzerthaus Berlin. I’ll freely admit that I prefer louder, more rock-oriented fusion concerts to any “chamber music” events by far, so I was immediately worried that this would be a very gentle acoustic affair. What else to think, when the concert hall looks like this:


Photos by Sebastian Runge, “borrowed” from

Unfortunately, my concerns were well-founded and instead of the electric bass and guitar I had hoped for, Maalouf’s lineup featured double bass and sax – no electric guitar. Damn, there go my heavy metal horns. The acoustics were as problematic as expected, because the hall is surely better suited to classical music than fusion bands. At this point I couldn’t help but wonder why in the hell jazz/fusion concerts are discriminated against in such a manner? Maalouf, judging by his jocular comments, seemed equally surprised at the pure “fanciness” of the venue he had just filled to the brim. A Simon Phillips concert I’d seen back in Slovenia ages ago came to mind, when Mr. Phillips was so frustrated with this “jazz discrimination” that he refused to play encore until the seated audience vacated their thrones.

This time such a thing – getting off our butts and remaining afoot for more than five minutes – would have been a tall order, because for some reason I couldn’t quite explain about a quarter of the yesterday’s audience were pensioners (unless it was some sort of a season-ticket-for-the-Konzerthaus thing?). Half of the audience, though, were obviously musicians and their significant others, which was to be expected… And another quarter consisted of Frenchpersons and Maalouf’s Middle-Eastern compatriots (many of whom knew the lyrics to the tunes Maalouf’s trumpet toyed with).

You see, the thing was, the Lebanese-French Maalouf and his crew performed Kalthoum, his newest album and homage to the Egyptian songstress Oum Kalthoum. I admit I’d been hoping for a Red & Black Light and Illusions oriented setlist, but this was fantastic as well. Maalouf’s more “acoustic” team sounds like this:

I soon came to terms with the rather gentle volume of the whole affair (and with the fact that the poor drummer was sweating under pressure – not because of raging all over his drum set like a deranged blacksmith on methamphetamine, sadly, but due to all the excruciatingly hard work invested in keeping it “pianississimo” most of the time, which all drummers will know how hard it is, especially once the passion and frenzy of performing live takes over). To be sure, regardless of the volume (or, actually, thanks to it – anything louder would have been terribly boomy in such a hall), every detail was perfectly audible, down to the last microtonal escapade by the virtuoso Maalouf. In fact, Maalouf’s brooding, lyrical, extremely dynamic and highly melodic, exotic microtonal solos resulted in some of the highlights of the performance. Not that the other band members didn’t do their part: as expected, all of them exhibited superb musicianship, and I could even enjoy one of the most musical and not so very pianissimo drum solos over the 7/8 time signature I’ve heard recently. The pianist, saxophonist and bassist (who, sadly, kept having, to his obvious dismay, severe technical problems with his bass) were just as great.

Maalouf is also a real joker (and blabbermouth), and his contact with the audience was amazing. If I were filthy rich, I’d have these guys play at my wedding. For three days and nights. His humour also featured several pointed hints and remarks about the ongoing refugee crisis as well as stereotypes involved in it; and he also invited a superb oud player and singer – who he explained was a Syrian refugee, otherwise a master judoist and expert carpet layer (because one can’t earn a living playing music these days) – to demonstrate how Kalthoum’s tunes sounded with vocals.

Finally, during… what… third encore and standing ovation, I believe? he taught us a musical phrase and got us to whistle along with him while he and the pianist (in Maalouf’s words “a German who doesn’t look like a German”) frolicked around on the trumpet and piano. Simply presenting a phrase (with a slightly tricky variation in the second half) in thirty seconds and teaching it to at least 20 % of the hall in three minutes attests to Maalouf’s optimism – or to his awareness that his audiences consist mostly of musicians. Because, to be sure, we knew perfectly well what to whistle and when to do so just a few minutes into the “experiment”, all of us apparently drawing from the experience of a thousand rehearsals with various bands under our own belts. Hell, even the variation sounded almost right after the third attempt!

Fortunate Finds: Guido Henkel

Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Marketing still free today!

A few months ago, after I finished the first draft of my second novel, I started considering the possibility of joining the ranks of self-published, indie authors. I was thoroughly dissatisfied with the (non)strategy and unresponsiveness of the small U.K. e-book publisher who had released my first novel, Cynicism Management, as well as frustrated because of my lack of control over that release. Therefore I decided to educate myself in the matter of indie publishing, which I had previously consciously avoided, primarily due to two concerns: problems involved in e-book formatting; and my inability to promote my own work in any effective way (I have a long but infamously anonymous career as a composer, musician and producer behind me, spanning back more than 20 years with extraordinarily limited success, to prove that).

I decided to approach both issues the way I usually do: by reading about them. My ultimate decision to go ahead and self-publish was based on the most helpful works of two authors: David Gaughran and Guido Henkel. From Gaughran’s books (I intend to make a separate “Fortunate Finds” post about him and his work in the near future) I have gleaned a wealth of invaluable information about contemporary self-publishing in general, more than enough for me to decide this was indeed what I wanted; but they only touch upon the subject of e-book formatting briefly. However, as far as that pressing issue was concerned, Gaughran pointed me in the direction of Henkel.

Now, I know enough about IT and coding to have been seriously worried about how to even approach e-book formatting properly. I knew enough not to trust any ZenFautomatic conversion processes, and it turned out I was right. However, due to financial constraints (i.e., zero budget) I wanted to tackle this issue myself. The feat would have been impossible without Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Formatting, which has been, for me, the definite go-to e-book formatting compendium, and it hasn’t let me down once. To boot, Mr. Henkel is a very generous and plain old “nice” guy, who will not shy away from any questions one might have. With the aid of his thorough instructions I was able to overcome my fear of formatting my e-books myself… And I can now do so with conviction that they’ll display well on all sorts of e-readers, phones and tablets.

For this reason I was very happy when I recently found out that Henkel was about to publish a new Zen book – Zen of eBook Marketing – this time focusing on e-book promotion, which remains a seemingly insurmountable problem for me. First of all, I dread most kinds of self-promotion and abhor marketing. I find most of it nauseating and utterly incompatible with my personal philosophy, especially as I tend to be an annoyingly compulsive cynic, even with regard to my own work. Thus I’ve always found any self-help books on marketing shady, suspecting them of mainly promoting themselves – you know, in the vein of get-rich-quick books: why would one write such a book if one knew how to get rich quickly? Unless writing a get-rich-quick book is a way of getting rich quickly?

ZenMHowever, by that time I had already been very grateful to Mr. Henkel for his book on formatting, so in spite of my inherent skepticism I will quite shamelessly say this: it is my opinion that Guido Henkel does it primarily because he likes to help people (no matter how cheesy that statement sounds); and if he makes a thoroughly honest living while doing it, that’s fine with me. If you disagree, check his instructions on eBook formatting: he could have taken this freely accessible information down when he wrote a book about it, right?

If you’re looking for get-rich-quick schemes, you won’t find any in Henkel’s book. Instead he approaches the subject of e-book marketing realistically and wittily, providing a treasure cove of information on everything every indie author should know: from editing, proofreading, beta readers, formatting, importance of cover design, keywords and metadata… all the way to reviews, online presence, social media and promo ideas. You’re free to pursue whatever you like, and ignore whatever it might be you don’t. Henkel will not tell you to do this or do that in order to achieve overnight success: he provides a comprehensive overview of everything you can do, topping it all off with an exhaustive and invaluable collection of links and resources, and then it’s up to you. It’s a book every indie author should grab – and you can do so without any risk whatsoever, because Henkel is still offering it for free until the end of today.

Fortunate Finds: Tigran Hamasyan

Classical folk jazz heavy metal fusion

Lately I’ve been writing a lot, so I’ve mostly abused jazz, fusion and classical categories on Deezer on a daily basis, simply because though I enjoy listening to music while I write I tend to avoid anything with lyrics. Especially the silly “I love you / but you left me / so my heart is breaking” variety or “shake yer booty” gems that plague music perpetually and seem to have a profoundly detrimental effect on my blood pressure (though, admittedly, even the most intriguing of lyrics don’t do much for my writing focus – quite the contrary). On the other hand, instrumental music, especially if it’s not too engrossing, can help me “get in the zone”.

Occasionally, however, I’ll stop in the middle of a sentence, drawn irresistibly to what I’m hearing. That’s what I love about random mixes and pre-made playlists on Deezer: there you are, cruising along nicely, and then all of a sudden a particularly intriguing tracks pops up, seemingly from nowhere, and you know immediately you have another “fortunate find” on your hands. So about a month ago I was typing away indifferently, minding my own business, and then this starts playing:

Of course, as this is right up my alley, I immediately unglued my considerable posterior from my exercise ball… (Why are you frowning at me like that? Due to incessant staring at the computer screen, high-speed typing and mousing away I started having problems with my back, neck and wrists a few years ago, so I bought a ball to sit on and an ergonomic keyboard to manhandle, what of it? It helped.) I shuffled over to the laptop, plugged in my sound system just for music purposes, to check what was it that I was hearing – like I normally do when I notice something really great. And there it was, Entertain Me by Tigran Hamasyan.

Thoroughly entertained, I’ve since listened to his whole discography on Deezer and became quite a fan of his Shadow Theater and Mockroot albums. There’s nothing wrong with the others, of course – I listen to those as well, but the two I’ve enjoyed most contain a notable abundance of those “heavy fusion” moments I love and adore, complete with a good dose of melancholy, thoroughly odd time signatures, and some radical drum playing, which I, as a drummer, always appreciate. So I guess Mr. Hamasyan and his crew will be responsible for my inspiration for quite a few pages of the novel I’m currently writing.

Unfortunately, this Armenian prodigy pianist lives in Los Angeles for some reason (perhaps he likes the weather?), so I doubt I’ll be able to catch his band live any time soon – though I certainly would if I could. Here’s one of my favourites from Shadow Theater – live; so, yep, due to the exquisite musicianship exhibited by these guys it would certainly be worth seeing:

“Pendulum Pet” cover finished

PPet-COVER-400x600My favourite graphics and illustration wizard, Matej Peklar, has just finished the cover for my second novel, Pendulum Pet (Cynicism Management Series, Book 2), which is to be released in March. The final draft is also done, and I’m about to start formatting the text for e-readers.

In the meantime, head to this page to find out more about the upcoming novel and listen to the complete, quite extensive original soundtrack for it (stream it or download it free of charge)… Or grab Cynicism Management (links: Amazon | Apple | Inktera | Kobo | B & N), the first book in the series, for just 99 cents – it’ll be on sale until the end of February.

Fortunate Finds: Vennart

Many years ago – shortly after they released Effloresce – I was fortunate enough to stumble upon Oceansize. Here’s Unfamiliar, one of my favourite tracks from their superb third album, Frames:

I grew to like the band immediately, so much so that I eagerly followed all their releases until their unfortunate breakup in 2011. I particularly appreciate their wonderful blend of odd time signatures and superb melodies, as well as what are often quite epic running times of their tracks: they’ve always had a knack for developing their ideas slowly and meticulously, not adhering to some arbitrary postulates about what is an “appropriate” length and what isn’t. Furthermore, as a drummer I became quite disillusioned with the over-abused straightforward 4/4 beats sometime in the previous millennium, as soon as I was old enough to know better: why write a song in 4/4 (or 1/1, as I often refer to the lousiest and most horrendously simplistic examples of that – kick hat kick hat kick hat kick hat), when you can annoy people with something fascinating like 33/16, I say! On the other hand I’ve always had a weakness for haunting melodies. Hence my obsession with bands that blend superb musicianship, intricate rhythms and great harmonies (plus vocal lines, if applicable). If the lyrics also happen to focus on anything else apart from the eternally imperative relationships between lovers, preferably on something a little bit disturbing, all the better.

Anyway, as saddened as I was to learn that Oceansize fell apart – especially because I really wanted to see them live at least once, but haven’t had the opportunity – I never went as far as to check out any of the potential spin-off projects by any of the former band members. But, lo and behold – a few days ago a friend of mine, who has introduced to me a heap of musical discoveries over the last two decades or so, mentioned that vocalist and guitarist Mike Vennart, one of the founding members of Oceansize, had his own project now. So I checked it out, enjoyed it immensely, and here it is, in all its glory. Obviously Mr. Vennart still has his “mojo”, and I hope his band drops by Berlin sometime…

(The 30-second Deezer previews – if you don’t have a subscription – are not ideal, but in the absence of better options they should suffice. If the player doesn’t load, your browser is probably blocking third-party cookies, which you can always unblock in the browser settings if you wish.)