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:
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!