How did you become a musician?
As long as I remember, I always felt like a musician, I always knew that I wanted to be a musician. From my early age, I was obsessed with music, with instruments, with learning as much as I could about them. Maybe the fact that music was actually forbidden in Kerbala, the strictly religious city where I grew up, had something to do with that obsession. The forbidden fruit is always sweeter I guess.
What role has music played in your life?
Music has opened and changed the world for me in so many aspects. From secretly playing in the attic in Kerbala to traveling the world with my instrument. From arriving in Belgium, without a penny to having my own recording studio in the center of Ghent. From asking shyly in a shop in Baghdad ‘can you please tell me what the word “jazz” means?’ to compose a full program for the reputed Brussels Jazz Orchestra. I sometimes tend to forget all these things, but if I look back at where it all started, I feel so blessed.
Why did you choose the qanun? Can you tell us something more about this instrument?
The qanun was not my first instrument, nor my second or third. As a child, I played every instrument I could lay my hands on: saxophone, accordion, violin.. But when I started playing the guitar, my focus stayed for many years with that instrument. Actually I always loved the sound of the harp. But you don’t have that instrument in Iraq. That’s why I started playing guitar – also with strings – in the first place, and that’s why I ended up with the qanun. But that ‘love story’ only started when I had to leave Iraq. Would it have happened also if I could have stayed in my birth country? Or was the qanun a little piece of ‘home’ in a new, strange world? I don’t really know. Fact is that I now cannot imagine myself without my qanun. I still play guitar and oud (lute-type instrument), but the qanun is such a remarkable instrument. In Arabic ‘qanun’ means ’the law of music’, and that makes sense, because on my instrument, you’re able to play all the possible notes, all ‘western’ notes, but also all the quarter tones and microtones. Between a B flat and a B (the black and the white key on a piano), there are still FIVE more notes. The huge possibilities make it also a complicated instrument. It’s not an intuitive way of playing because with the small levers on the left of the instrument, I have to change the tonality in which I will play in the next bars, before I actually play it. It means thinking ahead all the time. there are still FIVE more notes. The huge possibilities make it also a complicated instrument. It’s not an intuitive way of playing because with the small levers on the left of the instrument, I have to change the tonality in which I will play in the next bars, before I actually play it. It means thinking ahead all the time. there are still FIVE more notes. The huge possibilities make it also a complicated instrument. It’s not an intuitive way of playing because with the small levers on the left of the instrument, I have to change the tonality in which I will play in the next bars, before I actually play it. It means thinking ahead all the time.
Where do you find inspiration for your compositions?
Anywhere. On the road and on holiday, as soon as my head is less occupied with practical things, there is always inspiration. But also on quiet evenings, early mornings, or just when I enter my studio and start playing a little bit. It drives my wife crazy sometimes, but just playing a piece that is written down by someone else is so difficult for me. I can do it of course, but after a few bars mostly I start thinking of my own lines and I forget about the original score.
Does speaking different languages influence your composing?
My life is a mixture of languages, backgrounds, musical styles and genres. Iraqi roots, Western life, cosmopolitan dreams. That’s who I am and that’s how I write music. I couldn’t possibly do otherwise.
Do you feel like you have found your own unique voice in music or is this still a search?
I try not to think about these things too much, because they kill the inspiration. Of course there are times where I feel like I’m still searching – I think everyone knows that feeling, but mostly I just try and let the music flow when it comes.
Can you tell us your favorite anecdote related to your career as a musician?
I told you that as a young boy I once entered a music store in Baghdad and asked for the meaning of the word “jazz”. I heard it somewhere on the radio, but I had no idea what it meant. The man in the store gave me a cassette, with the word “jazz” (in Arabic) written on it by hand. I listened over and over to this cassette, but never could guess on which instrument the melody was played. Until… the Klara Awards of 2007. I was backstage, because we would play there later, and I heard someone soundchecking. The exact melody and the instrument from my cassette! I went to check of course and there he was.. Toots Thielemans, playing on his harmonica.
What was your most memorable concert experience? As musician or audience.
As a musician, I’d have to say the premiere of ‘Night 352’ with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. I composed the music for it in 2018, the premiere should have been beginning 2020, but it was postponed to January 2022. When that music finally came to life, when I heard these world class musicians playing my music… That was just indescribable. As an audience: the concert of Diamanda Galas at Gravensteen in Ghent. I was just petrified, it was a haunting concert.
Which project from the past has been your biggest achievement?
The program with the BJO, definitely. Although the performances of my piece ‘Habibu’ by the National Youth Orchestras of Iraq and Scotland were also very special to me. And of course the performances of ‘Maqamat’. Martin Valcke composed this piece especially for me and the Flanders Symphony Orchestra. A big honour.
Who has had a big influence on you as a musician?
Mohammed Abdel Wahab, a composer and singer from Egypt. He also composed songs for the most famous singers in the Arab world, Fairuz and Oum Koulhoum. And Dino Saluzzi, the Argentinian bandoneon player.
How did you end up as part of Cluster?
Cluster is a group of composers/musicians. I know few of the members, and somehow we started talking and discussing. Before I knew it, I became part of the group. And I’m very grateful for that. There are so many aspects to a musicians life, apart from playing and composing the music itself. To have some people that support you with the practical, financial and administrative part, it really makes a huge difference for me.
What does the future hold in store?
Many musical adventures, I hope. I was lucky to do so many things already, but at the same time it feels like I only just got started. I am particularly looking forward to recording my compositions for qanun and strings with the Spiegel String Quartet this summer. With my quintet I am finishing the music for our new project ‘Creative Conspiracy’. A CD with ‘Helloune’ is about to be finished. We will be touring with ‘Night 352’ – the project with BJO next year. In May there will be the premiere of a crazy project, a collaboration with 5 musicians from completely different backgrounds, and one of them is DJ Grazzhoppa. Qanun with beats and soundscapes, crazy indeed.
What is the biggest dream you still want to fulfill related to music?
My head is always full of music, which makes it sometimes difficult to sleep. There is but one musician who can really stop my head spinning, and that’s the Argentinian bandoneonplayer Dino Saluzzi. An extraordinary musician. With a few simple notes he can take my heart, every time. It’s my dream to play with him. He is already 86 and still performing. We are actually in contact now and trying to arrange a few concerts together. So hopefully this dream will come true soon.
Compile a list of 5 songs that have inspired you.
Alone again in the version of Shirley Bassy https://youtu.be/E9BFD-fpeUA
Khayef Akool from Mohammed Abdel Wahab https://youtu.be/74Lx06_oopY
How my heart sings from Dino Saluzzi https://open.spotify.com /track/3QVtUtfPKR0pMQu3vZbZya
Husn-u-Hicaz from Hüsnü Senlendirici https://youtu.be/frY-ZziCCdk
Kadeyet Am Ahmed from Omar Khairat https://youtu.be/t1EEuy0G55Q