Q&A with Ibrahim Maalouf: Synthesizing East & West


Ibrahim Maalouf

(Photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Born in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War and raised in Paris, trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf has distinguished himself as an artist who not only fuses Eastern and Western traditions—classical Arabic music, and a variety of genres, including jazz, pop and electronica—but also introduces the sounds of the modern trumpet into traditional Arabic music.

Maalouf’s unique style stems partly from his signature four-valve trumpet (developed by his father, trumpeter Nassim Maalouf), which allows him to play the quartertones between the 12 notes of the Western chromatic scale, a harmonic quality more typical of classical Arabic music.

Recipient of the 2014 Victoire de la Musique award for Illusions (M’ister Productions), the 35-year-old Maalouf has released nine albums as a leader, and he has composed music for films. He has dedicated his last two albums (both on Impulse!) to women who have influenced his life and art.

Whereas his latest album, Red & Black Light, has a contemporary electro-pop feel, his previous album, Kalthoum, is a suite dedicated to legendary Egyptian vocalist Oum Kalthoum (1898–1975), and is based on one of her most beloved pieces, Alf Leila Wa Leila (One Thousand And One Nights).

The piece was composed by Baligh Hamdi and released in 1969. Maalouf crafted a jazz arrangement for it, adapted from large ensemble to quintet format. Both the recording and Maalouf’s live performances of it add improvisations to the original 50-minute composition; this reflects the way Kalthoum herself was known to have improvised, often offering numerous interpretations of a single line.

At a recent concert in Montreal, a stop on his Kalthoum tour, Maalouf’s tight-knit band featured pianist Frank Woeste, bassist Scott Colley, drummer Clarence Penn and saxophonist Rick Margitza.

Maalouf, who has one foot in the East and one foot in the West, is creating a captivating synthesis of the two worlds. DownBeat caught up with Maalouf following his show at Maison Symphonique in Montreal, part of the Montreal Jazz Festival’s year-round series and the POP Montreal Festival.

How did your musical training begin?

I was classically trained in both Western and Arabic classical music by my father, who studied at the conservatoire in Paris with Maurice André, the Rostropovich of trumpeters. I took classes with him for 15 years; he taught me everything he had learned, and prepared me for the entrance exams. He was the only trumpet player trained in both Western classical music and traditional Arabic music.

I hear Baroque influences in your playing.

Yes, quite often I like to pick ideas from the classical music I’ve played. The most influential composer for me is Bach—his oratorios, the Brandenburg Concertos. People don’t expect me to go for that, but I’ve been playing it for 25 years. I like going in directions people don’t expect.

How does the structure of Kalthoum—an introduction, two overtures and four movements—mirror or differ from the original composition?

It follows exactly the same structure, same melody. It’s a historical piece played in a very New York jazz style.

How did Oum Kalthoum—known as the Star of the East—influence you?

I grew up listening to her every day. Her voice inspired generations, and I wanted to pay tribute to her as a symbolic figure, one of the only women in the Arabic world to raise her voice in an artistic way.

Watching footage from Oum Kalthoum’s concerts in the 1960s, you see the audience visibly moved, almost ecstatic. I saw some of that during your performance.

Yes. The Arab people in the room know the music, and are proud of their culture. It’s very important to them—it’s part of our history and heritage. But they are also open to adapting it to other cultures, to today. They don’t expect me to play it exactly the same way she played it; they expect something different.

Tell me about the women you pay tribute to on Red & Black Light.

This album was my way of thanking the women in my family, who were able to make us feel happy in a world where things were complicated and sad. I can still hear the sound of my grandmother speaking about the moment I was born, how bombs were falling on the hospital.

My family escaped to the mountains. My father was playing a concert in Europe; it was the women who created balance in my life, and I wanted to celebrate them. Even if they are in the shadows, not raising their voices, they change the world in their own ways—discretely, not in front of cameras and microphones.

This seems to be the theme of your rendition of Beyoncé‘s “Run The World (Girls),” which you also convey as a commentary on current anti-immigration sentiments in France.

I don’t like to mix my music with politics. But when I feel I must raise my voice, I try to do it musically. Something crazy happened in France a few months ago. A politician appeared on the biggest talk show, saying that for her, France is a white country. Some media outlets talked about it for a week, but then it blew over. This scares me.

The first thing Front National, an extreme right party, wants to do if it wins the elections is forbid dual nationality. Somebody like me, who is French and Lebanese —how can I choose between the two? This is not possible for me. The video for this song envisions what the future would look like if this happened in France.

What’s next for you?

My yearlong tour with Kalthoum and Red & Black Light is coming to an end, after 140 concerts. I have many projects coming up—film soundtracks in France and Japan, my first classical album composed for a ballet [trumpet, string quartet and drums]. I’m also composing and producing music for different artists in France through my label, Mi’ster Productions.

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