Ibrahim Maalouf is a trumpet player who stood out with numerous projects and initiatives: jazz/world music albums, giant improvisation, composition of movies soundtracks, musical adaptation with Oxmo Puccino of the tale Alice in Wonderland by Carroll Lewis, … and the list goes on.
A quartertone trumpet
Born in Beirut, Ibrahim Maalouf grew up in France. He began the trumpet at the age of seven with his father Nassim Maalouf, also a musician. After graduating baccalaureate, he joined on the basis of a competitive selection process the CNR of Paris for a two-year program with Gerard Boulanger. Then, he joined the Antoine Cure’s class at the CNSM (Paris Conservatory) for three years. He finally graduated in Music and won numerous classical music awards.
After several collaborations with non-classical artists, he released his first album Diasporas in 2007, following the creation of his independent label – Mi’ster Productions – in 2006. The success of this album allows him to release four other albums (Diachronism in 2009, Diagnostic in 2011, Wind in 2012 and Illusions in 2013). He received a ‘Victoire de la Musique’ (in France) in 2014 for Best World Music Album with Illusions.
During his stay in Poznań (Poland) in April 2015 where he was presenting one of his upcoming albums ‘Red & Black Light’, I had the chance to meet him and ask him (all) these questions.
After a “classical” training followed by several jazz albums, why did you want to go back to classical projects such as those with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne or the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris?
Ibrahim Maalouf: Actually, I never really left classical music. I’ve never been into only one “stuff” at a time: even when I was playing classical music, I was doing many other things beside but I did not talk about it. In recent years I’ve had plenty of projects that are not classical and, therefore, are more publicized. I never left classical music; it’s just that people are less interested in it. I like to do several things at the same time that appear not to be compatible but they actually are. It’s just that people like to put things in boxes, “He plays classical music, then he can’t do that etc.”
You composed several movie soundtracks, how did you come up with the desire to do this?
I.M.: I composed five, yes. This is something that really interests me and that I want to develop more. I have always considered music with images, with stories. All my music tell something, they all have a connection with my daily life, a meaning, a reason to exist. It goes beyond “music for music”, even if I’m also interested in that, but there is a dramaturgical dimension in most of my compositions. I feel like I have a lot of common points with the cinema. When I work with a director and it goes well, I feel like I’m doing something real!
What did you gain from working on such projects?
I.M.: Different experiences! I had already composed for short movies but this was completely different from working on a feature film. This is a much more thorough job, much more complex and developed … There is more pressure too! As a music composer, it confirmed to me that I do this job because it’s what I like and what I want to do. It confirmed the choices I made and the desires I have for the future: if I am lucky enough to live long, I want to keep on doing movie soundtrack again and again. I find it so thrilling! I have two or three movie soundtrack projects at the moment: it gives me such a sense of self-fulfillment.
You want to “promote improvisation”, especially in the field of classical music, why this desire?
I.M.: So … Do you have two hours? (Laughs) For four or five years, it’s been an explosion, a revelation: improvisation has been completely left out in classical music. Yet, a century ago, everyone improvised in classical music: it was a standard practice. Today it has become very specific because very few people improvise.
There has been an actual crisis in classical music for a few years, and it’s beginning in the jazz world too, which leads us to wonder: what is the future of jazz? What is the future of classical music? 600 million euros are invested in the Philharmonie de Paris but they are afraid to have problems filling the seats. There is a real problem: we can’t promote culture by building gigantic venues like this and in the same year cut the budget for the departmental conservatories throughout France. There is a real crisis, and one reason for me is that people do not care about classical music. A vast majority of people has the impression that they don’t benefit from it, even if there are some who are educated and who like classical music.
The problem is not coming from music conservatories: there are great teachers and brilliant pedagogy … but people do not feel involved. And how to feel involved when one is confronted to a music that has existed for several years, centuries or even millennia? Nobody tells us that we have the right to transform the music: nobody tells us that we have the right to play it differently. We are not invited to be involved: we are forced to play a certain way, that’s solfeggio. But this is not true at all: this is only half the job, and the rest is to invent things.
I fight a lot for improvisation because to me, it is this part of the work that stimulates inventiveness, creativity. I advocate for some changes in education and that beside the theory, technique, etc. from the classical repertoire, we tell the students “do what you want to do, express yourself, create! “. It might help to rehabilitate the world of classical music, and make it more fashionable: it’s not a lost cause!
By the way, I followed a classical training for nearly 10 years before I went to jazz because I wanted to stop playing only the notes written on partitions. But I had, and I still have, a lot of trouble getting started. Would you give some tips to musicians like me? A magic bullet?
I.M.: It’s really easy! It’s nothing at all: it’s just being aware of the freedom we have. If I say “Do what you want with your instrument,” you will do what you want, you’ll have the impression that it sucks because you know that it is worse than what you used to play. The first thing is that it is just a step. We must see things in a long-term vision: of course it is not that good, but it is like a therapy.
You have to take the leap, you must launch yourself which is already huge. For someone who has learnt classical music all his life, like me when I worked with the Orchestra of Britain, it seemed impossible but you need to find freedom! Musical result doesn’t count, it’s almost secondary. Once you have realized this: practice! You will have to practice several times, so do not stop, do not be discouraged. You have to try a lot of things, and when you find something good, try to reproduce it. It has to become natural for you, even if it doesn’t sound good to you.
Besides, it is important to understand what is a mistake … A mistake is made regarding to partition, so you can absolutely do something that does not sound the way you wanted yet the person who is listening to you will never notice. When I play, I often do things that were not predicted at all in my head, I make mistakes, but people don’t know it and I have to accept it. I must have the humility to accept that I am not the master of everything, and that is in human nature to make mistakes. It’s all part of improvisation, just like the concept of silence. We do not teach you to value silences in partitions; you haves notes, sighs, half-sighs but we don’t teach you that the most important note is silence. Silence is the most powerful note! Let me give you an example: when I am talking, the value of my speech is my ability to shut up (silence).
And then you have to practice! It can also be interesting to practice with friends: it is great to invent all together and be attentive to others.
In most of your latest projects, you always try to involve young people (choirs in Au Pays d’Alice, different works with students, etc.). Why?
I.M.: For all that has been said previously! My parents were music teachers, I saw young people evolving. I saw some young people playing music for years and years and then suddenly stop playing music even though they were great. I love teaching; I love talking about what I love, as you can see (laughs). So whenever I have the ability to integrate young people in my projects, I do.
In you project Au Pays d’Alice: how did you decide to create around this novel by Caroll Lewis? And why did you choose to work with Oxmo Puccino?
I.M.: At the beginning, the Festival d’Ile-de-France asked me to create a project around the concept of wonderful. So I chose to work around Alice in Wonderland because it is a tale that I find pretty crazy. Even after 150 years, I still find it very avant-garde and quite necessary nowadays in this society where there are a lot of prohibitions. This work promotes a certain destruction of standard, in addition to being a masterpiece. Concerning Oxmo Puccino, it’s simple: he is for me one of the best author of French rap, I would even say the best.
What are your inspirations in general?
I.M.: I have an unconventional way of working and it’s not very appreciated. My default is to surf on too many things. I listen to a lot of things all the time without knowing the author or where it comes from. I listen, it inspires me, I take a step back and then I do my stuff. Therefore my work approach can be strange sometimes. I am not like some artists that need to have this accumulation of data like a massive musical library. Because of my lengthy classical training, I got tired of this. To me, music is something else: I am kind of vaccinated against this mania to accumulate knowledge. So, for almost … wow, it’s scary … 10 or 12 years since I passed the Paris Conservatoire’s exam, I decided to stop working like that. However, I like all kinds of music. I am completely crazy about everything: I can listen to Missy Elliott, or to Bach’s inventions, to Renaissance music, or even to a good Hard Rock …
What are your projects at the moment?
I.M.: I will release two albums in September (Red & Black Light and Kalthoum) and the concert we play tonight is from one of those two albums: we switch between both of them. These are two projects that go together even if they are extremely different. Tonight we play the more electronic project, named Red & Black Light.
In 2006, you created the Mi’ster Productions label. Why is that?
I.M.: It’s very simple! Actually, record companies didn’t want me (laughs). I brought them my first album and nobody cared. A record company had shown some interest, but the proposal was almost indecent … So, I found a record company who agreed to release my album if I personally took the risks. Thus I founded my label, with the help of my manager, and I released my first album. I was lucky: it went well. Then I was able to make a second, it went well so I could make a third, etc. until now.
Do you plan to sign other artists on the label?
I.M.: Two years ago, I signed a Swedish artist Isabel Sörling, which is not very well known but she has an awesome voice. I fell in love with her voice so I released the album after having recorded and produced it. This year in September, while releasing my two albums, we will also release the album of Natacha Atlas, a great singer in the 90s – you’re probably too young to know her (laughs) – until the 2000s when she was nominated female artist of the year at the Victoires de la Musique in France. She withdrew, and stopped singing … but I convinced her to come back on stage with oriental jazz!
Finally, I like to ask what is the song you are listening to a lot at the moment?
I.M.: I do not know the name but I shazamed a song that I really want to listen to now. I’ll tell you what it is (he picks up his phone). Such a great invention, Shazam! There, it is a song by Marian Hill called Got it.
As you can see, Ibrahim Maalouf is a very interesting musician who takes the time to reflect on the music he plays daily. It is great to see the flame in his eyes when talking about his own projects.
About the concert? When entering the room, the audience was surprised to discover that there were no chairs. Ibrahim Maalouf, accompanied for this project by four talented musicians (François Delporte on guitar, Stéphane Galland on drums and Eric Legnini on keyboards!), asked that the public stand up, the show being “electric”! Fair enough. This new project, Red & Black Light is an effective blend of oriental jazz, rock, groove and even reggae. An excellent concert as a whole, thanks to the energy and passion generated by the musicians as well as by their virtuosity.
(Translated from French by Nathan)