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Trans-Mediterranean Blues In Five Languages

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  • Trans-Mediterranean Blues In Five Languages


    rock paper scissors

    All About Jazz

    Trans-Mediterranean Blues in Five Languages and the Instrumentarium
    of Abaji

    "I just can't play a new instrument," laughs Lebanese-born
    multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Abaji. "I always fall for
    the old broken ones. It's like one broken heart speaking to another,
    and I feel I can transform these old instruments into the sounds I hear
    in my head." These sounds and the adapted, revived instruments that
    make them reverberate on Origine Orients (Absilone Music; November 10,
    2009 ), as Abaji reimagines his lost-and-found trans-Mediterranean
    roots and draws on a wildly inventive "instrumentarium," a deep
    sense of the global blues, and the five languages and traditions that
    shaped him.

    For the young Abaji, "Everything was music. When I was ten or
    eleven, I got really involved with sounds. Not just the guitar,
    but the sounds themselves," the special sonic melting pot of Greek
    and Turkish his family spoke at home, the Arabic he used in public,
    and the French he used at school. From a musical family - Abaji's
    Armenian grandmother played the oud (lute), his great-grandmother
    the kanun (zither), and his six maternal aunts were all passionate
    and contentious musicians - Abaji started playing and experimenting
    on an inexpensive Chinese-built guitar alone in his Beirut bedroom,
    listening to Cat Stevens, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Dylan
    while strains of Oum Kaltoum and Turkish music drifted in the window.

    However, his musical education began in earnest on his fateful
    first day in Paris, where he fled when conflict erupted in Lebanon
    in the mid-1970s. "I was saved from war, but war also saved me,"
    Abaji reflects.

    He had lost paradise, the peculiar mix of languages and the dozens
    of musical styles that echoed on the streets of his native land. It
    was something the rock-and-blues-loving teenager had never grasped
    while still at home. Yet at the same time, he realized that music
    was g Brazilian player, soon moving on to voraciously explore dozens
    of other instruments. "I went through a whole life of instruments,"
    Abaji muses. "I'm still buying instruments. Sometimes friends tell me,
    'Hey, you don't know how to play those instruments! Why did you buy
    them?' My answer: Because I don't know how to play them!"

    Abaji's passion for instruments - and he has more than 250 -- stems
    from his deep desire to take the sounds he began to hear as a young
    man and turn them into uniquely vibrant, uniquely personal music. As
    he devoured everything from the bouzouki to the Colombian bamboo
    saxophone, however, he saw he needed to more than just play them;
    he had to reinvent them.

    "I always have a sound in mind, and one question: How can I bring it
    to life through an instrument? I had to talk to instrument builders
    and get them to change things, but I didn't have a dime to my name,"
    Abaji recalls. "I had to find solutions with luthiers that weren't
    so expensive." This frugality-forced creativity breathed new life
    into old instruments on their last legs, transforming them into
    cross-cultural amalgams.

    The result: one-of-a-kind hybrids like the resonant sitar-guitar or an
    invention that appears on Origine Orients, the oud-guitar. "It made
    perfect sense. I took an old classical guitar headed for the trash,
    removed the frets so I could play quarter notes, and doubled the nylon
    strings to have the lute effect," Abaji explains. "It was my first
    step back into paradise. I'm not Spanish. I'm not Lebanese. I'm a
    Mediterranean guy whose ancestors traded along the Silk Road, the
    missing link between the two, and the oud-guitar is my double."

    Another missing link unites Abaji's diverse roots and musical visions:
    "Everything is related to the blues. People say the blues were born in
    Africa, but really, they appeared when humanity was born." For Abaji,
    the blues is a worldwide phenomenon, a sonic trade route stretching
    from Afghanistan to the US. "The blues are everywhere: Before America,
    it came from Afri with Islam," he explains. "People talk of the banjo
    coming from Africa. But before that came the rebab from Afghanistan,
    the great-grandfather of the banjo."

    Abaji has worked to capture his own trans-Mediterranean brand of
    the blues, not only by creating new instruments, but by developing
    a unique approach in the studio. For Origine Orients, he decided
    he needed to record all his songs in a single take playing all the
    instruments himself, without overdubs. Abaji turned himself into
    a global one-man-band, in part thanks to the acrobatic aplomb and
    grace he developed as a tai-chi instructor. He began playing piano
    with the Colombian sax ("Origine Orients"), or oud-guitar with stomp
    boxes and rattles ("Min Jouwwa"), singing all the while in a deep
    voice reminiscent of one of Abaji's favorite folk-blues performers,
    Greg Brown.

    On "Desert to Desert," he recounts, "I had the bouzouki on my lap like
    a lap steel guitar, with my right hand on the strings. In my left
    hand was a Balinese bamboo flute I was using as a bottleneck. That
    meant I could also use it as a flute. And while I'm at it, why not
    use this as a stick to bang on the daf drum?" Abaji laughs. "After
    I recorded the track, I thought I was in deep trouble -- that I'd
    never be able to reproduce it!"

    Along with unexpected instruments and intuitive techniques, Abaji also
    intertwines all the languages that have shaped his life: the Turkish
    of heated family discussions and secret maternal cursing; the Greek
    of parties and celebrations; the French and Arabic of everyday life;
    and finally, the Armenian of Abaji's long-lost roots, a heritage that
    he was not aware of until his brother did some genealogical digging.

    This rediscovered language forms the heart of the album, and the song
    "Menz Baba" emerged from a bluesy exploration of Armenian's sound and
    the life of Abaji's Armenian grandfather. "When I started working on
    this song, I began to write some words in Armenian with help from an
    Armenian friend," Abaji notes. "Then she taught me some words. I y
    they sing. Because the words sing, not only the voice."

    Even after regaining paradise, the search for the ultimate soulful
    sound and deep link to the past continues for Abaji. "Sometimes
    you are happy because you think you've got it, that this is just
    the thing. But you always have to improve. In my head, I'm always
    searching, opening doors, going left or right. It can be a bit tricky
    to live with sometimes," Abaji chuckles. "But I made this album
    exactly the way I wanted it, totally and completely, and hopefully
    now people can understand my music totally."