Kamal Musallam: searching for the roots of Arabic music

The Jordanian Arabic-fusion musician Kamal Musallam has been working for almost 15 years to rediscover and restore the ancient cultural links built throughout history between Arab music and other genres, adapting them to a contemporary context. This meeting is a way to go back over his carrier and discuss about his future projects.


Based in the cosmopolitan city of Dubai since 2002, Kamal Musallam has been constantly exposed to a huge melting pot of cultural influences coming from all over the world. In his little apartment of Sharjah, CDs of jazz, Bossa Nova and Indonesian music pile up everywhere, covered by few sketches, watercolors of Arabic calligraphy, and cups of Korean tea. In this messy cocoon, music is everywhere. Ouds and guitars are put against the walls, lying on the sofa or hidden in a corner. Kamal Musallam welcomes you with a great smile, Lebanese food and a cup of tea, always happy to chat about music and art. Born in Kuwait with Jordanian origins, this born artist went to France to study architecture. But no sooner had he finished them than he was caught up by his passion for music and decided few years later to quit everything and follow his heart as a musician. Since then, he didn’t stop travelling and filling his suitcase with an eclectic collection of performances and collaborations, with George Benson, Bobby Mc Ferrin and Billy Cobham, to name a few. Playing the guitar and the oud, a traditional Arab stringed instrument, he began fusing the influences that inspired him, mainly Jazz, Rock, Arabic music and Asian music. Among his albums, released under his own label, Lulu (2010) and Songs for Seung-eun (2012) were the most acclaimed, and were both selected for the Grammy Awards. While Lulu was exploring the richness of Emirati folk mixed with Jazz and World music, Songs for Seung-eun was a beautiful musical poem of Bossa Nova classics dedicated to a lost Korean love.


Kamal wanted to showcase the historical connections between both Spanish and Arab cultures


His new album, “Homemade in Rome” to be released this summer, blends this time Arab music and Jazz with flamenco rhythms. “For me, music and creativity are a matter of encounters and friendships,” explains Kamal. “The album tells the story of five close friends meeting in Rome for holidays, cooking, living, laughing and playing music together. Marcelo Allulli and Daniele Capucci are from Italy, Karen Lugo and Israel Varela are from Mexico, and I am myself from Jordan. We all have our own influences and backgrounds; we all have something to bring and to share. And this is actually how the album was born.” Always searching into new untouched sound territories, and digging deeper into the origins of the modern Arabic music, Kamal wanted to show the historical connections between both Spanish and Arab cultures, especially while looking back into several centuries of Arabic domination in Andalusia, where every aspect of life has merged and developed into new sounds, sciences of life, and new spirits. After a trip to Rome, in February of 2013, Kamal aspired to tie all together the cultural treasures of this city built throughout history: the centuries-long influence of the Romans on the Middle East, and of the Arabs on Spain; the voyages of the Italian, Spanish and Arab merchants, reaching Asia in the Far East, exploring new lands and engaging in commerce and cross-cultural exchange. “I wanted to show how the sound of the Oud and old Arabic rhythms can talk beautifully with Flamenco rhythms and dance, especially Bularias and Rumbas.” The Mexican dancer Karen Lugo, known for her ability to mix the real Flamenco traditions with modern movements, gave a new dimension to Kamal’s music by marrying the beat of her heels with the rhythm played by the musicians, dance and music being tightly connected in Latin tradition. “This blending of Eastern and Western musical influences is very interesting, because they are fundamentally different in their structure,” explains Kamal. “Though Western music is based on harmonies, Eastern music stresses more on the melody, it is a modal music. Flamenco is a hybrid form of these two main traditions. It is a challenge for me to marry them, and a great source of inspiration.”


Kamal Musallam (oud), with the flamenco dancer Karen Lugo.

Eastmania: a new project tracing the Silk Road in search of cultural and musical influences that linked throughout history countries from West to East


If for the moment Kamal is very concentrated on the launch of this new album in May 2014, he always keeps in mind a larger project, built through the years and his multiples experiences: Eastmania. Combining Arabic, Oriental and Jazz-Rock music, Kamal wants to follow the Silk Road, looking for the old musical and cultural connections that used to tie up countries from West to East. “Merchants roads have crossed the world during centuries, spreading and blending the cultures. These links are still living today inside us, but we forgot where they come from. There is for example a particular rhythm in Arabic music called ‘the Indian’. Why do we call it like this? Where does it come from exactly? This is what interests me,” he explains. “I want to condense all the experimental experiences I had till now in a huge project divided into 6 chapters around the world, in Indonesia, Korea, Japan, China, India and Russia.” The first chapter, mixing Arabic with Indonesian influences, should be finished before the end of 2014. Kamal collaborated for this album with the Syrian singer Rasha Rizk, the Indonesian keybords player Dwiki Dharmawan, the German bassist Kai Ekhardt and the Jordanian percussionist Nasser Salameh, featuring the legendary drummer Billy Cobham. “I met Billy Cobham for the first time in Dubai Jazz festival, in 2004. We kept in touch after that, and when I told him later about Eastmaniaa project, he was immediately interested and wanted to take part of it,” says Kamal. “My role in this project, more than playing as a musician, is also to be the orchestrator of encounters between very different musicians, with different backgrounds, to let them create together. I’m not trying to reproduce traditional music. What I want is to create something new coming from diffuse references to cultural backgrounds.”

Organizing for the moment the launch tour of Homemade in Rome in UAE and Jordan, Kamal planned already a trip to Indonesia this summer, in order to meet new musicians and improve his knowledge on Indonesian gamelan. He is also working on the launch of a new guitar, Ibanez KMM 100, that is including extra frets in order to play the quarter tone, so characteristic of Arabic music. With an agenda full of projects, Kamal says with a smile that he will take some holidays when he will be dead. For the moment, he is far too busy promoting the Arabic influences in contemporary music.




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