Anouar Brahem was born in 20 th October 1957 in Halfaouine in the Medina of Tunis. Encouraged by his father, an engraver and printer, but also a music lover, Brahem began his studies of the oud, the lute of Arab world, at the age of 10 at the Tunis National Conservatory of Music, where his principal teacher was the oud master Ali Sriti. An exeptional student, by the age of 15 Brahem was playing regularly with local orchestras. At 18 he decided to devote himself entirely to music. For four consecutive years Ali Sriti received him at home every day and continued to transmit to him the modes, subtleties and secrets of Arab classical music through the traditional master / disciple relationship.
Little by little Brahem began to broaden his field of listening to include other musical expressions, from around the Mediterranean and from Iran and India... then jazz began to command his attention. "I enjoyed the change of environment," he says" and discovered the close links that exist between all these musics".
Brahem increasingly distanced himself from an environment largely dominated by entertainment music. He wanted more than to perform at weddings or to join one of the many existing ensembles which he considered anachronistic and where the oud was usually no more than an accompanying instrument for singers. A deepfelt conviction led him to give first place to this preferred instrument of Arab music and to offer the Tunisian public instrumental and oud solo concerts. He began writing his own compositions and gave a series of solo concerts in various cultural venues. He also issued a self-produced cassette, on which he was accompanied by percussionist Lassaad Hosni.
A loyal public of connoisseurs gradually rallied around him and the Tunisian press gave enthusiastic support. Reviewing one of Brahem's first performances, critic Hatem Touil wrote: "this talented young player has succeed not only in overwhelming the audience but also in giving non -vocal music in Tunisia its claim to nobolity while at the same time restoring the fortunes of the lute. Indeed, has a lutist produced such pure sounds or concretised with such power and conviction, the universality of musical experience"
In 1981, the urge to seek new experiences became ever stronger and his departure for Paris, that most cosmopolitan of cities, enabled him to meet musicians from very different genres. He remained for four years, composing extensively, notably for Tunisian cinema and theatre. He collaborated with Maurice Béjart for his ballet "Thalassa Mare Nostrum" and with Gabriel Yared as lutist for Costa Gavras' film "Hanna K.".
In 1985 he returned to Tunis and an invitation to perform at the Carthage festival provided him with the opportunity of bringing together, for "Liqua 85", outstanding figures of Tunisian and Turkish music and French jazz. These included Abdelwaheb Berbech, the Erköse brothers, François Jeanneau, Jean-Paul Celea, François Couturier and others. The success of the project earned Brahem Tunisia's Grand National Prize for Music.
In 1987, he was appointed director of the Musical Ensemble of the City of Tunis (EMVT). Instead of keeping the large existing orchestra, he broke it up into formations of a variable size, giving it new orientations: one year in the direction of new creations and the next more towards traditional music. The main productions were "Leïlatou Tayer" (1988) and "El Hizam El Dhahbi" (1989) in line with his early instrumental works and following the main axis of his research. In these compositions, he remained essentially within the traditional modal space, although he transformed its references and upset its heirarchy. Following a natural disposition towards osmosis, which has absorbed the Mediterranean, African and Far-Eastern heritages, he also touched from time to time upon other musical expressions: European music, jazz and other forms.
With "Rabeb" (1989) and "Andalousiat" (1990), Anouar Brahem returned to classical Arab music. Despite the rich heritage transmitted by Ali Sriti and the fact that this music constitued the core of his training, he had in fact, never performed it in public. With this "return" he wished to contribute to the urgent rehabilitation of this music. He put together a small ensemble, a "takht", the original form of the traditional orchestra, where each instrumentalist plays as both a soloist and as an improviser. Brahem believes this is the only means of restoring the spirit, the subtlety of the variations and the intimacy of this chamber music. He called upon the best Tunisian musicians, such as Béchir Selmi and Taoufik Zghonda, and undertook thorough research work on ancient manuiscripts with strict care paid to transparency, nuances and details.
With "Ennaoura el achiqua" (1987), Brahem presented a performance of song, a result of his association with the poet Ali Louati. In this exploration of vocal music, he revealed a desire to reacquaint himself with its elaborate classical forms, such as the "Quassid", in the footsteps of Khemais Tarnane, Saied Derwich, Riadh Sombati and Mohamed Abdelwahab. "Ennaoura el achiqua", a marginal work, going against the grain, nevertheless had considerable impact on both press and public.
"Ennaoura el achiqua" was not to be his only incursion into the field of song. He would return to it from time to time, for film music or in association with a singer and often with the complicity of Ali Louati. For instance, he collaborated with Nabiha Karaouli whom he revealed to the public, Sonia M'barek, Saber Rebaï, Teresa de Sio, Franco Battiato and Lotfi Bouchnak, who sang "Ritek ma naaref ouin", composed in the spirit of an "imaginary folklore", and wich, by an ironic twist of fate, became extremely popular, a must for every wedding party!
In 1988, before an audience of 10.000 he opened the Carthage festival with "Leilatou tayer". The newspaper Tunis-Hebdo wrote: "if we had to elect the musician of the 80's, we would without the least hesitation, chose Anouar Brahem".
In1990, he decided to leave the EMVT and embarked on a tour to the USA and Canada.
It was upon his return that he met with Manfred Eicher, the producer/founder of the German label ECM Records, and from the meeting resulted a fruitful collaboration that without a doubt marked an important evolution in his work. So far, seven albums have resulted from this association, received extremely well by the international press and the public.
The same year he chose to make his first record "Barzakh" with two outstanding Tunisian musicians with whom he had already established a close artistic relationship, Béchir Selmi and Lassaad Hosni. Considered by the German magazine "Stereo" as "a major musical event" this record confirmed his position as "an exceptional musician and improviser".
In "Conte de l'incroyable Amour", recorded in 1991, improvisation was at the heart of the game and the tone was quiet different, due in particular to the remarkable presence of Barbarose Erkose and the expressive power of his clarinette, and to the Sufic inspiration of Kudsi Erguner's nai. According to the "Monde", "the album unfurls around the poetic talent of Anouar Brahem's lute. One follows him with delight around the subtle arrangement of the melody, the silences of the musical phrasing, accross the unspoken into oriental paths, in a poetry of light and delicate beats". The same paper selected "Conte de l'Incroyable Amour" as one of the best records of 1992.
The same year, he was called upon to conceive and participate actively in the creation of the Centre for Arab and Mediterranean music in the palace of the Baron d'Erlanger at Sidi Bou Saïd.
In November 1993, he fulfilled a dream very dear to him for a long time: that of paying a worthy tribute to his master Ali Sriti, who for the occasion, agreed to return to the stage after having left it nearly thirty years earlier. Brahem set up "Awdet Tarab", a concert of traditional instrumental and sung music, at the Erlanger Palace. The Tunisian public will most certainly retain the indelible memory of the duos of the master and his pupil, accompanied by the voice of Sonia M'barek.In 1994 he recorded "Madar" with the Norwegian saxophonist, Jan garbarek and Pakistani master of tablas, Shaukat Hussain. The story of this record is simply told: Jan Garbarek, was impressed by Brahem's first two albums and had expressed the wish to work with him. Brahem for his part, had admired the musician for years and shared the same wish. The meeting therefore came quite naturally, warmly encouraged by Manfred Eicher. Brahem and Garbarek were united in a common quest, that for an universal tradition. "Madar" constitues a strong statement on how the mingling of traditions can be achieved without harming the essence of each.
Anouar Brahem has composed the original scores for many films and plays, amongst which, "Sabots en Or" and "Bezness" by Nouri Bouzid, Ferid Boughedir's "Halfaouine", Moufida Tlatli's "Les Silences du Palais" and " La saison des hommes" as well as for Iachou Shakespeare and "Wannas el kloub" by Mohamed Driss, "El Amel", "Borj El hammam" and "Bosten Jamalek" by the Theatre Phou. In "Khomsa" (1995), he picked up a few of these pieces which he had always dreamed of performing in a free, airy and purely musical manner "freed from the chains of images and texts" as he put it. He assembled an eclectic formation to perform this music, including Richard Galliano (accordion), Palle Danielsson (double -bass), Jon Christensen (drums), François Couturier (piano), Jean-Marc Larché (saxophone) and Béchir Selmi (violin). The sextet brought together by the composer, also featured on oud of course, is constantly being divided into solos, duos, trios, "hence the dominant and delicious impression of being on a motionless voyage full of secret passages, of novel tones, of suspended endings" as Alex Dutilh put it on "France Musique". The british daily "The Guardian" declared that "Khomsa is one of the great records of the year. Brahem is at the forefront of jazz because he is far beyond it".
Three years later Anouar Brahem was back in the studio to pick up where he had left off with Madar, passionately exploring that much further the orchestral form of the trio, but this time in a context wide open to the infinite variety of the "worlds" of jazz. Flanked by two monumental musicians, pillars of the ECM label for the last thirty years, John Surman the saxophonist and Dave Holland the double bass player, heralds of British free music in the late 60's and since pursuing each his own highly particular and artistically perfectly coherent universe, Anouar Brahem ventured with infinite delicacy the refined poetry of his instrument at the "risk" of conceptions of improvisation far removed from his own universe. The result is in keeping with the challenge : Thimar is an outstanding success, a meditative and supremely musical work, permeated with intense poetry, where each piece is played in a contemplative atmosphere of extreme concentration, as if awake in a dream. In this recording, without for as much deviating from his personal aesthetic line, Anouar Brahem explores the "mysteries of jazz" to an extent he had never reached before. In Germany, Thimar received the "Preises der Deutshen Shallplattenkritik. It was named "Best jazz album of the year" by the English magazine Jazz Wise.
Astakan Café, his sixth album in 10 years for the Munich company, came out in September 2000, and to the inattentive listener it might seem, if not a work of transition then at least an introspective pause in Anouar Brahem's career. This would be misreading this music of maturity, for although the oud player undoubtedly revisits the oriental and Mediterranean roots of his universe, it was undeniably with the added wealth of the imaginary and aesthetical journeys of his preceding albums. Playing once again for the occasion with his two most faithful partners, the clarinettist of Romany origin, Barbaros Erköse, and Lassad Hosni the Tunisian percussionist, Brahem drifts away on a wonderful intimate and eminently personal line, celebrating the syncretic spirit of Arab music, while enhancing his approach to improvisation and collective sound with the great all-embracing works, Madar and Thimar.
Today, Anouar Brahem is back with a surprising, atypical, and highly personal album. His most beautiful perhaps. Certainly his most ambitious. In a trio, again, with the pianist François Couturier, longstanding partner and, more unexpectedly, with the accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier, Anouar Brahem gives us with Le pas du chat noir a soothing, melancholy music, with a tone of exquisite refinement and whose formal balance is nothing short of miraculous.
Anouar Brahem is an artist who, while profoundly imbued with his Arab heritage, is unequivocably modern, well anchored in his times and headed towards the future. He is furthermore, an artist unperturbed by the clash of cultures. He has always enjoyed initiating meetings with musicians of different horizons: Jan Garbarek, Richard Galliano, Dave Holland and John Surman of course, but also Manu Di Bango, Manu Katche, Taralagati, Fareed Haque, Pierre Favre..., finding in each meeting the means of renewing himself while retaining his own identity. When questioned as to his inspiration, Brahem refers to " the tree which, while rising above the ground and taking up more space, continues to develop and dig its roots deeper into the ground ", an image which quite obviously has references to Tunis, his native city, a multi-faceted city, rooted in its Arab-Moslem culture and nourished on its African and Mediterranean influences, a solar universe as it were, its traces always present in the artist's work. In fact, he believes that a tradition which is unable to change and adapt is doomed to die. This is why he unhesitantly takes up challenges and opens his music to new forms of expression. "It would seem," wrote Wolfgang Sandner in the "Frankfurter Allegemeine Magazine", "that the man from Tunisia has gone much further than many jazz musicians busily seeking out new music".
From the French by Anne-Marie Driss
Anouar Brahem's official website