Palestinian at vanguard of Arab music renaissance

Growing up in the chaos of the Lebanese civil war, Palestinian composer and singer Marwan Abado used to practise the oud while his friends in a rough Beirut neighbourhood were out carrying knives.
"Marwan thought far ahead of us. The Israelis were laying siege to Beirut. He was resisting with his oud," said Lebanese banker Hussein Jaber, a childhood friend of Abado, who later emigrated to Austria and studied the Arab string instrument under Iraqi maestro Assim Chalabi in Vienna.
"There was no electricity, but we used to play basketball while the night sky was being lit by shelling from warships. The fact that Marwan was a Maronite Christian in (mostly Muslim) West Beirut didn't matter."
Twenty five years after leaving Lebanon, where his family fled from war in Palestine during the creation of Israel in 1948, Abado is on his biggest Arab tour in Amman, Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut and Sidon.
He is part of a small but dogged class of artists working on reinvigorating Arab music by integrating Western influences without detaching it from its roots.
But they are not among the mainstream in the Arab Middle East, which has seen a decline in artistic output over the last 50 years as autocratic governments crushed opposition, educations standards collapsed and artistic creativity was smothered.
Even Egypt's towering Imam Issa, a blind musician known as Sheikh Imam who identified with the country's huge underclass, has seen jail time for his political views.
Main figures in the renaissance generation now mostly reside in the West, including oud player Rabih Abou Khalil, one of the best-selling artists on Enja Records, who left for Germany in the late 1970s and made a triumphant return to his homeland in Lebanon at the 1999 Baalbek Festival.
Abou Khalil's ensembles have included Westerners on cello, violin and even the serpent, an old European instrument with holes instead of keys. But his music is steeped in Arab history, with oud, a pillar of Arab music, at the centre.
Another modernizer is Anouar Brahem, a Tunisian oud virtuoso who lived in France and collaborated with Britain's John Surman. Lebanon's Ziad Rahbani, son of Lebanese diva Fairouz and an accomplished jazz composer, stayed in his homeland.
"You need a civil society for people like Marwan to take their rightful place," said Rasha Amran, organiser of a literary and musical festival in Syria's Mediterranean mountain region of Malaja that brought Abado to Syria for the first time in 2008.
"You listen to Marwan with his oud and the Austrian percussionist as if it's an orchestra playing," she added.
For the tour Abado is leading a band comprised of classically trained Australian violinist Joanna Lewis, who lives in Vienna and often plays with jazz musicians, Austrian bass guitarist Miki Liebermann, Polish clarinet player Maceij Golebiowski and percussionist Peter Rosmanith.
At a concert in Damascus Opera House on Tuesday, part of the tour to help raise money for U.N. Palestinian refugee schools, Golebiowski played the dukuk, an Armenian wind instrument, while Abado sang "Hawa al-Shimali" (northern wind), by Lebanese poet Talal Haidar.
"I was probably the last in my high school. I later found out what my parents had meant by saying that education was our major weapon as Palestinians," Abado told Reuters.
His career owes to backing he found in Vienna, helping him "not define his audience" but form a music language of his own.
"A Palestinian would regard me from the same soil that produces Palestinian thyme. A Lebanese would think I was from Beirut and an Austrian would see me as an assimilated compatriot. Without music my work would not smell of wild thyme, or fulfil a longing for the art of Beirut," he said.
Austrian music writer Andreas Felber said even Europeans identify with Abado's themes of loss and longing, because "they're part of every day life that bond people."
Abado's last album "Nard" (dice) contains an oud solo he wrote about a "normal day in Palestine."
"Every day there is news. Every day there are images from a land called Palestine. Every day there is a struggle. Every day there is a farewell in a land called Palestine," he sings over the oud.
"I wish for a day without victories. Without murders without injuries, just a normal boring day. And this normal, boring day will be a feast for a land called Palestine."
Abado's family came from Kfar Burum, a village on the border with Lebanon that was razed along with hundreds of Palestinian villages following the creation of Israel.
The 43-year old musician was in Amman, Damascus and Aleppo this week. A Beirut concert on Saturday will be broadcast to an audience in Bethlehem.

Music from the Motherland

Palestinian music has always absorbed many musical influences throughout its long history, by virtue of its geographical position at the centre of the Arab world. Enforced migration has now added to these influences represent the desire to preserve tradition and remember the good times, while embracing innovation and outside influences.

Marwan Abado is a christian Palestinian, born as a refugee in Beirut in 1967, who has lived and worked in Vienna since 1985. He is the closest Palestinians have to what the French call a chansonnier, composing highly personal and individual songs sung in a very intimate style and often using his own lyrics as well as those of other poets. Woven into these are often thought-provoking commentaries on the palestinian condition and a certain wry humor is evident in his live performances.

Despite working with European musicians and , since 2000, as a duo with the percussionist Peter Rosmanith, his compositions are always uniquely Palestinian in character, whatever the instruments used. Marwan´s oud playing is warm but never showy and you can feel the close rapport he has with his other musicians. This is music in miniature to be played late at night when there is time for reflection.

Marwan Abado proves that cross-cultural collaboration can be succeeful without having to sacrifice your own national musical voice.

Paul Hughes-Smith

songlines, june 2006

„Marwan Abado´s „Kabila“ is sometimes European in flavour, with some experimental touches. His oud and voice blend with violin, percussion and accordion from three Western musicians – it´s one of those collaborations that work quintessentially well. Together they create an impressionistic, mesmerising sound with shades of minimalism and even hints of baroque music. This combination suits Abado´s dreamy songs perfectly – this is a delightful album.”

Perpetual minority:

Jazz Abado and Co.
Gareth Smyth
Special to The Daily Star

Friday, April 23, 1999

Drinking large glasses of beer in Wimpy, Marwan and Helmut seem an unlikely pair. To the right a chubby Arab with a wisp of gray hair in his dark mop; to the left a skinny, serious-looking Austrian. Chalk and cheese. But when they play music, the closseness is uncanny. Paradox, Marwan Abado grew up in Beirut but learned to play the oud in Vienna, where his teacher was the iraqi maestro Asim Chalabi. Mr. Abado was born here in 1967, to a family of Palestinian Maronites from the village of Kufr Barem in Safed, over today´s border from Bint Jbeil. He went to Austria in 1985, where he met Helmut Neundlinger, who had arrived in Vienna from Upper Austria to study philosophy- specifically Jordano Bruno, an Italian burned for heresy in 1600.

Originally clarinetist as well as a philosopher, Mr. Neundlinger graviated to soprano sax through free jazz. „ Our music together derived from a feeling of friendship,“ says Mr. Neundlinger over his pint. „ I learned about Arabic music from him. The rhythm drove me crazy at the beginning- it was very unsquare.“ Mr. Abado had played guitar growing up in Lebanon and was a great fan of the songs of Marcel Khalifé. But being a Maronite Palestinian in Beirut in 1975 proved too complex for some of the neighbors, and the family moved to west Beirut from Dbayeh camp before he left for Europe in the aftermath of the israeli invasion. In the city of Mozart, Schubert and chocolate cakes, Abado plunged into the depths of Arabic music. „With Chalabi, I studied modes and scales,“ he recalls. „ From the 30s onward the Iraqi school had explored the potential of the oud as a solo instrument.“ He plays in variety of settings- he has just released a solo CD, „Songs of the South,“ on which he sings over his own oud. He is in Beirut this week with a quintet for a couple of concerts which should bring a fresh dimension to the city´s emerging status as capital of crossover.

The concerts feature the ensemble Abado & Co. Which came together in 1994 as a quartet with Mr. Abado, Mr. Neundlinger, a bassist and percussionist. Their CD, „Circles,“ was a crisp, rhythmic adventure with melody alternating between saxophone and oud. The rapport between the two musicians gave „Circles,“ a tightness lacking in much „world music“ (it compares very favorably, for example, with the „Thimar“ CD of John Surman and Anour Brahem). „ This music is resistent to definition. It is a mixture of identities, but I do not look at it in terms of nationality. The music comes out of friendship. It´s not a matter of Arab meeting non-Arab – it´s a matter of having something in common.

Dania Saadi/The Daily Star, Lebanon

Marwan Abado, singer, composer and oud-player, brought his borderless music to the audience, a show teaming him with Austrian percussion wizard Peter Rosmanith. Abado and Rosmanith’s playfulness may give the impression they are just two boys at play, but their uncanny humor is trenched in reality.

Chroniques et points de vue

De leurs voyages, certains ramènent des souvenirs, qu'ils exposent ou accrochent sur les murs. Eux en ont fait un album. Chaque morceau de "Marakeb" serait comme une carte postale d'Orient. Marwan Abado chante et joue de l'oud. Magistralement. Avec religiosité presque. Peter Rosmanith domine une batterie de percussions des plus éclectiques. Tous deux ont composé les 10 pièces musicales de ce fascinant disque, où ils invitent l'accordéon, la trompette, et la basse double. La rencontre se fait presque spirituelle, tant les hommes communiquent par des notes ("Hawa Shmali"). Et puis il y a cette voix, posée, pénétrante, qui résonne sur les couplets intimistes ("Mat'r"). La voix féminine (Tinna Barrer) répond à l'accordéon, installant avec la douceur de l'oud de fragiles harmonies. C'est le chant de la pluie, celui du vent, et de la tranquille nonchalance du chameau ("Jammel"). Une invitation à un voyage où l'on partage des sensations que l'esprit transmet au corps, pour le faire frémir. On s'abandonne à "Marakeb" avec délices. José Ruiz

Palestinian singer Marwan Abado who is residing in Austria, participated in the Poets Spring Celebrations in France through songs from his new CD Marakeb (Ships) which he inspired from the Palestinian sea heritage. “Although our sea heritage is very rich, we unfortunately did not benefit from it except very little in the musical aspect despite the fact that many Arab countries overlook the sea. I found the script Marakeb in a book entitled “Labor and workers Songs in Palestine” by Ali al Khalili. It is an old script that has not been tuned which talks about the moments of welcoming the returning ship. The farewell is very fast but waiting is slow,” Abado told the London-based daily al Hayat. He added, “I seek to be modern from the personal and artistic point of view. From this point my tie with the heritage unites. It is a rich tradition which to me is a reference but not the only reference.”
The CD, Ships, includes songs in both classical and colloquial Arabic such as Rain is Coming and Time Seller by Talal Haider. According to Abado, this is attributed to a personal factor, which prompts him to select colloquial and classical scripts due to his presence in Europe since 17 years. “Through poetry written in classical Arabic, I maintain continuity with my mother culture. Colloquial language is very vital in Arabic and I feel that I can express myself through it better than classical. The way I select the script whether in colloquial or classical Arabic is linked with the topic that suits me as an artist,” said Abado. He pointed out that “ he is enthusiastic to the Muwashahat (terza meraza), Egyptian old school, but that is the only thing as he considers that the Arabic music culture can assimilate many new experiences.”