The 47-year-old musician and composer Mahmoud Turkmani was a highly accomplished oud player as a boy. As a young man, he rebelled against his upbringing and became a Communist. He left Beirut during the civil war and studied classical guitar at the Moscow Conservatory. From his adoptive home in Switzerland, he now enriches both Western and Eastern music with unorthodox works that fuse traditional and experimental elements and defy all categorization. Stefan Franzen met the artist
Mr Turkmani, there are quite a number of composers in Lebanon trying to combine the traditional and the modern. Do you see yourself as part of this movement?
Mahmoud Turkmani: I actually see myself as more of a lone wolf. For a long time I didn't want to have anything to do with the Arab tradition, because I believed that the music was just as backward as societies in the Arab world. Then I realized that we Eastern musicians are afraid of tradition, and that's why we seek refuge in the language of Western music, which permits pretty much everything.
When you say "fear of tradition", do you mean "fear of changing tradition?"
Turkmani: No, the problem is much more that most musicians and composers don't really know their own tradition very well. And if you don't know it well, then you can't develop or change it. I, on the other hand, knew my own tradition very well; I just didn't want to concern myself with it. Then I had it rammed down my throat at the Moscow Conservatory that oriental music is just pleasant folklore and had no place there. It was a long time before I was able to overcome my barriers. I kept wondering why no Arab musician dared to compose a proper solo concerto for a traditional Arab instrument. Many people think that if you combine the oud with a European orchestra, you are an innovator and a bridge-builder. But the attempts that have been made so far are just very timid, banal, trashy and Western-influenced.
You found another way and were promptly attacked at the Congress for Arab Music. Can you explain what happened?
Turkmani: It was the first time that I'd ever dared to concern myself with traditional music. Previously, I'd presented my compositions for string quartet, recorder quintet and chamber orchestra to great acclaim in Cairo, Algeria and Morocco. As long as you compose for these Western instruments, you can do what you like.
Then I ventured to tackle an Arab ensemble, and worked on the Arab-Andalusian musical form of the Muwashshahat, using exactly the same methods and the same respect. While I was warmly received as a bridge-builder beforehand, the reaction afterwards was devastating.
Is this because for the people at the congress, tradition is so sacred that it should not be tampered with?
Turkmani: That's the mindset of the loser. My theory is that since the period when the Moors were forced out of Andalusia, there has not been much left in the East apart from religion, the tradition that encompasses music and sexuality. If someone touches upon these three taboos, people feel insecure and under attack. Afterwards I had the same experience in Morocco, Algeria and Jordan. I got to the point where I no longer wanted to dance to their tune and responded to this abuse with my work "Ya Sharr Mout", in which I describe myself as a "son of a bitch".
Then they really didn't know how to react, because that's the worst insult in the Arabic language. Nevertheless, my Muwashshahat are taught at the conservatories of Tunis and Dohar, although I am not named as the composer. I only discovered this later when two students from there worked with me and were astonished to discover that these were my compositions. So I have changed something, it would seem.
You left Lebanon during the civil war. Did you leave the country because of the taboos you just mentioned? And could you imagine going back at some point?
Turkmani: I don't want to be nostalgic. Right now I don't see a future for myself in Lebanon or the Arab world as a whole. I'm a lateral thinker and there's no place there for people like me, above all in Lebanon with its complex system of different religious denominations. If you're looking for a job there, then you've got to take into account how many Sunnis, Maronites and Shias are in office. You're not employed for your abilities, but for your affiliation to some group and the fact that you sympathize with some idiot or other.
I'd prefer to work in these countries on an ad hoc basis or pursue projects here. You don't necessarily have to be there, the world has become a smaller place. I used to be a revolutionary; I was a member of the protest group centred on Marcel Khalifé, who sang left-wing political songs. I was a Communist; I didn't want to just change the Arab world, I wanted to change the entire world, make it more socialist in character. Now I'm using other means to prevent the Arab world from changing me.
What's life like for a lateral thinker in the Swiss provinces? One might expect a character such as yours to seek his inspiration in places like London or Paris…
Turkmani: The atmosphere in Switzerland is very good. I am tolerated, accepted even; people give me work and support my projects. I now feel very much at home in my village near Berne, which has a population of 200. Of course, no one here understands my music, but they think I'm a clever man and that I'm doing something worthwhile. The cities you mention are good for people who make world music. I call it tabbouleh music, like the soundtrack to a Benetton commercial where everyone's very nice and everyone loves each other.
Your work is highly experimental. Do you feel an affiliation with new music, 12-tone music?
Turkmani: Not at all. I use neither 12-tone music nor maqamat. I'm looking for the music within me, for my own musical language. I could suddenly start composing in a completely tonal manner. I never want to be dogmatic; it depends on which technique is currently best suited to expressing my feelings, my ideas. In the case of "Ya Sharr Mout", I wanted to use various methods to illuminate the insults that rained down on me. That's why there is a whole variety of elements to be heard in this piece: tonal and atonal, abstract and concrete, traditional. I'm way beyond any categorization.
If you're making a conscious effort not to write atonal music and not making a conscious effort to avoid tonality, what criteria are you guided by when you compose? Are you aiming for a totally free, improvised language?
Turkmani: Improvisation is also an element of my creative work, but I don't like to use the word because it's always swiftly associated with jazz. We've got a much better term in oriental music: "reinvent oneself in the moment". I tend to prefer this interpretation.
During my studies I learned to work out the structures before starting on the composition. These days, I do the exact opposite: I sit in front of a blank page or the computer and allow myself to be led by my hands or my "mouth". My pieces evolve according to what I'm feeling at the time, like a snowball in varying sizes and shapes. For me, style is a kind of prison.
You've found your way back to the oud via a long "detour" during which you studied classical guitar in Moscow. Do you still regard the oud as the Arab instrument par excellence?
Turkmani: The oud has been a part of my life since I was five. I hated it, because out of defiance or stupidity I always automatically turned against anything that my father loved. I always wanted to be seen as a guitarist, because the guitar stood for the new, liberal world while in my view, the oud embodied woeful, whining songs. But the instrument is wonderful; it has a language all its own, a means of conveying something in a way no other instrument can. Is the instrument backward? No, at some point I realized that the only backward one is me. My relationship to the instrument can be modern or contemporary, traditional or old-fashioned, but not the instrument itself.
You have written theatre music for "Lilith's Return", worked on a radio play called "The Ocean in a Thimble", and a whole series of your new recordings is about to be released. Can you give us an idea of what to expect?
Turkmani: I recorded a CD of modal music with a choir called Chant 1540th, which alternates Gregorian chants and pieces for oud, but in a way that doesn't sound nice in a clichéd manner. I'm also about to record two solo CDs, one of them with my take on flamenco. I was encouraged to do this by Paco de Lucia after he visited me. The second solo CD is very radical, clamorous, inspired by the Arab Spring, which is perhaps more of a winter, we don't know yet.
So what's your assessment of the Arab Spring? Is this an opportunity to change, or do old habits die hard?
Turkmani: In any case, we are now entering a phase where social and cultural opposites will clash, producing a mess that could in turn yield quite exciting things. Radical forces will inevitably take power because they are better organized than the young, democratic, liberal movements. But they will fail, because their representatives don't have any solutions for these societies. I can already predict that they will be defeated at the next elections. I was in Cairo recently where I spoke to many artists and intellectuals. They feel completely lost, they have no idea what the situation will be in two months, for example who will be in control of the opera house. It's a confusing state of affairs. It'll be two generations before these societies are comfortable with new patterns of behaviour.
Interview: Stefan Franzen
© Qantara.de 2012
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de