Elia, Basil and Osama Khoury have been performing together as a trio for a decade now. Each a virtuoso on his own instrument with a firm grounding in both western and oriental music, the Palestinian-born brothers seek to develop new musical ideas by merging different types of music. Suleman Taufiq spoke to the Khourys in Paris
The members of Khoury Trio have developed a new style of music that is entirely their own. They love to experiment, creating soundscapes that open the senses, compositions that are permeated by oriental sounds yet are in harmony with contemporary music. Although the trio's music contains an entire gamut of timbres, it remains rooted in its oriental heritage and maintains its spiritual links to oriental art music. Based on traditional themes, the three Khoury brothers provide a whole new insight into Middle Eastern music with their improvisations and compositions.
You are Palestinians and grew up in Jordan. Do your roots play a role in your music?
Elia Khoury: We are Palestinians, but we have never seen our country. It is only 80 km from Amman – where we grew up and where our family lives – to Jerusalem. For me, however, it is easier to fly to Australia than it is to travel to Jerusalem. It is our cultural and social responsibility to show that we exist as Palestinians.
We now consider ourselves to be citizens of the world. It no longer matters where we are right now. The main thing is that we are giving something and are staying creative. Our art is not politicised. But the fact that we, as Palestinians, can offer people music is wonderful. That is our message.
When did you three start making music together as a trio?
Elia Khoury: The Khoury Trio developed at home, without us actually being aware of it. It just evolved that way. We are three brothers and we grew up with music. We began to learn music one after the other. I learned first, then came Basil, then Osama. Our interest in music developed at an early age. Our family home was a liberal one, and this atmosphere left its mark on us.
So your parents had nothing against the fact that you all became professional musicians?
Osama Khoury: Our parents supported us and encouraged us to learn music. They were always very interested in culture. They are our "official sponsors". Maybe they thought: we've got three boys at home, we have to keep them busy so that they don't get up to any monkey business.
Did you attend a school of music?
Basil Khoury: All three of us studied music at the conservatory in Amman. I began to learn violin at the age of five. I also learned to play the drums at the same time. But I later decided to focus on the violin. I attended master classes in France and in the USA and played in Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan in 2004. I learned a lot from him. I took lessons from him in the master class and attended a lot of his workshops.
Elia Khoury: I started out learning the oud at the conservatory in Amman. My teacher was the great master oud player Munir Bashir. I also learned cello at the same time. Munir Bashir's concept was always that one should learn two instruments – one western, one oriental – so that one would be open to Western music. I later got a scholarship and went to Istanbul, where I continued my studies with a Turkish teacher and wrote a dissertation on the Turkish and Arab schools of oud playing.
We are influenced by the Iraqi, Egyptian, Syrian and Turkish classical schools, but we try to develop our own musical style. All three of us are always searching and we love to experiment.
Later all three of you went to Paris. Why did you choose France?
Osama Khoury: We began with classical oriental music because we wanted to consolidate our oriental identity. But we went to France to learn even more, to continue expanding our knowledge of music. For us, Paris is the most important European city for oriental music. We have more opportunities here to meet musicians from all over the world. That is not possible in Jordan.
Do you work well together as brothers? After all, you are always together; you even live together.
Osama Khoury: There is always a lot of excitement when we work together; we often fight, even at a personal level; that's par for the course for brothers. We work well together as brothers, but sometimes it is strenuous too. But at the same time, we ultimately create something beautiful. Brothers fight with wooden swords, and wooden swords might hurt, but they don't kill. We breathe as one. Everyone does everything; there is no division of labour. We have reached the stage where we hardly need to speak to each other during a concert. We communicate with each other through glances. Each of us knows the other so well that he knows what the other wants.
You say that you all do everything. How do you compose together?
Elia Khoury: Sometimes one of us comes up with a musical idea. We then start to practice, and later on the idea develops into a musical piece to which each of us has contributed. Every piece has its own history. We don't have a specific approach to composition. We work together. Sometimes a new idea emerges during rehearsals.
How would you define your music?
Osama Khoury: Our music really can't be pigeon-holed. It is simply the music of Khoury Trio, a fusion of Middle Eastern music with a lot of elements from flamenco, jazz, and many other sources.
At the same time, it has a marked oriental style because we come from the region ourselves. Because all three of us studied western and oriental musical instruments, our heads are full of western and oriental melodies. Both kinds of music come together in us and what emerges is a completely independent, new kind of music.
You sometimes perform with European musicians. Are they in a position to immerse themselves in the oriental atmosphere of the music?
Osama Khoury: Yes, but they have to be open to other music cultures. We are currently performing with the French double bass player Guillaume Robert. His roots are in jazz, but he plays with a variety of Roma ensembles from all over eastern Europe. He has an open ear for the music of other cultures and, therefore, for oriental culture too. That makes it easier to work with him. There is a common denominator between the music of the Middle East and jazz. In both, there is a lot of room for individuality and improvisation, whether it is during a solo or when playing together.
Unlike European music, Arab music does not rely completely on notes. It is heterophonic. Do European musicians need to have everything noted down?
Elia Khoury: When we work with other musicians, we look for musicians with a different musical background. It is not about only being able to play off the sheet. We have to find a common basis. On stage there is a common love between us and the audience. The energy that comes from the audience influences our performance. The pieces that we play change depending on how we feel at that moment. That is the tradition of Arab music that we have developed so that it fits into the age in which we live.
Interview: Suleman Taufiq
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de