The Fusion Guitarist Kamal Musallam

Music from the Dust and Dirt of Dubai

The Dubai-based Jordanian jazz guitarist Kamal Musallam recently released his fifth album. "LuLu" is an unusual mix of blues, jazz, and traditional rhythms from the Arabian Gulf. Martina Sabra introduces the album and musician

Kamal Musallam and French Jazz singer Anne Ducros (photo:
"The rhythms and melodies of the Arabian Gulf are very close to my heart." Kamal Musallam and French Jazz singer Anne Ducros live on stage

​​ There was great excitement in the crowd when the Kamal Musallam Trio appeared on stage with 17 members of the Emirati folklore group Sokoor Al-Magabeel in April 2009 at the WOMAD Festival in Abu Dhabi. Would the experiment succeed?

It did succeed. And so well, in fact, that the project has since been released as a CD. The title of the album, "LuLu," is a reference to the local pearl divers, whose songs and poetry form part of the cultural foundation of the Gulf region.

This project is the realisation of a long-cherished dream, says Kamal Musallam, born in Kuwait in 1970 as the son of Lebanese-Jordanian parents, where he lived until he turned nine.

Brazilian nimbleness on the Arabian Gulf

"The rhythms and melodies of the Arabian Gulf are very close to my heart," explains Musallam. "They are unbelievably relaxed, a little like Brazilian Pandeiro. They reflect the sea, the rhythm of the waves, and the hard life of the pearl divers and fishermen. For me, their riches lie in the poetical texts and relaxed rhythms."

The Burj Dubai (photo: AP)
"More than a collection of glittering facades and shopping centres": Dubai is located at the crossroads of various cultures

​​ The tracks for "LuLu" were recorded in the early summer of 2009 in just a few weeks – a record time when one considers that the Emirati folklore group had never before played with Western musicians. A listen to the album reveals how fast things must have been. Not all of the tracks are elaborately worked out, and some of them still seem loose and improvised. Yet, it is exactly this experimental and unfinished character that give "LuLu" its special charm.

It is almost as if the listener can experience the album in progress. At first, the musicians seem to merely play parallel to each other. Then, gradually, they begin to cautiously approach each other, and, finally, the musicians' playing achieves the level of completely engaged interaction, resulting in such powerful, fascinating tracks like "I Could See Thunder" and "G-Song."

Between Arabic and Western music

Kamal Musallam's musical career began from the cradle. His culturally enthusiastic parents enrolled him for piano and accordion lessons at the tender age of three. When he was nine, he was given his first guitar. Yet, despite his talent and passion for music, Musallam first studied architecture in Amman. At only twenty years old, he didn't have enough confidence to risk a career as a professional musician, the longhaired, bearded giant with steel-blue eyes says candidly.

It was a detour to Lebanon that brought about the transformation. "I wanted to work for a year in Beirut as an architect. Shortly after my arrival, I met the famous jazz musician Ziad Rahbani, and he asked me to play in his band," recalls Musallam. "It was the decisive experience for me! Ziad gave me support and helped me to find my musical footing, setting myself between Arabic and Western music."

photo: Godin
East-Western hybrid: Godin's glissentar unites the best characteristics of the Western guitar and the Arabic oud

​​ In addition to the half-electric guitar and the Arabic lute, Kamal Musallam has, for the past few years, been playing the glissentar, a still relatively new creation by Godin guitar manufacturers. It unites the best characteristics of the Western guitar and the Arabic oud.

The glissentar has no frets and the neck is longer than that of a lute or guitar," explains Musallam. "I therefore have more octaves at my disposal and can play freer. The Arabic lute has a really short neck. But, of course, no guitar can ever achieve the spiritual, round tone of the Arabic lute."

Crossroad between Europe, Asia, and Africa

After Kamal Musallam gave up his job as an architect in 1994, he first went to France where he continued training and working as a musician. He later moved to Jordan. Since 2002, he has permanently lived in Dubai. For Musallam, the former boomtown is not just a collection of glittering facades and shopping centres, but rather a place where one can observe globalization on a daily basis in all its facets within an extremely confined space.

"My home in Dubai is in a district where many workers from Pakistan live. I don't only see the bright and radiant side of Dubai, but also its dust and dirt."

In contrast to the widely held view that the cultural scene in Dubai lacks its own character, Musallam regards Dubai as a good place to make music. With its geographical location as a crossroad between Europe, Asia, and Africa, one gains a totally different perspective living in Dubai, and you get to meet more different kinds of people than usual.

An optimistic sound from the mega city

"A sound that lets one hear how something positive and new arises out of diversity": Kamal Musallam's 2008 album "Out of My City"

​​ He points to such examples as the American trumpeter Dan Trammell, the extraordinary vocalist and violinist Mounir Troudi from Tunisia, and the highly talented jazz singer Monique Hebrard from South Africa. Troudi and Hebrard both contributed to Musallam's 2008 released album entitled "Out of My City."

"I quite deliberately chose to record the album Dubai," explains the 38-year-old musician. "I wanted to translate the mood of this modern mega city into an optimistic sound. It's a sound that lets one hear how something positive and new arises out of diversity."

For Musallam, Dubai also has another advantage – it doesn't take long to get to Asia. In recent years, Musallam has successfully performed in Indonesia, Japan, and India, among other places. His hope now is that he will also find an interested audience in Europe for his music.

Martina Sabra

© 2010

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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