The Palestinian Oud Virtuoso Adel Salameh

"Arabic Music Can Be Universal"

The Palestinian oud player and composer Adel Salmeh has performed for the first time in Germany. He spoke with Saleh Diab on the unique nature of the Arabic lute and on the opportunities for musical dialogue

The Palestinian oud virtuoso Adel Salameh (photo:
Adel Salameh: "I make an effort to promote dialogue through my musical and cultural activities in Europe"

​​In the seven albums you have produced so far, you seem to be following your own characteristic musical path. What are the basic qualities of your music?

Adel Salameh: My first album "Solo" was released in 1994 in Japan. It was followed in 1995 by "Mediterraneo," an album that I recorded with the musician Eduardo Niebla and which features Arabic music to the accompaniment of flamenco melodies. Then came "The Arab path to India," on which I undertook a wide excursion through the Indian musical landscape and interwove it with elements of Arabic music.

"Kanza," the fourth album, is a journey through over forty countries. Naziha Azzouz from Algeria sings on this CD, Barbaros Erkose from Turkey plays clarinet, and they are accompanied by the Moroccan tambourine player Abdel Rhani Krija. "Kanza" sets poems by Nizar Qabbani and Abi Qassem Shabi to music. Here we used classical rhythms and tonal modes, the "maqamat."

"Kanza" could be described as Sufi-like and is marked by dark tones. What I mean by Sufism here is a type of music that is very long-winded. The singer constantly sings one note, and, together with the oud and the warm tones of the clarinet, the result is an extremely exquisite sound.

You base all of your compositions on the oud. What musical range does the oud have in terms of other musical genres?

Salameh: The oud is an Arabic instrument. In fact, it is the essence of Arabic music. An oud player develops a very intimate relationship with his instrument – he literally embraces it while playing. The oud is suitable for playing flamenco, jazz, and Indian music and can also accompany a European orchestra.

It is sometime said that the musical range of the oud is rather limited. The truth is that it all depends on the performer and not the instrument itself. I have played the oud in successful combination with many types of non-Arabic music and have been accompanied by almost every possible kind of instrument. The oud is a musical instrument that can grasp the Arabic character and sense of emotion.

You have collaborated with musicians not sharing your Arabic musical culture. Have you benefited from working together with these musicians?

Salameh: Work with others demands not only being open musically on a continuous basis, but also being open to one's colleagues at the cultural level, having the desire to learn from the other culture while keeping an open mind. How can you accept something at the musical level if you are closed to the culture from which it emerged? Only by being completely open can you work together musically.

I have played together with jazz groups featuring some very skilled musicians. Mutual understanding is the most important prerequisite whenever Arab musicians collaborate with colleagues from other cultures.

When I am accompanied by a piano, an accordion, or a guitar, I have to be completely open towards that instrument and the cultural milieu that it represents. When I work with other musicians, we don't try to force musical dictates on each other in any way. What we do is hold a dialogue with each other on a musical level. It's the dialogue that constitutes the artistic spirit of the music and it's the basis of my musical and cultural commitment in Europe.

Your compositions are directed towards a western audience. How do listeners from another musical culture react when hearing you play Arabic music?

Salameh: Arabic music expresses strong feelings of yearning in the soul, of emotion, and a sense of being uninhibited. When the public hears this music, it falls into an almost delirious state. This rapture comes about because Arabic music can move its listeners to the core. If you like, we could also say that it moves one to melancholy. Arabic music can be universal. I have played in over forty countries in front of audiences from different musical backgrounds and it has always been a great success.

In the process, I am always focused on the oud and it is together that we perform these concerts. An Arabic musician cannot be successful if he ignores the traditional legacy of his music. This legacy is the basic precondition for the music's universal appeal. If I play non-Arabic music, I'm not able to astonish the listeners. Instead, they will value their own music over what I am playing. Yet, when I play our music in its original form, I can intoxicate the public. Only then can I earn the audience's approval – they enjoy the music and show me their respect.

Listeners will find no slogans in your work. You rarely refer to Palestine. Don't you regard yourself as a Palestinian musician?

Salameh: One of the pieces on my last album is called "The Gates of Jerusalem." I wrote the song about the gates of a city with a tragic history. Musicians from various countries played along on this track. I would like to represent Palestine with my music, not with sensational slogans. I hold Palestine close to my heart. My melodies and my music represent me, not slogans or political posturing. In the end, I go on stage at every concert as a Palestinian. Palestine is part of the Arab world and as such is inseparable from all that is connected with it – from its music to its culture.

Interview conducted by Saleh Diab

© 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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