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A journey into one's own self with Lebanese oud master Charbel Rouhana

Ahram Online speaks to the renowned musician and oud virtuoso about his latest project Tarab Safar and the particularities of his vocation

Nourhan Tewfik , Tuesday 14 Jun 2016
Charbel Rouhana
Lebanese oud master Charbel Rouhana (Photo: Rawan Ezzat)
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“Until when will you abandon and exclude me?
Wayli, wayli, wayli, wayli
My friends turned out to be my own enemies
Wayli, wayli, wayli, wayli”

So recites award-winning Lebanese oud master, musician and singer Charbel Rouhana in Arabic from the repertoire of 12th century Sicilian-Arab poet Ibn Hamdis al-Siqilli. Rouhana then proceeds to sing the same lines as he plays the oud to the accompaniment of Nidal Abu Samra on the keyboard, Thomas Hornig on the saxophone, Elie Chemali on the bass, and Fouad Afra on the drums. The audience join Rouhana and repeat wayli, an expression of sorrow or grief.

We are at the opening night of the 2016 Hayy Festival at El-Genaina Theatre at Al-Azhar Park, which earlier in the night featured a performance by Egyptian band Karkade. This time in Cairo, Rouhana is bringing his latest yet musical project Tarab Safar, or the World Music Ensemble – an amalgam of music compositions as well as songs featuring selections from al-Siqilli’s poetry – to the Cairene audience.

Rouhana’s extraordinary fusion of sounds unravels throughout the course of the troupe’s performance; in the opening song Shashmash (Persian for a Water-spring), and in compositions like Deer Balak, Souvenir from Banff, Promise, amongst others, to the fervent engagement of the audience.

Closing the night, Rouhana revisited one of his early songs, Hi, Keefak, Ça Va?, a piercing, yet humorous critique of how foreign language words invade every day conversations in Lebanon.

Charbel Rouhana
(Photo: Rawan Ezzat)

Travelling within one’s own self

Tarab Safar, a music wonder in its own right, takes the signature sound of Rouhana, fusing oriental music and jazz, a step further, exhibiting a bolder fusion of this harmony and leaving us buoyant about the future of the Arab music library.

The project, Rouhana told Ahram Online in an interview conducted hours before his Cairo concert, was inspired by this idea of travelling within one’s own self.

“The most difficult yet beautiful kind of travel is that on which you embark within yourself. It is a difficult and painful undertaking, but if you succeed at it, you’ll feel a state of nashwa (euphoria) and tarab (ecstasy through music). This state of safar (travel) also brings you face to face with new people. You see, this two-word title—tarab safar—could be discussed in a whole book,” explains Rouhana.

Work on the project—which comprises eight compositions, both instrumental music and songs--commenced a year ago. For months, Rouhana worked on the compositions, which were then arranged by the participating musicians, rendering the project “a truly collective endeavor.”

As for the lyrics, Rouhana explains that he had stumbled upon the poetry of Sicilian-Arab poet Ibn Hamdis al-Siqilli by pure coincidence, “when I was composing music for his poetry back when I was in Sicily.”  

Interested in al-Siqilli’s poetry, “I did more research and integrated more selections from the poet’s repertoire,” explains Rouhana.

The project was performed for the first time at Théatre Monnot in Beirut last December and garnered critical acclaim. Writing the event description for the concert, Rouhana described the project as a voyage to the 12th century, one in which “we…will bring back Ibn Hamdis [al-Siqilli] to our modern times with harmonies that he probably thought impossible; and we will bridge this gap in a realm where there will no longer be 'old' and 'new', and 'far' and 'near', but where there will be beauty for the listener who seeks it.”

Tarab Safar thus becomes yet another attempt on the part of Rouhana to “revisit the past and bring it to our own present.”

“I’m not building this bridge to plunge into the past and overlook the future. Rather, I think about the project as a person whose feet are immersed in the roots, but whose head wanders about the boundless sky.”

To claim that Tarab Safar constitutes a new chapter in Rouhana’s vocation would be misleading, for it is but one of numerous collaborations and experimentations that underpin his music repertoire. For example, one of Rouhana's important projects was the Beirut Oriental Ensemble which he founded in 2007, and with which he has presented an array of concerts throughout the Arab world and abroad.

In that sense, Tarab Safar becomes not so much “an abrupt cut off the past,” but rather “in conversation with and a continuation to earlier projects that make up my music repertoire.”

Charbel Rouhana
(Photo: Rawan Ezzat)

On turath and experimentation

It is in the beautiful seaside town of Amchit north of Beirut that Rouhana’s larger-than-life dreams would first come to life.

Born in 1965 into a family that appreciated and celebrated music, Rouhana pursued the academic study of music, first acquiring a diploma in oud performance and instrumentation in 1986, followed by an MA in musicology in 1987, both from the Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik.

In the 1980s, Rouhana joined Al-Mayadeen, Lebanese oud master and musician Marcel Khalife’s first band.  For the next three decades, he molded his music vocation, pursuing two paths in parallel: the making and performance of music on the one hand, and a career in academia on the other hand.  

Rouhana’s repertoire comprises an array of albums on oriental instrumental music, including Shoghl Bayt (Hand Made-2008), Men’eish (We Live-2006), Hamzat Wasl (Sourat Trait d'Union, 2004—which also featured occidental instrumental tracks), The Art Of The Middle Eastern Oud (known as Vice Versa, 2003), Mazaj Alani (Unveiled Mood, 2000), Mada (a collaboration between Rouhana and prominent Lebanese musician and composer Hani Siblini, 1998) and Salamat (1997).

At the heart of Rouhana’s project is his interest in preserving and disseminating the Arabic music repertoire while attempting to leave his own imprint through state-of-the-art oriental jazz.

Throughout his almost thirty-year journey, Rouhana has realised this sought-after project through avid collaborations with fellow oud masters including a duet with oud virtuoso Marcel Khalife in the 1995 album Jadal. As Rouhana puts it, “I was lucky to have taken part in that project. It benefited me as a musician and oud player and paved the way for other projects, culminating in my writing of my 2010 album Doux Zen.”

In Doux Zen, Rouhana embarked on yet another oud duet, this time collaborating with Lebanese oud player Elie Khoury. The album comprised of compositions by Rouhana and performed by both Khoury and himself.  

Moreover, Rouhana also composed music for and accompanied an array of musicians from the regional and international music scene on the oud, including Fairouz, Majida El- Roumi, Oumeima El-Khalil, Ghada Shbeir, Rima Khcheich, Tania Saleh, Hariprasad Chaurasia and the dance group Caracalla among others. He also composed music for a number of film and theatre productions.

When in 2006 Rouhana felt that he “wanted to fesh khelqi [a Lebanese expression meaning to vent or let out a certain frustration]” through writing songs with lyrics, he embarked on yet another experiment, this time producing Khatira (Dangerous), a ten-track album that tugs at “love and social life in Lebanon,” as the album description reads on Rouhana’s official website.

In 2014, he would once again take up the same experience in Tashweesh (Interference), a 14-track album “from all genres talking about the different phases of love”. 

“You see, a lot of things we do constitute a fashet khelq. Last night for example we went for a kazdoora [felucca ride] in the Nile with Am Ahmed. I asked him how long he’s been working in the Nile, and he said he commenced working at a very young age, and that he’s like a fish, which, if taken out of water, would die. Later that night, I wrote on Facebook that each one of us has his own Nile and consequently his own way of venting, whether through music or any other undertaking.”

Amongst Rouhana’s upcoming projects is a participation at the 2016 edition of the ever-vibrant Beiteddine Art Festival, one of Lebanon's major cultural events that will run between 8 July and 9 August.

This year, Rouhana will come together with Iraqi oud master and musician Naseer Shamma and Syrian singer Lena Chamamyan to celebrate the Levant’s timeless cultural and musical heritage in a night programme titled Yamal el Sham, itself the name of a Syrian folkloric medley composed by the iconic Syrian playwright and composer Abu Khalil Qabbani. The musicians will be accompanied by the Lebanese oriental orchestra and Canadian ensemble Okto Echo conducted by Katia Makdissi-Warren.

The project was first performed a year ago in Canada and “is a salute to the people of the Syria—with their different affiliations---as they grieve and suffer. In fact, this state of poignancy is true of the whole Arab world and its people,” explains Rouhana.

Charbel Rouhana
(Photo: Rawan Ezzat)

On oud and academia

“Charbel Rouhana was drawn to the oud because it reflected the oriental ambience of his beloved homeland,” reads the short description section on Rouhana’s official Facebook page.

Besides being a prolific musician and composer, Rouhana is also an established professor of oud, having taught at both the National Conservatory of Music and the Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik. He is also an active participant in workshops and music retreats, including an annual Arab music retreat held in the US in which he participates with Palestinian-American musician and oud and violin virtuoso Simone Shaheen.

Rouhana also made novel contributions to the oud instrument, inventing a new method of playing the oud. In the 1990s, he undertook a huge project, that of putting together a oud curriculum published in eight volumes and which is currently taught at National Conservatory of Music and at Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik.

As Rouhana sees it, there is no dissociation between his academic career and his music vocation, for “my experience in academia shows how both the academic and musical segments of my career empower one another. There were many instances when I wrote ideas for the purpose of integrating into the oud curricula, but then used them in my own music. And vice versa."

For the past three months, Rouhana has been revisiting his already published oud curriculum, the edited version of which will come out this August in Lebanon with English translation. Rouhana says he’s “lucky to still be alive and capable of revisiting and reassessing the experience I began in the 90s.”

How then does Rouhana—in his capacity as an established oud master--see the interest in experimenting with the oud and creating fusions of sounds which characterise today's Arab music scene?

“We all experimented with this oriental-western fusion in one way or another at some point in our careers,” answers Rouhana. “But the oud instrument has its roots, and the oud player must be well aware of them before he goes for this sought-after experimentation.”

Thus, as Rouhana sees it, the fusion that we now see between oud and western instruments is partially logical—“but mind you, to master this harmony, you must know how to make good use of the oud within the framework of an orchestra, jazz ensemble, et cetera. There must be logic behind this project; a certain insufficiency you feel as a musician which inspires you to fetch what could fulfill this dearth through experimentation.”

The key, Rouhana continues, is to comprehend the instrument and its structure, and respect both its capabilities and limitations, rather than try to invent new boundaries and overwhelm the instrument with unrealistic music aspirations.  

“We are to mold a beautiful sound within the confines of this instrument. There’s a very thin line between blindly creating such fusion of sounds, or becoming aware of one’s own heritage as and before one plunges into this fusion.”

Whether it is his interest in collaborating with different artists, or constantly exploring the multiple possibilities of Arab music, Rouhana has taken of innovative experimentation a life-long companion.

“I’m now in my fifties and can say that I’ve always wanted to experiment and try new things,” says Rouhana. 

It is perhaps for this passion for innovative music-making steeped in heritage that we should celebrate Rouhana the most.  

Hayy festival opens with Charbel Rouhana and Karkade band
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