Lebanese fusion master Jean-Marie Riachi tells all...
What was the purpose behind your latest album, Belaaks? In a time when albums in the Middle East have started almost resembling each other, I wanted to present a new concept of music. Belaaks, which means ‘opposites’ or ‘the other way around’, became representative of how I was feeling. The concept was born and every aspect of the project was ‘belaaks’. I gave jazz songs oriental arrangements and did old Arabic songs in a jazzy way. The purpose of the album was to present something that moved against the Middle Eastern current.
How much of the album is ‘yours’ and how much is a collaboration? I produced all 14 tracks for the album, and there are two original compositions: ‘Shefto Mn Biid’ and ‘Enta Ana’. Each track is a collaboration with a guest artist, from international musicians to superstar singers.
Which of the tracks means the most to you and why? I just love the instrumental track ‘Lamma Bada’. It’s a very old traditional Arabic song that made its mark on me while growing up. Getting the chance to reinterpret it my way was really special for me.
You started off in a French inn, inviting people to help make the album, but what made you begin the project in the first place? I always wanted to produce this style of music, but I never really had the time. Then during the 2006 war in Beirut, I travelled to Paris and stayed in a small hotel. While going for a walk in St Germain I saw a group of street musicians that just took my breath away with the feeling they had. This reignited in me the drive to do my own thing and I invited them right there and then to a studio session. They accepted and we recorded a tune I’d had in my head for a while that then became ‘Shefto Mn Biid’, almost in improvisation. This was the first track of the album.
You had other musicians from abroad, too, right? I met Catia Werneck, the Brazilian singer, after I saw her performing in a jazz club in Paris, so I invited her and her brother Carlos to be my guests singing and performing ‘Encontros e Despedidas’. Most of the other musicians and artists are close friends that wanted to be part of Belaaks.
Tell us about the video edition – how did it come about and how does it add to the experience? I wanted Belaaks to have more than just music videos that run on TV, and I wanted it to be visually interpreted from beginning to end. All 14 tracks on the album have videos, and the idea is to play the album entirely on the DVD. And to build on the ‘belaaks’ concept, none of the videos feature any of the artists. It’s a rich, visual experience that was conceptualised and executed by film students of the Académie Libanaise des Beaux Arts (ALBA) in Lebanon.
Which videos stand out to you? I love ‘Shefto Mn Biid (Yara)’, ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ and ‘Enta Ana’.
Have you ever had any on-stage accidents? In 1992 I was performing at Carthage Festival in Tunisia. I was supposed to begin with a dynamic electronic opening on an electronic keyboard then move on to a piano, but the humidity was so high that the moment I turned on my keyboard, it exploded from electrical short circuit. I had no choice but to start improvising on the piano. It was crazy; I played like I never had before.
What are your plans for 2010? 2010 is going to be great year – mostly because I’m going to be a father, but also because I’m preparing for my next album, which I have a crazy idea for. Also, there’s the release of the new Majida El Roumi album that I’m executive-producing, which is really exciting. We’re mixing The Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra with our oriental instruments and musicians. This will be a great project and I’m very thankful to Majida for giving me this chance. With her we can really keep the music real and authentic and away from the plastic style that’s so prevalent in these modern times. Both DVD and CD editions of Belaaks are available to buy in stores.