Elie Afif interview

Meet Dubai's home-grown jazz star

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How many jazz musicians are there in Dubai? ‘About four or five,’ shrugs Lebanese double bassist Elie Afif. ‘That’s not me being…’ he waves his hands helplessly. Arrogant? ‘It’s just the reality. I try to bring people here but there aren’t many gigs.’

There aren’t many gigs for jazz musicians anywhere in the world, but in a city as youth-centric as Dubai, where the average age is reported to be as low as 27, appreciators of the museum-like specialism are understandably rare. Whatever micro-scene has developed here today focuses around the Afif brothers, Elie and elder brother (and drummer) Rony, long-standing lynchpins of the regular jazz nights at Blue Bar at the Novotel Dubai World Trade Centre. It turns out that three of those ‘four or five’ musicians play on Elie’s debut album Giant Steps to Heaven, copies of which will this week land in record shops across the UAE. The album will be accompanied by a promo video of the bassist and band grooving away, which will be blasted on screens at Virgin stores across the country.

The attention is clearly unusual for the typically introverted musician. Afif fell in love with American bass master Jaco Pastorius as a teenager. Aged 16, he got an early break at his first live gig: he played alongside his brother, backing former Miles Davis guitarist Mike Stern, of Blood Sweat and Tears, in his native Beirut. From this, the bassist quickly became known as the go-to gun-for-hire for touring jazz musicians, but was forced to turn his back on his homeland after war broke out, fleeing to Dubai. ‘Many people come here for the money,’ he says. ‘I came here because I didn’t have anything. I was sleeping on the floor for a year. It was a mess – I didn’t know what to expect. It was hard.’

In five short years, Afif has gone from being a nomadic musical refugee to playing six nights a week at the Burj Al Arab, and understandably has little desire to return home. ‘The scene [in Lebanon] is dead,’ he says simply.

But what of the new album? Giant Steps to Heaven takes its name from the title track, a daring musical mash of Miles Davis’s ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ (1963) and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ (1959) which came about after a slip of the tongue on the bandstand. A demanding technical workout, it’s likely to make ears prick up across the globe.

That the tune is most modern-sounding thing on an unashamedly retro record, which is rooted firmly in the post-Charlie Parker ’50s bop style. The two Afif brothers are the engine room driving the eight swinging original tracks, their regular vibe player Tigran Peshtmajyan cheekily scurrying notes over the key-stabs of visiting pianist Oliver Van Ossen. Recorded live in just a few takes over two days, the record’s quintessential acoustic jazz sound makes no concessions to recruit a rock or dance audience, and represents a brave first release on arty venue The Fridge’s new house label.

‘I didn’t think of the audience. I know it’s bad for the music, but I just wanted to say “this is me”,’ explains Afif. ‘The more honest you are, the more you grab an audience. I don’t want to fake it.’

Honesty aside, now that the record is signed, sealed and being shelved as we speak, what does Afif make of it? ‘If we compare it to the Western world, it’s a little weak,’ he admits. ‘But for Dubai, it’s very strong.’
Giant Steps to Heaven is available at Virgin Megastore, various locations including The Dubai Mall (04 325 3330).


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