I’m standing in the corridor waiting for Kamal Musallam to answer the door. After a few minutes he emerges, a towel round his shoulder. He’s been taking a shower, he explains. It’s a dizzying welcome. More used to seeing Musallam fill big stages (at the Du World Music Festival and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, or further afield at Cannes Film Festival and Vienna Jazz Festival), meeting him in the flesh, water dripping down his cheeks, he looks smaller, older, more friendly.
As Musallam rushes off to finish drying his hair, I’m left to explore his living room. It wouldn’t take a visitor long to work out what this guy does for a living. Among the stacks of old magazines, crammed bookshelves and arty wall hangings, spare surfaces are piled with CDs of jazz guitar greats (Wes Montgomery, George Benson, John McLaughlin).
A piano stands against one wall, some samba scores scattered across its surfaces. And, of course, a jazzy hollow-body guitar sits on the sofa. It’s this guitar I’m handed when Kamal returns. Fusing the exotic Arabic scales and sensibilities of his Jordanian roots with Western rock and jazz styles, at his best Musallam’s virtuoso improvisations have left me speechless. And I’m here to find out how he does it.
First however, before he plays a note, Musallam launches into a lengthy explanation of how he approaches his instrument. ‘A guitar is like a cat,’ he concludes. ‘I don’t have a cat, so I have a guitar.’ It’s one in a series of impenetrable monologues he’ll spurt into during my four hours in his company. Eventually he starts to play, but he’s no teacher, and instead I – let’s call me a competent novice, but no maestro – am left trying to keep up. ‘It must be the idea that drives the fingers, not the other way round,’ he offers cryptically. Musallam’s playing generally seems to revolve around familiar scales (musicians: the harmonic minor crops up a lot), yet it still comes out sounding like a foreign language as he blazes up and down the fretboard.
The mystery is dispelled slightly when he retreats into a back room and emerges with an oud, the traditional Arabic lute-style instrument, which crucially allows musicians to play the ‘quarter-tone’ notes found in Arabic scales. Suddenly everything he plays sounds more exotic, more like the Musallam I know. But how does he get that sound on his electric fusion freak-outs?
He emerges once more clutching two more instruments: the KMA1 and the KMM1, two signature models Musallam developed with guitar manufacturer Ibanez. The first is a fretless acoustic; the second an electric with additional frets inserted, allowing guitarists to use Arabic scales in rock and pop styles.
Lesson over, then. The timing for my visit couldn’t be better. After ten years on the scene, Musallam is the UAE’s fifth best-selling artist ever – no small feat for a jazz-inspired instrumentalist – and later this month he’ll be releasing a ‘greatest hits’-style package that brings together the best moments from his four albums to date, which include 2008 bestseller Out of My City. But that’s just one of four new releases (or ‘headaches’) that the former architect is working on.
‘Headache number one’ is putting the finishing touches on a recording of his ambitious EastMania project, which, inspired by the travels of Ibn Battuta, brought together legendary American drummer Billy Cobham with Arabic musicians to play China’s Asia Games in 2010. ‘Headache number two’ is yet more ambitious: the first project in a series inspired by the cultural exchanges of the Silk Road, Musallam will be travelling to South Korea later this year to record a fusion with traditional musicians.
‘Headache number three’ is a drive to finally release Lulu, an album of traditional Emirati songs that Musallam recorded alongside his sextet, UAE folk star Sokoor Al Magabeel and funk-rock group Abri –
a line-up convened to perform at Womad Abu Dhabi in 2009 – in time for UAE National Day this year.
Musallam certainly has his hands full, but as he passionately talks me through each of his projects he appears much calmer (and warmer) than the reputation he carries around. After ten years on the scene, it’s said he’s made as many enemies as friends. ‘I admit I have been a hot-tempered, easily irritated person who couldn’t stand mistakes,’ he says sombrely. ‘But I didn’t understand that the best way to deal with people is not to push or force them into it, because then they will hate you and turn into enemies. This has happened with so many [of my] musicians.’
Musallam’s uncompromising personality was on full show with the release of his last album, Songs For Seung-eun, an ode to a lost lover he promoted in interviews with perhaps a little too much frankness. Now, however, he seems to have reached some kind of inner peace.
‘I was never worried about how many CDs I sell or how many gigs I play,’ he says. ‘I feel healthy as long as I have good ideas, and if I try to make them a reality, then the rest of the time I’m happy.’
Musallam’s new album, The Best of: 199-2011, is due to be released this week, available at Virgin Megastores.