Kamal Musallam on Homemade in Rome

Arabic-fusion maestro launches daring new album with Abu Dhabi and Dubai gigs

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Jazz-world-fusion explorer Kamal Musallam might be the most prolific of all the emirates’ music acts. The  guitar and oud whizz has already clocked up four original LPs, plus a career retrospective. His latest, Homemade in Rome, is a front room-recorded spin on Musallam classics, standards and new material featuring local musicians, recorded during an excursion to the Italian capital. The result is a simmering blend of Flamenco percussion and progressions with snaky oud melodies, Arabic-tinged modal riffing and able jazz improvisations. Launched in the UAE with gigs in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, we caught up with the Jordanian musical mastermind.

How would you describe your musical style to people who aren’t aware of your work?
My style is a mix of Arabic, jazz, rock, Latin and hints of ethnic sounds from Asia, especially India. I call this style ‘Arabic fusion’. I started developing my style during my childhood: I listened to Arabic singers such as Abdul Halim or Om Kalthoum. When playing their music, which is considered as purely Arabic, these famous artists were using Western instruments such as guitars or keyboards. I liked these blends of sounds very much, and I still do. I’ve listened a lot to Ziad Rahbani and Fairuz as well. In fact, all these artists are the pioneers of Arabic fusion.

What can fans expect from your new album? Is it similar to or different from your other works in terms of style?
The new album is certainly a continuation of all the music I’ve recorded since 1999. Homemade in Rome is special in the way that it was very spontaneously recorded in a living place – a two-bedroom apartment in Rome – rather than in a recording studio, so it has this raw side to the production. I was actually going to visit my friends in Italy and brought my instruments with me. It was more through the pleasure of jamming that we put something together, rather than a perfectly planned recording. But once I was there, the playing and the atmosphere were just so organic that I felt I had to capture the moment on tape. So I called my engineer friend Leo Zagariello, who got so excited to experiment with us and drove all the way from the south of Italy to Rome. After three days, this record was almost done – hence Homemade in Rome!

Do you have a favourite track from the new album?
Yes, it is called ShadiRanjit, but I love all the songs. There is an amazing energy in there, which I experienced for the first time when recording.

Just the Beginning is a track that is a special memory of a very unfortunate incident that turned out well in the end: on arrival in Rome, I opened the instrument case and picked up my oud… it was broken in two! I’m sure you can imagine how I felt when I saw that. I had to use my guitar on the trip instead but it opened doors to different aspects of creation and luckily the result meant it was a happy ending.

When was the last time you played in Abu Dhabi? Do you enjoy playing here?
I really enjoy playing in Abu Dhabi. The crowds are so hungry for new sounds and creative performances. Last time I played in the capital was just a few weeks ago with my fusion trio at the Monte-Carlo Beach Club on the Saadiyat Island. The audience was lovely and really receptive to my Arabic fusion style.

What can people expect from the concert?
This is the concert for my new album launch. My band is coming all the way from Italy. They are all excellent jazz musicians and they bring their own knowledge and feeling to the concert: Marcello Allulli on saxophone, Daniele Cappucci on double bass and Israel Varela on drums. We will be playing the new tracks from Homemade in Rome. On stage, Karen Lugo will join us. Karen is a fantastic flamenco fusion dancer. Her work and style is unique. It is very much improvisation, which is a wonderful fit for my music. She’s a fantastic performer who has an incredible presence on stage. I am looking forward to this concert. I am eager to meet the audience. I want to reach out to a crowd who’s curious about all these musical blends.

Where is your favourite place in the world to perform?
I have performed in the Middle East, Near East (my native region), and Europe, plus I often tour in India and East Asia (Indonesia, China, South Korea, Malaysia, etc). But to answer your question: just on a stage anywhere that has thousands of enthusiastic people in the audience hungry for good music.

Do you record or perform with other artists? If so, who would be your dream person to collaborate with?
I have performed with many other artists from all levels and categories – at jazz and world music festivals, and concerts in various countries. I am also a music producer. Interactions and collaborations with other musicians are very frequent and diverse – it all enriches my musical capacity and opens new possibilities.
There’s actually one very interesting project coming up, which I will continue working on this summer. It’s called ‘Eastmania’ and I’ll working with Billy Cobham and Kai Eckhardt among other musicians, on a journey of fusions with Arabic, Western and Asian influences. It’s coming to life really quickly…so stay tuned!

Read our 'Nine UAE acts with new music worth hearing' feature here

Read our 2012 interview with Kamal here

In Abu Dhabi: Monday May 6, 8pm. Dhs110. Turquoise Ballroom, Sofitel Abu Dhabi, The Corniche. www.timeouttickets.com, www.afabudhabi.org (02 666 6232).
In Dubai: Tuesday May 13, 7.30pm. Dhs80. Alliance Francaise, Garhoud, www.afdubai.org

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