Joussour in Cairo: Music and fusing identities
Courtesy: Corrine Grassi

On Wednesday, October 30, composer and oud performer Issa Murad brought his young group Joussour to Cairo for a challenging performance at the Opera House.

Joussour was born at the end of 2012, and its name translates as “bridges” from Arabic — a tribute to the act of fusing music.Through Joussour, Murad interprets compositions he wrote more than five years ago, having waited to find the right musicians to bring them to our ears.

With his companion Samir Homsy on oriental percussion, Murad now performs with jazzmen Richard Turegano on piano, Marc Buronfosse on contrabass and Frédéric Chapperon on drums, all of whom were present for the concert in Cairo.

Also accompanying them was Rishab Prasanna from New Delhi, whom Murad recently met in a jam session. Since then, Prasanna — a passionate ney bansouri player — has played the charmer’s role in Murad’s compositions for the group.

The compositions fuse oriental music and rhythms, which include Balkan, Iranian, Turkish and Arabic, in a solid frame of jazz, mixing structure with lengthy group improvisations and solo segments, and displaying a high level of instrumental technique.

The man behind Joussour, Murad, was born in Bethlehem, Palestine, to an amateur oud-playing father, impassioned by Farid al-Atrash’s music. Murad’s ears were trained well before his fingers grabbed an oud.

In 1998, at the age of 16, he joined the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, completing an eight-year program in two and a half years. In 2001, he received the Marcel Khalife award for the best oud interpreter in Palestine.

He then moved to Cairo for two years, where he met with important musicians such as Naseer Shamma. There, he enriched his musical knowledge, which allowed him to go back to teach in Palestine at the conservatory from 2005-2007. He moved again to Paris that year, where he lives and works today, to write his MA thesis in musicology at the Sorbonne about the foreign elements in Mohamed Abdel Wahab’s music, his personal favorite reference since childhood.

Today, Murad calls himself a “citizen of the world.” He sees his Arabic identity as the bigger piece in the puzzle of the different cultural influences he has encountered and lived with throughout the years. He has spent a long time traveling and listening to world music, and sees his own music as a reflection of this mixed identity.

He chooses to be called a musician of the world, and it is no coincidence: This way of presenting himself must have been well thought-through. His music doesn’t speak of Palestine, the conflict, the resistance; yet the doubled strings on the fretless neck he holds between his fingers speak of his origins. We don’t need more. He is an artist in a never-ending quest for inspiration from the homeland, from other musicians and from listeners. But the question is what do we, as audience, expect when we see an oud on stage?

It is true that music is a universal language, reflecting spirits more than thoughts, but an instrument with such a rich history as the oud puts any musician under pressure from his audience. Why do we have such high expectations when we see an oud on stage? And does an oud’s presence necessarily mean placing the work at hand within an “Arabic music” project frame?

If we do so, we’d be unfair to Murad, as he doesn’t intend to pursue an Arabic music project. In an interview, he has said that he’s looking for a musical mix that goes well together, that becomes natural. And indeed, he has succeeded in combining various instruments in an arrangement that sounds natural in a fused jazz frame. This success is down to the fact that Murad’s compositions are highly structured, even with the lengthy improvisation segments. A good example of this calculated structure is one of the tracks he performed at the Opera House, titled The Crazy Dancer. The piece took the form of a rhythmical chain in which each couple of measures the rhythm jumps from one complex time signature to another smoothly — and almost unnoticeably to anyone not trying to dance along the beats.

But what does it mean to be an oud player when the oud doesn’t hold a crucial role in the arrangement, in the context of a non-Arabic music project? And do we necessarily need to combine this instrument’s presence on stage with an Arabic sound? Is it a musician’s choice to use his instrument as he sees fit in his compositions and arrangements? Perhaps as Arabs having trouble letting go of our high expectations of our own cultural heritage, we are held back from perceiving things from a different angle — a citizen of the world’s angle, as Murad puts it.

The challenge then becomes how to understand the presence and sound of oriental instruments as crucial or irreplaceable elements in an arrangement.

How do we read the oud’s presence? Does it have a drastic effect on the sound? What is Murad’s unique role as performer, not composer, on stage? Can mixing elements that work well together be considered a core idea of a project?

The second challenge lies in the emotional intensity of the work. Murad needs to adapt his instrument to the group. He needs to up-tune or down-tune, and to construct and deconstruct his phrases to blend in and attempt a good balance between the sounds in the group. This process of denaturalizing a sound by fusing it with ones that come from an almost completely separate world puts the tunes’ emotional intensity at risk, and this is a major challenge to the listener’s experience.

Murad sees his compositions as reflections of his state of mind. The concert at the Opera House presented a variety of musical styles, which corresponds to fusion as a musical tradition or approach rather than a codified musical style. It contains a lot of improvisatory and experimental elements, and in that sense, Murad with Joussour is a promising set of skilled musicians who are yet to develop their young sound’s experiment — to not only blend well together, but also to provide us with an experience full of new meanings and, further, reach our souls.

Kinda Hassan 

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