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Qatari jazz club heralds a new movement

Nine-time Grammy Award winner Wynton Marsalis is aiming to create a new generation of jazz enthusiasts in the region. Tahira Yaqoob checks out his new club in Qatar to see if his dream could come true

  • Wynton Marsalis believes jazz can bridge cultures and transform the world. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Kamal Musallam.Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Yazz Ahmed. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Rabih Abou-Khalil. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Ebrahim Maalouf.Image Credit: Supplied picture

The smoky strains of St James Infirmary Blues waft across the blue-lit club as an awed hush falls over the audience, with all eyes riveted on the stage. Wynton Marsalis winds among the tables, his face a picture of concentration as he purses his lips to his trumpet in homage to Louis Armstrong, while his pianist Dan Nimmer’s fingers fly over the keys.

This could be one of the basement clubs in Chicago, New Orleans or New York where jazz first took hold, were it not for the Arabian Gulf glinting in the moonlight through the arched windows behind Marsalis and the eclectic mix of Qataris and expatriates in the audience.

This is Doha, and the opening of a jazz club featuring internationally acclaimed musicians in the heart of the Qatari capital heralds a new movement to embrace art and culture from around the world.

Together with the opening of new museums and galleries, the creation of the country’s first philharmonic orchestra and the staging of international exhibitions by artists including Damien Hirst, it signifies Qatar’s ambition to earmark its place on the global cultural stage.

Marsalis’ new venture in the St Regis Doha hotel, the only global outpost of his New York club Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), comes at a time when traditional jazz is fading in popularity in the West, according to some die-hard fans of the genre.

In a world where MTV rules, pop, hip hop and rap have become the musical flavours du jour, to open a branch of the club in the Middle East, where a love of jazz is still nascent, may seem at best brave and at worst foolhardy.

But just as the legendary trumpeter set out to do in America by founding the original organisation 26 years ago, his aim is to breed a new generation of jazz enthusiasts in the Middle East with a passion for and understanding of the complex art form.

Grammy award-winning Marsalis, 51, is one of the last surviving jazz greats and a national treasure in his native US, where he hails from a family of musicians in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz more than a century ago.

He first started playing at age six and has since won nine Grammys and the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his epic 1997 work, Blood on the Fields. “Jazz is a profound and a great music and produced some of the greatest artists in history,” he says. “In the spirit of jazz ambassadors like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie, we are continuing the legacy of bridging cultures around the world through Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha.

“We know of its power to transform the world. It is going to be the same here in Doha as it was for all the people who first discovered it.”

That is something of a challenge in a country and a region where jazz is still relatively unappreciated. Qatar only has one other live jazz venue at the Oryx Rotana Hotel, while the 100-seater JALC Doha will be the first to fly in world-class musicians from overseas on a fortnightly basis to play up to three sets a night.

United by passion

In an unlikely symmetry, it was the mirrored experience of Marsalis and Omar Al Fardan, a Qatari business magnate who owns the franchise for the St Regis Doha, which led to the latter building the $20 million (Dh73.5 million) purpose-built jazz venue in his $1 billion hotel.

Growing up 8,000 miles apart, the two men were simultaneously played the haunting melodies of Armstrong by their fathers and developed a passion for jazz from a young age.

It was a partnership between Paul James, a global brand leader for the St Regis chain, and JALC’s former executive director, Adrian Ellis, that developed the idea. James was keen to evoke the golden age of the first St Regis, built in New York in 1904 by wealthy businessman John Jacob Astor IV. The legendary hotel played host to Duke Ellington and Count Basie during the swing years. The hotel chain, “pitched us our idea,” says Ellis.

Like the club in New York, which stages nearly 3,000 performances a year and runs a Jazz for Young People programme, the Doha venue will have a “strong educational element”, says Marsalis.

Work has already begun on developing an appreciation of jazz among children, with Marsalis holding workshops at the Qatar Music Academy, which is funded by the government and opened in the Katara cultural quarter two years ago to provide free music lessons to Qataris and subsidised tutoring to expats in a range of instruments, from piano to oud.

And regular concerts are held in a neighbouring opera house by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, assembled five years ago to play at home and abroad as a beacon of national pride.

Yet of the 101 musicians, only 12 are Arab and none are Qatari. So is it really possibly to foster a love of jazz and classical music in the Middle East simply by building institutions and venues in the hope that an audience will come?

Kurt Meister, the orchestra’s executive director, says, “I am always asked when we will get our first Qatari in the orchestra, but it will take time.” Anne-Marie Pigneguy, head of western music at the academy, says the government is building for a distant future.

“We are hoping that in 20 years’ time there will be Qataris enrolling and becoming professional musicians.

“This is where music and innovation is happening. It is more of a grass-roots approach and not just about throwing money at things. I hope we can fulfil our vision and get Qatari people in to enjoy music.”

A major obstacle has been persuading traditional families that playing instruments, particularly by girls, is not anti-religion. The music school and orchestra both incorporate a strong Arabic element into their teaching and performances to reflect the history and heritage of the region.

That marriage of East and West will be present in Marsalis’ latest recording. He is working on original compositions based on pearl diving songs given to him by Al Fardan with a new jazz twist.

“There is a belief that if something is not there already, it will never be there,” says the jazz maestro.

“That just makes me more committed. That we are here says this country is progressive and it is time to come together culturally in a meaningful way.”
Al Fardan adds the club, which is expected to generate $1.5 million a year for not-for-profit JALC within five years, will play a part in Qatar’s aspirations to rival London or New York with its world-class offerings.

“Qatar is big with its ambition and is embarking on world-scale projects and events like the 2022 World Cup,” he says. “Culture and the language of music is universal. It does not belong to one culture, nation or race, nor does music have a barrier.”

Ebrahim Maalouf
Multi-style Arabic trumpet virtuoso

Multi-style Arabic trumpet virtuoso French-Lebanese Ebrahim Maalouf, nephew of author Amin Maalouf, is one of the few musicians to have mastered the rare four-valve micro-tonal or quarter-tone trumpet, invented by his father Nassim to allow trumpeters to play Arabic music (conventional trumpets only have three valves).

Ebrahim’s family fled to Paris from Lebanon during the civil war. At seven, he began studying the trumpet with his father, a renowned Western classical trumpeter. Nassim taught him to play both the Western and Arabic classical repertoires, as well as the Arab art of improvisation – maqamat.

From the age of nine, Ebrahim began touring Europe and the Middle East in a duo, accompanying his father on baroque pieces by such composers as Vivaldi and Albinoni.

As a young adult, Ebrahim went on to win 15 classical trumpet competitions throughout the world and is now a composer and a teacher.

He is also one of the few musicians to excel in both classical music and jazz. He studied both subjects at the Paris Conservatory and regularly played at jazz clubs.

His passionate, autobiographical Arabic fusion albums, Diasporas, Diachronism and Diagnostic, have made him the best-selling French jazz artist in recent years.

This flexibility to combine the discipline of classical music with the freedom of jazz has seen him become a popular musician for artists including Sting, Vanessa Paradis, Salif Keïta and Amadou & Mariam.

“I don’t consider myself an Arabic musician, but as an Arabic and French musician,” he says. “I would even say an Arabic and Occidental musician. So this makes it easier for me to find the reason why jazz appeals to me.”

Kamal Musallam
Dubai's Reanaissance man if Arabic jazz-fusion

Dubai’s Renaissance man of Arabic jazz-fusion In Dubai, Jordanian oud and guitar player Kamal Musallam has gained an international following thanks to his bold fusion of jazz, rock and Latin music with Arabic instrumentation.

Leaving behind an early career in Jordan as an architect, Kamal became a full-time “Arabic fusion guitarist”, as he puts it, following an apprenticeship with oriental jazz pioneer, Ziad Rahbani, son of Lebanese diva, Fayruz.

Kamal wanted to develop his career in Dubai rather than in Paris – where he lived for five years – to reconnect with his Middle Eastern roots. “I wanted to find a different audience,” he says. “In Dubai you have the European audience, but also the Arabic, the Asian and the African, so it’s more global.”

Kamal has released five albums. His 2008 album, Out of My City, illustrates Dubai’s contrast of cultures, contradictions and societies. The title track especially, which combines oud, electric guitar, sitar, darbuka hand drum and sufi singing with jazz-rock rhythms, relates to his adopted home. “Dubai really is a city of many faces,” he says.

His musical adventures have seen him explore the Silk Route connection with Indian and Korean musicians, feature renowned jazz drummer Billy Cobham on an upcoming world jazz project called Eastmania and even score a hit in Argentina with the first ever oud version of Ástor Piazzolla’s classic, Libertango.

Kamal’s latest release, Lulu, partners his modern jazz combo with the traditional Emirati group of Sokoor al Magabeel. Pitting his oud, jazz and electric guitars against traditional chanting, percussion and poetry, this highly creative project was featured at the UK’s renowned Womad festival.

Rabih Abou-Khalil
A wholly original oud voice in Arabic fusion music

A wholly original oud voice in Arabic fusion music Lebanese oud maestro Rabih Abou-Khalil started playing at four. Following studies at the Beirut Conservatory, he underwent a traditional Arabic apprenticeship. He studied the oud from the masters, including the man often called the Voice of Lebanon, singer and oud player Wadih Safi. “I was a big fan,” says Rabih. “He was one of the most impressive singers in terms of innovation.”

As a youngster, Rabih found records by Thelonious Monk (a jazz pianist from the Fifties) and Frank Zappa (a rock guitarist and singer). “I loved their names,” he says.
“I thought they were both absolutely brilliant. They were incredibly funny, and I asked myself how they did it.”

Inspired to create music that would be innovative, revolutionary and as technically accomplished as it was humorous, Rabih emigrated to Germany, where he completed his studies and immediately set about recording his own highly original music.

He soon gained national and then international recognition. He has recorded more than 20 extraordinary Arabic jazz-fusion albums over the past 30 years, often featuring other world-renowned jazz soloists.

Rabih is renowned not only for his difficult rhythms, but for his unusual instrumentation, like that of his latest CD, Hungry People – which includes oud, saxophone, bass voice, accordion, tuba and Turkish frame drums.

Humour and surrealism are key ingredients in his art, as is reflected in song titles such as Shaving is Boring, Waxing is Painful and When the Dog Bites, which he embellishes at his concerts with funny stories. “We should take art seriously, but also be able to see the fun part of it,” he says.

Yazz Ahmad
Olympic trumpet queen from Muharraq

The story of how Bahraini Yasmine ‘Yazz’ Ahmad became one of the UK’s rising stars on the jazz trumpet is one of fate mixed with extraordinary talent. Her early childhood was spent on the Gulf island of Muharraq, where her father owned a marine engineering firm.

“I first picked up the trumpet when I was nine years old, around the time that I moved from Bahrain to England,” she explains. “My maternal grandfather, Terry Brown, was a successful jazz trumpet player in the ’50s and played with (top British jazz bands) the John Dankworth Seven, Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott. He was a great inspiration to me. I loved the sounds and the spirit of the music on the records Terry would play to me and thought it would be fun to learn the trumpet. He was, and still is, my hero.”

Yazz went on to complete a master’s degree in jazz at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, after which her own prowess on trumpet earned her early opportunities to work with world-famous pop bands such as Radiohead and the Manic Street Preachers. She also began to rediscover the Arabic music she had heard as a girl, after hearing a seminal Arabic jazz album.

“My personal journey began with the discovery of an album by Rabih Abou-Khalil, Blue Camel. On my first listen through, I was enchanted by the sounds, the textures, and the hypnotic, alluring rhythms. The music seemed both new and yet very familiar to me at the same time. Listening to this album unfold before me triggered memories of the music I had forgotten since my early childhood in Bahrain. Arabic music is a very heart-felt. I love the sounds of the scales and the use of quarter tones – I get shivers down my spine!”

In 2011, Yazz released her own acclaimed first jazz album, Finding My Way Home, which features not only the cream of the British jazz musicians, but also evocative compositions using Arabic scales and titles such as ‘Muharraq’ and ‘Wah-Wah Sowahwah.’

2012 was a thrilling year for Yazz that saw her perform at the Olympic Games’ ‘River of Music’ festival in London, as well as Dubai’s Chillout Festival. That was with a band called In Transit, a collaboration between British cross-cultural dance outfit, Transglobal Underground and musicians representing the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Now planning her second jazz album, she is aware how unusual her career path has been: “I hope that it might be enlightening and inspiring for others to see a woman from a Muslim background composing and playing a stereotypically masculine instrument, seriously and professionally, in what is still very much a male-dominated musical scene all around the world.”



Inside Info

Audio tracks and videos from all the musicians mentioned in this article can be found on com.

For more information, check out the musicians’ websites: