World music matters - Bumcello: France's blissfully odd couple
20 years ago, with drum and bass and techno at its height in France, classically-trained cellist Vincent Segal and Cyril Atef, drummer and singer with a punk attitude, decided to make 100% improvised music, playing in bars "like a giant DJ". A mad idea, but it worked. They formed Bumcello: "I'm the bum, he's the cello", says Atef. The odd couple talk to RFI about their 8th album Monster Talk and how this improbable partnership has stood the test of time.
Bum and cello, cello and bum, Atef and Segal seem worlds apart.
"Vincent comes from classical music, I started out more from pop and punk and reggae, and jazz," says Atef.
They ended up playing together in different bands, recorded with French artist M (Mathieu Chedid) in his early days and in 1999 decided to form a duo.
"We told each other let’s just improvise, 100%, let’s not rehearse just invent. We wanted to be like a giant DJ playing all different styles of music, mixing different styles up too, mixing classical with Haitian music, anything. Total liberty."
The jammed at the Cithéa, a bar in Paris renowned for DJs spinning acid jazz and jungle and found their niche.
"We said to the guys ‘don’t worry we’re improvising but it’s not gonna be like cerebral improvisation for hours’, says Segal. "The objective is really to make people dance. And Cyril is the guy for that. When he’s like hitting the bass drum you want to move."
"I want people to sweat," says Atef. And 20 years on, they still do.
Their latest album was inspired by social media.
It's about "the lovers and haters that just give their opinions every second," says Atef, "millions of monsters talking at the same time".
The duo keep up their reputation for mashing up genres: Haitian rara, gnaoua, raggamuffin, electro, dance, dub, with Segal's electrified cello weaving its magic throughout.
Atef sings or raps in German from time to time: "à la Marlene Dietrich" on Valse du cartel. On the plaintive Orange is the new white he takes swipes at President Donald Trump and impersonates Leonard Cohen.
Segal encouraged him to sing in different languages: German, English, French.
"I love this kind of cosmopolitan energy and think it's very important for Bumcello," says the cellist.
"I come from classical and in Bach's cello suite he uses allemande from Germany, menuet from France, gigue from England and that was in the 17th century ... 1685 to 1750. So [being] cosmopolitan was always the way for musicians I believe."
They're cosmopolitan for sure and never take themselves seriously, just the music.
Monster Talk is out on Buda Musique
Follow Bumcello on facebook
And because these guys never stop, check out their many, many other individual projects
Cyril Atef on facebook
Vincent Segal on facebook
World music matters - Naïssam Jalal and the quest to "play silence" in music
Franco-Syrian flute and ney player Naïssam Jalal is as eclectic as she is talented. Equally at ease flowing with Palestinian rapper Osloob as part of sextet Al Akhareen as surrounding her music with silence on her new album Quest of the Invisible. She talks to RFI about “spoken notes” and the challenges of getting musicians to “play” silence rather than just feel it.
“I really wanted to try to compose a music project which is really about silence, trance, mysticism and spirituality in music,” says Jalal.
Quest of the Invisible is the fruit of that quest, and sweet to the ear it is.
“The whole album is a kind of very long silence. Even if you listen to the music you can hear the space around the music, the silence around the music, and that’s actually very hard to do."
She managed to get Leonardo Montana (piano), Claude Tchamitchian (double bass) and Hamid Drake (daf) on board.
And while the trance bit wasn't a big deal, “everybody does something about trance", Drake was initially skeptical about the sound of silence.
“It could be very frightening,” Jalal says, “people say 'OK I’m a musician I’m supposed to feel the silence, not play silence'. So it was very hard.
“Every time we play this music it’s a big issue, we really don’t know if we can do it.”
And yet the audience, men and women, are often moved to tears.
Al Akhareen "the others"
Jalal takes fewer risks playing alongside Osloob as part of Al Akhareen, but it’s still an original mix.
She got to know the Palestinian rapper in Beirut in 2008 when she was studying classical Arabic music in Cairo.
When he got refugee status in Paris in 2014 they decided to build a project as a duo, though on stage they’re a sextet with DJ, bass player, drummer and saxophonist.
Al Akhareen means “the others” in Arabic.
“We were looking for a word for the band and we were like searching for what’s the common point we have together.
Despite their roots in the Middle East, Jalal says they’re not exploring Arabic identity.
“It’s about being the other in the society where we were born: him as a refugee in Lebanon and me as an immigrant in France.”
The flow of the flute
Osloob takes care of the lyrics, telling stories based on his own experience but which are also the stories of others.
For the melodies it’s often a collaborative process. But Jalal flows too.
“I use my flute as a mouth, I’m talking with my flute so it’s spoken notes, not spoken words,” she says.
And while classical flute is a rare instrument in any rap formation, Jalal couldn’t care less about musical codes.
“There is no frontier, no borders between rap and jazz and that’s what I really like when we play together. I can see young and very old people too. People are coming because they are open to different things, they don’t care about the borders. If you talk to them they feel it.”
“When you try to be really sincere with what you are feeling, the message can be received,” she says. “I think people can feel it so deeply because I’m trying to get it from very deep in myself.”
Al Akhareen play Arabofolies festival on 2 March at Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe.
Quest of the Invisible is released 1 March 2019 on Les Couleurs du Son
Check out concert dates on Jalal’s facebook page
Osloob on facebook
World music matters - Pianist Faraj Suleiman develops his new Palestinian sound in France
Palestinian pianist and composer Faraj Suleiman was just three when he showed a love of piano, growing up in the village of Ramy, Upper Galilee. Despite a shortage of role models, he has gone on to become one of the Arab world's leading composers. And is now developing his "Eastern" sound here in France.
"I’m trying to find the meaning or the sound of the Eastern piano," says Suleiman in reference to the Arabic scales and modalities he introduces so seamlessly into his more Western-inspired jazz chords.
His influences are multiple: "You can hear Bach, Stravinsky but also rock music, Egyptian music".
He appreciates Argentine bandoneon player and composer Astor Piazzola and has arranged Libertango on his latest, fifth, album Toy Box.
But growing up, Palestinian references were in short supply.
"For the young age, we don't have any Palestinian references. Because of the Occupation and so many wars, no one had the time to write music or think about music."
Creating from scratch
But the scene is changing and Suleiman is part of a new generation of Palestinian artists and musicians.
"We are creating everything from scratch, there’s also a music scene growing up in Haifa, in Ramallah, and for me it’s very important to be part of this.
"Some theatres are being created, some music scenes, some bars, so everything is growing up and the good thing is that it's growing up independently, without any help from any country. The audience is building everything from scratch and it’s beautiful."
Building a career in France
Suleiman is currently on his second artists' residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. And has chosen to settle in France to be close to the French musicians he performs with, and to the team that's working on building his career in France and Europe.
"Of course it’s important for me to see myself as a Palestinian because I need a background, a reference to rely on when I work, when I create, and also when I talk and play my music. I need something bigger than me to stay in my mind.
"It’s very important for me to remember all the time that I’m a Palestinian and I’m trying to write 'modern' Palestinian music, maybe."
The voice of his village
Suleiman has recorded instrumental music up until now, including for film and theatre as well as his own albums. But after singing in concert once, he's been encouraged to record an album of songs.
"It started as a joke. I put the song on Facebook and went to sleep and the next day I received so many messages from people asking me to sing again."
He's started a crowdfunding campaign to record and publish an album of 10 songs.
The songs are "mostly about love, but the unique thing is that I'm singing in the Palestinian accent [of my village] and it's not common".
Faraj Suleiman performs at the Arabofolies festival at the Insitut du Monde Arabe on 10 March 2019. Your ears, and heart, will thank you.
Follow him on facebook
Official site here
World music matters - Jean-Luc Thomas: flute player, horse-whisperer
French flute player and composer Jean-Luc Thomas travels the world performing with, and learning from, musicians from countries as diverse as Brazil, Niger, India and Ireland. "Everybody was my teacher," he says. Most recently, as co-composer of the score for Ex Anima by avant-garde circus and equestrian artist Bartabas, he's been learning from horses.
"Horses are sensitive to sounds," Thomas told us before going on stage at the Zingaro theatre in Paris where he plays flute as part of a quartet providing the music for Ex Anima.
"I can see every night when I play here, the interaction between not especially music, but sounds.
He explains it was a very gradual process getting the horses used to the percussive music, starting with acoustic then building up over several weeks of rehearsal.
The show uses different wooden flutes and the jew's harp to literally breathe music into the theatre.
"Ex anima means 'from the soul, from the breath', says Thomas. "Bartabas wanted to bring something connected to the breath of the soul."
A love story
Thomas is passionate about music but his love story with the flute began when he heard The Chieftains playing in concert.
"I heard Matt Molloy playing, this Irish master of the wooden flute, and wow, something happened to me."
There weren't many flutes around in his native Brittany so he travelled to County Clare in Ireland to hone his technique alongside some great violinists and pipers.
Celtic music has remained a staple in his career but he's recorded several albums with renowned flute players in many other countries.
He recorded Zinder with Serendou - a trio he formed with Nigerien flute and kamélé n'gouni player Yacouba Moumouni and calebasse player Boubacar Souleymane.
On Magic Flutes he explored the karnatic tradition alongside Ravichandra Kulur, Ravi Shankar's last flute player.
And most recently he's released Kerlaveo with a fine band of Brazilian musicians including Vitor Lopes, a renowned harmonica player from Sao Paolo, popular on the choro scene.
Kerlaveo is the name of Thomas's home in Brittany and means "farm of the audacious" in Breton.
The name seemed appropriate considering "the way we play together, and love each other," says Thomas. "We're not afraid to connect the South of Brazil with Breton dance or to Japanese influences or the Jewish tradition. "Maybe we are audacious. I don’t know."
The healing powers of music
Thomas is not the first musician to feel music has healing powers. But he goes that bit further citing difficult teenage years when he often "felt lost".
"It saved my life," he says describing music as "a compass".
He cites Nigerien flute player Yacouba Moumouni who left his family when he was seven years old, crossed the desert and went to Niamey where he lived in the streets.
"Moumouni told me that if he hadn't met the flute he would have been to jail, would have become a drug dealer, so the flute gave him direction.
"We should all play music and sing, work for good vibes in the world," he concludes.
Official site here
Follow Jean-Luc Thomas on facebook
World music matters - From Daud to Dudu: Israeli rock star makes classic Iraqi songs popular again
When Israeli rock musician and singer Dudu Tassa said he wanted to rework and re-popularise his grandfather's repertoire of Iraqi Arabic songs from the 1930s, everyone thought he was crazy. But with the release of El Hajar - the third album in the Dudu Tassa & The Kuwaitis series - he's shown there's real interest in the region for a contemporary take on the music so adored by King Faisal II.
Tassa is one of Israel's leading rock musicians. He's also a songwriter, composer and actor. His career took an unexpected direction when, less than a decade ago, he stumbled on a trunk of old recordings by the al Kuwaiti brothers at his mother's.
Daud al Kuwaiti (his grandfather) and Salleh al Kuwaiti (his great-uncle) were born in Kuwait to an Iraqi-Jewish family. Masters of traditional Arabic music, they became popular in Baghdad in the inter-war years, collaborating with legends like Oum Kalsoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab.
Their repertoire of Jewish songs sung in Iraqi Arabic were appreciated by both the political elite – including Iraq's then King Faisal – and ordinary people in Iraq and the Gulf.
The fall from grace
Following the creation of Israel in 1948, the al Kuwaiti brothers emigrated to Tel Aviv where they were far less well-known. And back in Iraq, Saddam Hussein banned their music from the national radio station they had, so ironically, helped found.
The brothers were forced to eke out a living as shopkeepers, playing in bars and at weddings. Tassa says they never recovered from the fall from grace and "became depressed".
"It wasn't easy for them. Music can take you up in the world, but it can also be difficult and my grandfather experienced that... He was a broken man.
"He forbade everyone in our family, including my mother, from working in the music industry, from singing or playing an instrument."
The music chose me
Tassa ignored his grandfather's wishes and began recording some of the al Kuwaiti brothers' songs. "I had no choice, the music chose me," he explains, adding they share the same name (Dudu being a diminutive of Daud).
He released Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis in 2011, Ala Shawati (2015) and now El Hajar.
"The song El Hajar (meaning exile or immigration in Iraqi Arabic) talks about longing for something that is gone," he says.
He sings in Iraqi Arabic, along with both Jewish and Arab guests including Ya'aqov Nashawi, Nasreen Qadri and Rehela. And has brought his characteristic electric guitar riffs to the mix along with banjo. Nir Maimon plays bass, keyboards and does the programming.
Daud al Kuwaiti died three months before Tassa was born so they never met, but computer sampling has allowed the two men to come together on the album.
"There's a lot of songs that we are singing together on, it's amazing."
Three generations coming to concerts
Tassa's reconnection with his Iraqi Jewish roots makes for a good personal story. But few could have anticipated the project would resonate with such a wide public.
"Something amazing happened. The Kuwaitis albums sold more than all my Hebrew albums and now when we play concerts in Israel there are three generations coming."
Grandfathers are coming with sons and grandsons, says Or Davidson, Tassa's manager, who helped translate the RFI interview.
"Older people that were used to listening to that music years ago, the second generation who didn't want to listen to it at the time, and now thanks to the cool modernised way Dudu and Nir have recorded, the young generation [are coming]."
Dudu Tassa and the Koweitis could be set for global sucess. They opened for Radiohead on their 2017 tour.
And have high hopes of taking the music back to its origins.
"We're getting a lot of response from Iraq in social media, people from Baghdad are sending us pictures and videos [to show] they are listening to our music.
"We're hoping to perform in Baghdad very soon," Tassa says enthusiastically.
So what might Daud al Kuwaiti have thought of his grandson's defiance?
"That I'm crazy... but I think, I hope, he would be proud."
Follow Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis on Facebook
El Hajar is available here