French-Lebanese artist Ibrahim Maalouf is using his art to open the world’s eyes while enkindling new traditions along the way. He is a narrator of tales through sound, a teacher in understanding perspectives, and a defier of boundaries.
Storytelling is a unique gift we have as humans, and music stands as one of our most formidable means of depicting a tale, no matter the boundary or differences between us. It’s the marrow to the bones of our communication. This philosophy is a cornerstone of Maalouf’s own perspective, overtly observing music as an all-encompasing global language.
As an artist he has a dizzying amount of accomplishments. To date, he’s performed on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, sold out the Lincoln Jazz Center and the Kennedy Center in the US, and performed in front of the Eiffel Tower to a TV audience of six million in his native France. More recently, in 2022, he became the first Lebanese instrumentalist nominated at the Grammy Awards for his album Queen of Sheba in collaboration with Angélique Kidjo; depicting a crossover in stories which span several cultural histories. And of course, while he values the recognition, he reminds me that it’s the capacity to create and the salient message behind his art it that matters.
His family fled from civil war in Beirut leading Maalouf to his beginnings growing up in a town which was roughly an hour out of Paris. Those early years naturally played a significant part in his appreciation of art and connectivity as an education like no other. He unspools his origins: that of a fearless child whose youth was permeated by the polarisation of western cultures, “I was born in Lebanon when it was in the middle of a huge civil war. It’s already a lesson to understand that your mother gave birth to you while people were dying. Then once you grow up and you live through your own experiences – some are amazingly beautiful, and some are terribly catastrophic. And you learn to learn.”
“I understand that people can be scared that their beloved culture can change but it’s like people who are overly protective with their children. You cannot be mad or angry at someone who’s protecting their child. It’s normal, it’s human. But you have to open his or her eyes to the fact that the more you protect your child, the less they will be free in their lives. So it’s the same for music and for arts.” Coming from a family of such intent creativity this profound remark holds merit; from his father who was a trumpeter to his mother, a pianist and his grandfather a poet, journalist and musicologist – a list which barely scratches the surface of what constitutes his heritage.
His most recent studio album and 50th addition to his catalogue, Capacity To Love, incorporates rap, jazz, pop, classical, electronic, Middle Eastern, and African influences. It’s a couple of weeks since the release of Capacity To Love which boasts glowing collaborations from the likes of De La Soul, D Smoke, Dear Silas, Erick The Architect, Gregory Porter and Sharon Stone. All of which is soldered together by Ibrahim’s quarter-tone trumpet (which allows him to play traditional Arabic maqams), the same trumpet that his own father had invented. “When we are talking about legacy, what my father gave me is huge. He provided me everything I needed to be able to express myself wholeheartedly”.
The record also includes Charlie Chaplin’s potent anti-fascist speech from The Great Dictator; a call for harmony and a message which transcends generations. These principles appear as a common denominator in much of Maalouf’s music. Maalouf calls upon the concept of multiculturalism – a concept which, within the realm of music enables people to grow and develop beyond a singular perspective and one’s own cultural standards. There are many ways in which Maalouf incorporates his own art with his unremmiting love for cinema. As infatuation turned into fascination, Maalouf soon became a composer of soundtracks for films such as Une Belle Équipe and 9 jours à Raqqa. “I love it. I have always wanted to do it. So I’m really grateful that sometimes people call on me for this. It’s really one of my favourite things in life.”
In correspondence with Maalouf’s idea that music is a powerful tool to inspire change and togetherness, Chaplin’s own characters in cinema possessed a similar purpose. Highlighting the brutality, arrogance and hypocrisy of the wealthy in modern capitalism through comedy and sheer optimism, despite his extreme misfortune. “Art is always a great way to express how you feel, how you think and your philosophy or point of view. It’s dangerous to put someone in something that limits them to one singular perspective”, he asserts. “People forget that we live in a culture where everything is mixed. I like to listen to the radio or to hip-hop and pop music. I think it’s healthy. So I like the idea that mixing all these sounds into my world possesses a great message of inclusivity.”
You sampled Charlie Chaplin’s speech from the Great Dictator. What makes this particular theme interesting to you creatively at this current time?
I think that creativity cannot be completely dissociated from arts and arts cannot be completely dissociated from our point of view regarding the world we’re living in. So for me, it’s all linked, and having Charlie Chaplin is having one of the greatest artists ever. It’s mixing my music with cinema, which is something that I love doing. I actually compose a lot of movie soundtracks. So I would say that if there is one director, artist and actor that touches my heart, it was Charlie Chaplin. The speech at the end of The Great Dictator says it all. The current circumstances haven’t changed and his speech is still very accurate today.
I understand that ‘Capacity To Love’ is, in part, about togetherness and challenging the idea of boundaries. How did you find ways to utilise such a balance of cultures throughout the album?
My music has always been like this in some way. But maybe in ‘Capacity To Love’, which is actually my 50th studio album, I aimed to go even further outside of my comfort zone and try things that I would’ve never tried before. I wanted to mix my music and sound with unexpected features to prove to myself it’s possible because when you create music or art, it’s not only for others, it’s also for yourself. I started with Western classical music, but for years I’ve also played classical Arabic traditional music, and I’ve been releasing jazz albums and received awards. People don’t expect me in the realm of music I’ve experimented with for this album because people put you in boxes. They define you as a world-famous trumpeter or whatever, but people forget that we live in a culture where everything is mixed. I like to listen to the radio or to hip-hop and pop music. I think it’s healthy. So I like the idea that mixing all this music into my world possess/s a great message of inclusivity.
Unfairly so, but some people dismiss jazz to be an art of the past. I get the sense you see endless possibilities in music, how do you challenge this perception if ever confronted with it?
This happens quite often to be honest with you, it happens very often. Most people wouldn’t say it to my face, but I read it on social media and sometimes on newspapers. I understand that people can be scared that their beloved culture can change but it’s like people who are overly protective with their children. You cannot be mad or angry at someone who’s over protecting his child – it’s normal, it’s human. But you have to open his eyes or her eyes to the fact that the more you protect your child, the less he will be able to be free in his life or in her life. So it’s the same for music and for arts. You love jazz, but you don’t let jazz change. You’re killing jazz. It’s exactly what happened with classical music. It became a music for museums because most people didn’t want anything to change. They said this is the most beautiful music in the world, nobody’s going to change it. So it was forbidden. Unless it’s a concept and you’re doing contemporary music; then everyone is okay with it.
When it comes to classical music, most people will talk to you about Bethoven and Mozart, so music that was composed five centuries ago. It became a sad music because if it was only about the past. And it still is, in a way, in Lebanon, for example, radios play classical music only when someone dies, which is crazy. But it says a lot. So when it comes to jazz, every time I meet someone who’s telling me things such as ‘well, what you’re doing is not exactly it’s not jazz, it doesn’t swing, jazz has to swing,’ etc. All those little codes that were decided as being what jazz is, this is when you should say to someone, ‘you are French, and you have to eat baguette, you have to put a beret on your head’. It makes you think ‘come on, can I be French but listen to African music? or can I be French and eat burgers instead of cassoulet? Can I be French and be different from what my mother culture is teaching me to be?’ Music is exactly the same. And sometimes people forget it. This is what I try to explain them.
As a teacher I can imagine you are not only passing on your own knowledge but there is also opportunity for your perspective to be enlightened by your own students… What, if ever, have your students taught you?
I would say humility. When you are facing students who have very interesting lives amd points of view on many aspects, things that you would have never understood if you hadn’t met them. My students have always taught me much more than what I teach them. Perhaps it’s another way to listen to music, another way to perform, or another way to see the world. That has taught me humility because you don’t consider yourself a teacher anymore… More like a collaborator. You aren’t someone who is going to say how things should, instead you are sharing ideas. And by sharing ideas, you are also understanding how other people see things.
You’ve worked alongside some incredible names on your latest album. Tell me what drew you to those people in particular?
When you meet other people they will have different lives, different perspective on things. I’m 42. So I’m not young anymore… I’m not very old, but I’m not young, and you can easily fall into the trap of being quite confident on everything you’ve learned. The experiences you’ve had allows you to think that you’re much more experienced in nature than someone who’s 20. And that’s a huge mistake. So every time you meet other people, something changes in you. And it doesn’t have to be famous people or big artists; you might be sitting somewhere in the park and you know nothing about them, just by sharing five minutes of conversation, something could change in you. So for me it’s about learning from other people and different experiences; trying to adjust your own point of view in any given moment and to never be too sure about what you are – always be humble
Where does your sense of curiosity originate from, would you say?
Life experience. I haven’t invented it, but the more you know and the more you are conscious of your own ignorance it contributes to this. I was born in Lebanon when it was in the middle of a huge civil war. It’s already a lesson to understand that your mother gave birth to you while people were dying. Then once you grow up and you live through your own experiences – some are amazingly beautiful, and some are terribly catastrophic. And you learn to learn. Every day you learn something new.
Would you say that the music that you were surrounded by growing up was reflective of the music other kids in your neighbourhood would be hearing, or not necessarily?
I think the fact that I was born in a family where people were listening solely to western classical music and classical Arabic music, it already made a huge difference compared to what other people were listening to in general. I grew up in a town that is approximately one hour from Paris and I was in a private Catholic school. So I was very different from everyone else in this environment. People would look at me in a weird way. I was really pretty different from everyone around me.
And you use the trumpet your father once invented 50 years ago. Has that influenced your confidence to pursue a life surrounded by music?
I admire my father’s heritage and what he gave me gretaly. When we are talking about legacy, what my father gave me is huge. He provided me everything I needed to be able to express myself wholeheartedly, which is rare that a parent gives this to his own children. It’s really not so common. And he gave me everything. When I was 15 years old, I already had a job. I use his teachings every day as a tool to express everything I want; my emotions and everything else. He taught me everything I needed to know about trumpets, so I think it’s important to follow this path.
I read somewhere you once wished to be an architect. Did your intrigue in architecture tie into your musical career later on in any way?
I think so. With the way I build my projects and the way I work, it’s almost scientific sometimes. The way I see music and the architecture of the choices I make, for example, I will always create a link between my old and new albums because I’m building something that is much bigger than just my album. It’s like one huge project of music that reflects my philosophy of life, you know, and every time I add something new to this thing that I’m building.
Where does a creative thought or idea start for you?
In my case, I think it comes from education, the way I’ve been educated was can be seen two ways. On one side it was to practice a lot and never, never, never stop learning. And the other side was creativity – every second, try to be creating something new. So I think
what inspires me is the fact that there are these two sides in art and music: one side is just how to work in the music that goes really far in terms of emotions, technique, virtuosity, harmony, rhythms – while trying to reach a certain level of artistic experience. On the other side, there’s the experience that is creativity and just inventing things. I don’t care if I’m making a mistake or what people think about it. Just create. So these two sides inspire me a lot. It gives me wings.
How does the experience differ for you to perform in front of thousands of people Vs. when you’re creating in the studio?
When you compose music, some of what you compose, you know you’re going to play them live. So you build the music in a way that works for both recording and live performance. And there are some other sounds and tracks that are not designed for live shows; there’s some music that I wouldn’t even try to play live because it’s not made for it. It’s made for the studio. It all depends on what you have in mind when you compose.
I understand you’ve been nominated for the 2023 Grammys for your album with Angelique Kidjo ‘Queen Of Sheba’. Does this level of recognition impact your appreciation of your legacy thus far?
Of course. I guess you can understand I don’t do music for awards or for this kind of thing. But it’s always interesting when people give you some kind of validation like the professionals are telling you, ‘well done, your work is interesting, keep doing what you’re doing’. It’s like people giving you a hug and saying they believe in what you’re doing and to keep doing it. I like creating more than listening to my own things. I love listening to my music when I’m working on it. You know, sometimes it takes me three, four or five years to work on an album. And during this time, every day I listen to the music I’m working on. And it’s the it’s actually the soundtrack of my life. If you listen to all my albums and if you know exactly what part of my life it corresponds with, you will understand exactly what my life was about for those last 20 years. Every track of this album is related to something that happened in my life. I don’t like going back in time, it gives me some kind of nostalgia and I would rather just look to the future and understand what’s happening now. Enjoy my time.
There’s the joyous new video for ‘Feeling Good’ (feat. Dear Silas). Can you tell me a bit about the creative direction behind these visuals?
Silas is a wonderful and he has a huge amount of energy, he is not yet well known but he is incredible and full of positivity so I really wanted to do a collaboration with him. The song is called ‘Feeling Good’ so I said ‘let’s just have fun, let’s do this somewhere we both feel good’, so we decided New York would be perfect, it’s somewhere which is always bubbling. And since we were doing it in New York I remembered I had this friend who is a juggler, gymnast and amazing dancer and we got them to be a part of the music video which turned out exactly as intended – really fun and full of positivity.
‘Capacity To Love’ is out now.
Words: Sophia Hill