Music is a disease but one that heals. So says French Lebanese musician Abaji. Music is all Abaji thinks of during his waking hours and even in his dreams. He might not understand our language and we might not understand his but the mutual love for music is all one needs for a meaningful interaction, says the musician who lives music.
Abaji performed in Bangladesh for a second time in a concert organised by Alliance Francaise de Dhaka (AFD) and sponsored by GETCO on May 10 at AFD’s La Galerie. He played to the house, regaling the audience with a number of Blues and Mediterranean tracks. His popularity amongst aspiring musicians of the country soared after his first performance in the capital last November.
“I had a great time in Bangladesh this time as well. People came to the concert to have fun because the current situation is difficult, tense. I wanted to bring a smile on their faces that would remain there from the beginning of the performance till the end. Fortunately, I was able to do so,” says Abaji.
Born in Lebanon to an Armenian-Greek father and an Armenian-Syrian mother, who both were born in Turkey, it is small wonder that Abaji was drawn to world music from a very young age. All throughout his childhood, Abaji was surrounded by different sounds that inculcated a desire in him to know, learn and love music in every form and language.
“I come from a family of minorities and minorities in the Middle East are mostly musicians. In fact, if you look around the world, all good music comes from minorities because they only have this. You can’t be in the army if you belong to a minority group or own a business. So, you just take up an instrument or use your songs to make a statement. The minorities bring their culture to the mainstream population of a country. In fact, the cradle of music comes from minorities,” he says.
Music runs in Abaji’s blood. All of Abaji’s mother’s sisters were involved in music; his grandmother played the lute while his great-grandmother played the zither. He took up the guitar when he was eleven years before moving onto a diverse range of instruments, starting from the clarinet, the percussions, the oud, the bouzouki, flutes, saxophone, jura, duduk, mandolin; the list goes on!
“I am always thinking of music. It’s the only thing in my mind all the time! When I hear someone speak, there is one kind of music going on in my head. When I talk to someone, there is some other kind of music playing. This is truly a disease, but one that heals me and I accept this healing disease,” says Abaji with a smile.
Abaji says that the correct instrument is necessary to fit the particular tune he is thinking of at the time. The guitar did not always suit the music he wanted to play and so he thought of learning a new instrument.
“One of my friends bought a clarinet but it never left its box! I asked him if I could have it and he agreed. It was amazing! Music under your fingers is not the same thing as music coming out of your mouth. I moved to percussions then and that was a different feeling altogether because music became vibration. When you play rhythms on percussion, you can experience the very foundation of music. You know that this is where it is,” says Abaji.
He soon began to purchase instruments whenever he visited a country for a concert and had a room devoted only to his musical instruments.
“Now, I am the head of an army of 400 instruments,” he laughs. “A peaceful army, I must add. It is funny because I never thought that I had so many instruments. When people ask me what I do with so many instruments, I say that these are my friends! People say that they have lots of friends on Facebook, well, I have friends in my studio!”
As a child in Lebanon, Abaji would spend hours listening to Cats Stevens and Bob Dylan. Along with these two icons, Abaji was hugely inspired by the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whom he calls a magician.
“I never heard such energy before; his music was alive. Sometimes you meet musicians who can compose beautiful music but it feels dead to me because I heard it play the same way before. There is no uniqueness. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had a way of surprising even his team, his Qawwals.”
He sings praises of Creedence Clearwater Revival, particularly of the lead vocalist John Fogarty, whose voice, he says, was very powerful.
“It had a touch of Sufi in it. I am talking of energy here, not of religion. John’s voice was soulful, which is the very essence of Sufi,” he says.
Abaji was exiled from Lebanon, when he was 17 years, just after the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War. He left Lebanon for France in 1976 and has been living there ever since.
“I left at the beginning of a war that lasted 20 years. I left Lebanon because of the war but I always felt at home in France because we spoke French at home as did most minorities. In fact, after arriving in France and listening to people speak, I thought that they should take up courses at the Alliance Francaise; their French was so poor! It was a shock for someone who speaks the French of books,” he jokes.
He never paid much attention to Lebanese or Middle Eastern songs before his exile. It was only after he moved to France did Abaji rediscover his roots and began to appreciate Mediterranean music.
“As a child, I was really into Indian music and the Blues. When I left Lebanon and came to France, I realised that something was missing. It took me sometime to understand that I was missing listening to songs that were in a language that was mine. Even though Arabic isn’t my main language, I spent my entire childhood with people who spoke the language. That’s when I began to write and mix songs in French and Arabic,” he says.
Despite receiving requests from his friends to return to Lebanon after the war was over, Abaji says that he is happy to be where he is and doesn’t want to make another big move. He went back to his birth country recently for a performance and will do so again whenever he gets the opportunity but he won’t ever return for good.
“I visited more than 40 countries for my concerts. I don’t think I could live anywhere else other than the place I am living in right now – in a house on a hill facing the Eiffel Tower in the suburbs of Paris. All my friends in Lebanon implore me to go back. I will definitely go back to perform but not to live there,” he says.
With a playful smile on his lips, Abaji says that he might return to Bangladesh early next year and surprise his fans here. He hopes to come back with some more time in his hands so that he can interact with fellow music lovers.
“I really want to come back and meet musicians, artists, dancers as I like mixing different forms of arts. I worked with dancers in France and with musicians from all over the world. Moreover, if you want to work with musicians, you have to make sure that everyone has the same energy on their minds and for that you need time to build that kind of connection,” Abaji says.
Abaji released his first album “Paris-Beyrouth”, with lyrics in French, Arabic and English. Then he released “Bedouin’ Blues”, followed by a five-year-long collaboration with the German world music label Network Medien. “Oriental Voyage” came next, followed by “Nomad Spirit.” Several renowned world musicians such as Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan, Indian percussionist Ramesh Shotham and Moroccan musician Majid Bekkas collaborated on several numbers in this album. He hopes to release his latest album by the end of this year.
Abaji has performed in over 40 countries till date and hopes to take his music all over the world in the future. He wants to meet new people, to learn from them, to entertain them, to bring a smile on their faces and to embrace his fans with his music.
“I am really just a musician. I was born in Lebanon and am living in France but the culture that I want to show is neither French nor Lebanese. Through my music, I want to show people how you can be healthy of head, body and heart when you mix different cultures. If you know how to mix and take the good parts of every culture, well, that makes you richer than ever,” concludes the musician with a smile.