Simon Broughton remembers the life of Julien Weiss, the founder and director of the Al-Kindi Ensemble, who died on January 2 from throat cancer aged 61.
Julien Weiss was one of those extraordinary musicians who devoted himself to truly mastering the music of another culture. Born in Paris, to a Swiss mother and father from Alsace, he studied classical guitar, but after hearing the Iraqi oud player Munir Bachir, he decided to learn the oud and then the qanun (zither). He became one of its finest players, dedicating himself with all the enthusiasm of a convert, to the finest intricacies of the Middle Eastern modes or maqam.
In 1983 he founded the Al-Kindi Ensemble – named after the philosopher and theorist of Arabic music who worked in Baghdad in the ninth century. With some of the best singers and musicians of the Arab world, Al-Kindi performed in concert halls all over the world, including the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Festival Hall in London. Not surprisingly, they were regular visitors to the Fes Festival of Sacred Music in Morocco. Al-Kindi have recorded 15 albums including five beautiful digipacks for Le Chant du Monde, re-released in 2012.
Weiss converted to Islam in 1986 adopting the Muslim name Jelal Eddine in homage to the Sufi mystic and founder of the Whirling Dervishes Jalaluddin Rumi.
In 1995 he acquired a 14th-century Mamluk house in the heart of Aleppo in Syria close to the celebrated souk. He created there a musical salon, like something from an earlier era, where great musicians from the Arab world would come to rehearse and perform. The Aleppian Music Room (1998), which Al-Kindi recorded there is one of the great recordings of Arabic music of the last decades.
I went to meet Julien in Aleppo in 2005 when I was making the Channel 4 documentary Sufi Soul and, thanks to him, I was able to visit and film in several of Aleppo’s extraordinary Sufi lodges and witness the magnificent Sheikh Habboush at his weekly ceremony (pictured above). Aleppian Sufi Trance (also on Le Chant du Monde) is the other recording I would heartily recommend.
Late one evening Julien was showing me his specially-created qanun and lamenting the simplification (and Westernisation) of Arabic music that took place at the Cairo conference in 1932. For him, reducing the microtones to ‘quarter-tones’ simply took the subtle poetry out of the music. His qanun could divide each tone into eight microtones as the Turks also do in their classical music. Until the outbreak of civil war in Syria, he spent his last decade dividing his time between Aleppo and Istanbul. He has left an unfinished project featuring his recordings as a qanun soloist.
The war in Syria saddened him deeply and he feared for the survival of the diverse Sufi (and other religious) cultures there. His house, apparently, survives, but is now occupied by jihadists who certainly won’t appreciate his huge musical contributions to Aleppo’s musical life – and to the wider Arab world.