The Palestinian brothers, Le Trio Joubran, are all masterful oud players. They talk to Tim Cumming about their constant battle for self-determination
Le Trio Joubran (photo: S Lawrie)
Domain d’O is a charming 25-minute tram ride from the medieval heart of Montpellier, the exceedingly pleasant and rapidly expanding metropolis in the South of France. Its gracefully spacious green suburbs are the very image of a Provençal garden city; even the woodlands seem swept and well kept. The 23 hectares of what was once the opulent, 18th-century Château d’O includes a theatre and outdoor amphitheatre that has, for the past 13 years, hosted the annual Arabesques festival of music, dance, art and poetry. Arabesques draws inspiration from North Africa and the Middle East, and a good proportion of its audiences also come from those cultures and the city’s sizeable Muslim population.
Tonight’s closing night features three Palestinian brothers playing a beautiful instrumental under the warm embrace of a Provençal night sky. The song is ‘The Hanging Moon’, and it’s from their first new album in seven years, The Long March. It is spare, angular and beautiful, almost see-through; and indeed the actual moon accompanies it, shining through it, hanging stage right in the constellation of Aries, two days from full.
“We are the best trio of oud players together,” one of the brothers, Samir, jokingly says afterward at our hotel, and they are indeed one of a kind. The delicacy and depth of their playing, their interactions and improvisations, are spellbinding. That performance of ‘The Hanging Moon’, set against the low buzz of Valentine Moussou’s cello, percussionist Youssef Hbeisch’s minimalist rhythms, and Habib Meftah’s high keening electronics, is sublime to the point of lift-off. If it’s not music to draw down the moon, it certainly takes us up into space.
Le Trio Joubran comprises Samir, the eldest; Adnan the middle brother, who fuelled the drive of the three brothers to first play together as a trio; and the youngest, Wissam, the master luthier who is the first Palestinian – and the first Arab – to graduate from the Antonio Stradivari Conservatory in Cremona, Italy. Together they have released six albums, their last, AsFâr, featuring Dhafer Youssef, coming in 2011 (reviewed in #75). Their music has adorned films including Julian Schnabel’s Miral (2010) and 2015’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God, with AR Rahman.
The brothers grew up in Nazareth in the north of Israel, the state’s ‘Arabic capital’ with Palestinian Arabs mixing with Coptics, Greek Orthodox and Maronites in the Biblical city of Jesus’ childhood. They are sons of a third-generation luthier, and grew up around their father’s workshop, helping out when required, and picking up at a very early age both the secrets of the oud’s construction and playing.
The instrument each one holds in his hands on stage is one of the great living antiquities of the world. An ancestor of the guitar, and with a history going back as far – and further – than the holy books that draw the topographical and ideological borders of the Levant. Legend has it that the instrument was fashioned by the sixth grandson of Adam, while history records the oud on a cylinder seal, now in the British Museum, from the early Bronze Age Uruk period of Mesopotamian civilisation. The long march of time between then and now flows lightly through the oud’s strings as if it was no time at all.
As for their new album, the fruit of six months working in the famed Studios Ferber in Paris with the equally famed producer, Renaud Letang (Manu Chao, Jane Birkin, Feist), it’s been a long time coming for fans of Le Trio Joubran – who include Brian Eno and Roger Waters (who guests on one of the tracks) – but good things come to those who wait. The Long March is typified by its sense of power, vision, balance and restraint. It is carefully wrought and fully formed. Its inspiration was a marathon 12-hour charity concert in October 2016 at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah where the brothers played without interruption, beside all manner of guest players coming on and off while they played on. They raised more than a million dollars by the end of that day. With this money they have bought two mobile mammogram clinics, one for Gaza and one for the West Bank. “It has changed all our lives,” says Samir of the concert. “Through our music we need to deliver human messages. Our cause is Palestine and, internally, inside Palestine we need to serve our people with projects like cancer awareness and hospitals.” In the hands of Le Trio Joubran, the oud’s strings pull some serious weight.
It was a performance of formidable endurance and the brothers are justifiably proud of going the distance. “We felt the impact of the music not on the public, but on our bodies,” says Samir, who remembers being eight hours in, and thinking, “I have finished all the notes in the world, all the sentences in the music... But suddenly you discover that all the music in the world is just ‘do re me fa so la ti do’ – eight notes.” He laughs. “The game is the silence between each one.”
The Joubran brothers are masters in finding and shaping that silence; they play it to perfection, their music delicately weighted between clarity and flow, between rhythmic progression and melodic invention. Between them, they create a kind of musical labyrinth. “It has become more structured,” says Samir of their playing. “It is not like jazz where one has the space and the place to improvise, it’s more as bridges from one situation to another, to take us from here to there, like, that is your mission, improvise it and do it.” As a result, their new music is full of detail, but clean and clear as spring water. No overplaying, no fiddling about, no excess. “Making music is beauty,” says Samir. “We are lucky that we have fans, and we want to use our inspiration, our music, to gain more of a public, and to create a human project. So with this idea we started The Long March.”
The album’s first track, ‘Time Must Go By’, is a striking setting of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet whose visceral, pungently physical and beautiful lines provide the titles of all the other songs – including ‘The Hanging Moon’, ‘The Trees We Wear’, ‘The Age of Industry’ and ‘Carry the Earth’, which features words and vocals by Roger Waters, whose involvement came from the ex-Pink Floyd legend’s longstanding admiration of their music.
“He told Samir that he was in love with it and listens to it and writes to it, and thinks and gets inspired by it,” says Adnan, “So we contacted him and he said, ‘come to my house’.” So they did, and he cooked for them, and played them his new music, and they in turn talked about The Long March, and as well as contributing a whispered vocal to ‘Carry the Earth’ (‘our boys, your boys, all our boys’) about the murder in 2014 of four teenage boys playing football on a Gaza beach, he later took them into Abbey Road – showing them the equipment he used to make The Wall – where they recorded a non-album track, ‘Supremacy’, its lines taken from a Darwish epic poem of anti-colonialism, ‘The Speech of the Red Indian’.
I listen to Adnan recite some of the lines. ‘Time must go by before we hit the long march. Before that we will have to defend the trees we wear, we will defend the bell of the night and the hanging moon over our house…’ Like great poetry anywhere, it is a weapon that never dulls or blunts when confronting an occupying force; it is an assertion of the basic human right to self-determination. “The message is, ‘we will fight to the end, we are not going to give up’,” says Adnan. That applies to their music, too, which can serve as a connecting tissue between different cultures, and within one culture, too.
“That was such a beautiful day,” remembers Adnan of the Abbey Road session, “to walk inside the studios with Roger Waters, and him telling us about recording The Wall here, and that this is the machine he used, and to touch and smell this machine. It was crazy, one of the most beautiful moments.”
But set against the natural beauty of music-making is the garish ugliness of the body politic pushing its batons and bullets through large swathes of the common fabric of 21st-century life – not only in Palestine, with the stark urgency of its problems – but in many other places across the globe, too. “It is probably going to get darker and darker and people are going to get dumber and dumber, and numb, and paralysed,” says Samir. But he is not without hope. “Where this album comes, for us, we want people to wake up emotionally, and to raise those emotions and their common sense.”
In the meantime, the brothers will soon be back in Ramallah to witness the launch of their mammogram service. “To see that truck working and raising awareness and saving lives,” says Adnan, and pauses. He smiles. “It is a civilised activity.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #143. To enjoy reviews of the best new releases, as well as interviews with leading artists and features that explore music traditions around the world, consider subscribing to Songlines.
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