King of fusion

Fusion artist Kamal Musallam talks Arabic quarter tones, the Gypsy Swing, and why his biggest influence is Middle Eastern classical music 

Vision: You’ve said before that you are a fusion musician, fusing jazz and various other genres to create your own style of music. But fusion is very hard to get right. It is neither one thing or the other, often falling in the middle of the road. How do you prevent this from happening?

Kamal Musallam: The name itself, “fusion”, might not always give the music used in the process its proper rights. I see it rather like a journey between styles, than the mixing of styles or genres. I think fusion is truly representative of the present day, where borders of cultures and traditions are getting ever-more blurred, and people have more chances to explore the world than they ever have done in the past. So the “fusion” or the trip in-between cultures has become a natural process in our everyday life. I never tend to mix as much as I tend to let the elements talk to each other in a poetic way. 

There is a healthy interest from the government when it comes to supporting the new talents around UAE, but we need more involvement from the private sector, especially when it comes to the production side

V: Is jazz your biggest influence? If it is, why? And how do you fuse it successfully with other genres?

K: Jazz is one major influence to my work, but I am not limited to it. My biggest influence is Middle Eastern classical music with its many variations from north to south, east to west. I am also very influenced by Spanish and Latin music, especially Flamenco, Bossa Nova and Tango. What jazz has taught me is mainly how to develop harmony around any melodic line, and also how to develop improvisation and build sentences that can tell a story. And since these are also characteristics of Arabic classical music, there is a natural meeting point between the two genres. I reached a point where the improvisational concepts of both jazz and Arabic classical finally started to melt in my expressions and so my phrases would come out rather naturally “fused”.

V: There is so much more that can be achieved through Arabic music and jazz. Why isn’t it being done?

K: Very good question. Even though the idea is great, the process is not an easy one. Like any other acquired skill or education, it only becomes natural after a deep study of both worlds and a good time spent on practicing and exploring ideas in both genres. For the record, a lot has been done since the 1960’s in the Arab world  where composers like Abdul Wahab and The Rahabani brothers used and fused elements of jazz, rock, western classical and latin music in their compositions for the major classical Arabic singer (Um Kulthoum and Fairuz are just two examples that spring to mind). And, since the 1970s, Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani has been a major name in this domain that inspired hundreds of young composers active today in the Arab world. But I agree there is still a lot more to explore, especially on the subject of Arabic quarter tones, and how we can implement new types of harmony around them.

V: You have a guitar that can play Arabic quarter tones. Why? 

K: Why not? It has never been done, and we do have those notes in the musical tradition itself. I love to play them and to hear them, as they so deeply connect me to my culture. So if we can play those quarter notes on the oud, the nai, violin or qanun, then why can’t we play them on a guitar? There were attempts to do so since the 1970s, especially by the late Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid. Omar was a rock guitarist appointed by Abdul Wahab to join Um Kalthoum’s orchestra in the late 1960s. He integrated guitar into the song intros with phrases including quarter tones by manually adding some extra frets to his guitar. I was amazed by that, and even did the same with my school guitar (ruining several of my guitars in the process until I finally got Ibanez to make me something that was properly designed and manufactured).

V: How do you see your music progressing?

K: My music is always moving and flowing, but the more I progress personally in my understanding of life and humanity, the more my music will reflect that. I have recorded seven albums, but I still have several musical ideas and collaboration concepts on the table. All I need is time…I never have enough.

Kamal Musallam
The guitarist says he is happy to support young talent in the UAE region, especially if their personalities mesh well

V: You produce bands such as The Gypsy Swing Project and The Healer Twins. What are you hoping to achieve through such work?

K: I have released the Gypsy Swing album and I do consider it to be a very successful collaboration – but I have unfortunately parted ways with The Healer Twins.. I am continually excited by new talents and their ideas, and I try to find ways around budgets, and schedules, as most young talents do not have money, whereas I do not have the time. But if the band members are talented musically and our personalities mesh well, then I’m happy to find a spot in my schedule for them, and am also open to supporting their project financially if I can.

V: How good is the music scene in Dubai and what are its challenges?

K: It is a developing scene. I have produced a major work called SIKKA SCORE, Volume 1, sponsored by Dubai Culture back in 2013, where I produced 15 new bands residing in Dubai. It was part of the Art Fair that happens every March. There is a healthy interest from the government when it comes to supporting the new talents around UAE, but we need more involvement from the private sector, especially when it comes to the production side. It is very costly to produce a record in a proper sense – not in a home studio, but in a real full-fledged studio with a great engineer behind the desks. And none of the upcoming artists can really afford that, so they end up buying minimal home recording equipment thinking they do a cutting edge record with that. But production is a science – let’s put it this way, you can’t produce a heavy duty car from plastic and wood.