Marching on: Palestinian oudists Le Trio Joubran return with sixth album

Le Trio Joubran. (Karim Ghattas)
Updated 05 November 2018

Marching on: Palestinian oudists Le Trio Joubran return with sixth album

  • Joubran’s ferocious finger-work has helped elevate the oud as a spot-lit vehicle for instrumental expression, shattering the Arabic lute’s traditional background role
  • Since 2004, Samir has led the “world’s first” oud three-piece, Le Trio Joubran, alongside his two younger brothers Wissam and Adnan.

PARIS: When Samir Joubran was just five years old his father, a master oud maker from a long family line of luthiers, gave him a perplexing piece of advice: Be like Elvis Presley.

“I was like: What do you mean?,” remembers the Palestinian musician. “I knew all the Elvis movies, I used to sing all the songs, I used to make my hair like Elvis and wear a leather jacket like him when I was 10 or 11. But I didn’t understand at all what he meant.”

Fast forward four decades and Joubran doesn’t just finally grasp his father’s meaning, but has arguably fulfilled his wishes. For the past quarter-century Joubran’s ferocious finger-work has helped elevate the oud as a spot-lit vehicle for instrumental expression, shattering the Arabic lute’s traditional background role.

“When I was growing up, no one was playing the oud solo, it was always accompanying the vocal,” Joubran explains. “There was no audience for the oud playing for even five minutes. And today I’m happy because I know what my father meant. He wanted a career for the instrument, in front of people — and why not; it’s the father of the guitar — and I think we are on the right path.”

On that last part, there can be no debate. Since 2004, the 45-year-old has led the “world’s first” oud three-piece, Le Trio Joubran, alongside his two younger brothers Wissam and Adnan. The three of them are a sharp-dressed crossover sensation. They have played New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Barbican. In the past six months, the trio has released collaborations with Western music icons Brian Eno and Rogers Waters that have not just profoundly raised the global profile of the oud, but of Arabic culture in general.

Le Trio Joubran. (Myriam Boulos)

The latter partnership forms the spiritual centerpiece of the trio’s recently released sixth album “The Long March,” through the duet “Carry the Earth” — a heartfelt tribute to four young cousins killed while playing football on a beach in Gaza. “Mothers’ boys, fathers’ boy’s, your boys… our boys,” the former Pink Floyd frontman somberly intones over mournful oud lines, swelling strings, and throbbing electronic pulses.

“The Long March” arrived more than seven years after its predecessor “AsFâr” — a delay Joubran credits in part with his return to Palestine in 2015, after 12 years living in Paris, while his brothers remain split between the French capital and London. But such a long gestation process has spawned the trio’s bravest work yet — an album colored, more than any of its predecessors, by fresh encounters, experiences and collaborators.

While the brothers have long approached their instruments with a rock-like intensity — and a fearless technical virtuosity — their previous releases have remained largely organic acoustic affairs. The more meditative mood of “The Long March” is colored by a subtle but surprising embrace of electronic swashes, alongside soaring strings, woodwind and jazzy piano. It’s a sonic reinvention clearly inspired by the band’s decision to use a producer for the first time — Frenchman Renaud Letang, whose diverse credits include Manu Chao, Feist and Jarvis Cocker.

“It wasn’t easy to work with an artistic director who was ready to kill some tunes, or hang some sentences,” says Joubran. “To put your baby, your composition, in his hands to restructure… that opened a lot of things for us. To listen to our music not as professional musicians, but through others’ ears.”

Midway through sessions for “The Long March,” Le Trio Joubran took time out for an even braver collaboration with Eno — who ranks as one of most iconic record producers of all time. A pioneer of ambient music, Eno swathed the trio’s plaintive oud work with an eerie soundscape to create “Stones.” The one-off collaboration opens “Block 9 Creative Retreat Palestine,” a compilation recorded at Bethlehem’s Walled Off Hotel, opened by world-renowned graffiti artist Banksy last year to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians living in the shadows of the Israeli West Bank barrier.

Soon after Eno very publicly endorsed the brothers by introducing their concert in Ramallah, further fueling speculation that the rock icon might be called on to produce the trio’s next album.

“I hope one day we can produce something together. He is a genius musician,” said Joubran. “To have this kind of [support] from legends is really big.”

More than any single encounter, the album’s greatest sharpening force may have been the 12-hour, 15-minute “marathon concert” the brothers hosted in Ramallah in October 2016, during which the players consumed nothing but water and refused to leave the stage even to relieve themselves. The endeavor raised more than $1 million which last month funded the purchase of a mobile breast cancer unit, now touring rural areas of Palestine.

“After we played for 12 hours I saw the women in between my fingers,” said Joubran, who promptly collapsed after leaving the stage. “I saw how the artist is faked by the camera, light, smoke – and in the end by facing the reality that you need to play more than three, four, five hours, you lose all that, and suddenly you become a human being. You are related to the music with your body. This changed a lot for me, changed all my ideas about music, and politics.”

Politics is a subject it feels impossible to avoid when talking to Le Trio Joubran. While “The Long March” makes such pronounced sonic strides forward, it’s significant the collection opens with “Time Must Go By,” an ambient setting of Mahmoud Darwish’s voice. Joubran and his brothers were reportedly the only musicians to work with the late, great Palestinian poet, sharing the stage numerous times. Le Trio Joubran’s third album “À l’Ombre des Mots” (In The Shadow of the Words) was a live recording of the Ramallah tribute concert they performed just days after the national hero’s death, in August 2008, hauntingly built around recordings of Darwish’s voice.

Remarkably, it was a mutual appreciation of Darwish’s verse which sparked the Waters collaboration; the British bassist fell in love with Le Trio Joubran’s setting of the poet’s passionate “Wait for Her,” and would later record his own English-language interpretation after seeking the brothers’ blessing.

Returning the favor, ahead of “The Long March” the trio enlisted Waters to recite Darwish’s anti-colonial ode “The Penultimate Speech of the ‘Red Indian’ to the White Man,” as the basis for charged standalone single “Supremacy” — rush-released in March as a direct response to Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“This is what happened to us. We were there before Palestine was born, we are the original people,” says Joubran of the poem. “We have a message to send. We are living in an era of power politics, and, unfortunately, more and more today you see there is no justice.

“You [Palestinians] need to prove your humanity, your rights, in front of somebody who doesn’t see things logically. He’s just telling you, ‘I’m a liar, and I’m the power.’ We as musicians go onstage now with the sense that we want to play music to gather a little bit of hope, happiness, and respect.”

Oscars: the show must go on... without a host

Updated 20 January 2019

Oscars: the show must go on... without a host

LOS ANGELES: Hollywood’s biggest night — the Oscars — is set to take place next month without a host for the first time in 30 years, after comedian Kevin Hart pulled out of the gig and no suitable replacement was found.
Though organizers have yet to confirm the plans, entertainment insiders say the show’s producers are forging ahead with preparations for the 91st Academy Awards on February 24 with no emcee.
If all goes ahead, it would be the first ceremony without a host since the 1989 gala — one widely seen as one of the most embarrassing ever, featuring an infamous duet between actor Rob Lowe and... Snow White.
As gala organizers struggle to overcome a steady decline in viewership, many say the failure to find a host is actually good news.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” Tim Gray, awards editor at entertainment magazine Variety, told AFP.
“People have been saying for years that the format — the same since 1953 — needs to change and they’re trying to cut down on running time. So personally, I think it’s a great idea not to have a host.”
Hart, who is currently starring opposite Bryan Cranston in “The Upside,” was named to host the Oscars in early December.
But the backlash was swift — homophobic tweets he made several years ago reemerged, prompting an outcry on social media, and he withdrew just a few days later.
“I have made the choice to step down from hosting this year’s Oscar’s (sic)....this is because I do not want to be a distraction on a night that should be celebrated by so many amazing talented artists,” he tweeted.
“I sincerely apologize to the LGBTQ community for my insensitive words from my past.”
So why can’t the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences find someone else?
The previous two shows have been hosted by late night funnyman Jimmy Kimmel. Comedian Chris Rock emceed in 2005 and 2016 and TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres hosted in 2007 and 2014.
All have apparently indicated they weren’t interested in the gig this year.
“I think a lot of people, especially when it comes to hosting the Oscars ... think nowadays it’s not worth accepting (to host) because of the scrutiny,” Gray said.
“It’s kind of a thankless job,” he added.
“A lot of hosts have said it’s a difficult job because you walk into that room, there are 3,000 people, and all they want to know is who won in each category.”
In recent years, several hosts were raked over the coals. Actor Neil Patrick Harris got rumbled over his 2015 effort and said he would never do it again. James Franco and Anne Hathaway were a dud in 2011.
The Academy declined several requests by AFP for comment on the hosting situation or the show’s possible format.
But according to several trade magazines, organizers are considering having multiple A-listers — probably actors — introduce various segments and the award presenters.
“The Academy awards regularly had multiple hosts in the 1970s and 1980s and the telecast worked very well,” said Dave Karger, a special correspondent for IMDb (the Internet Movie Database).
“So if this year’s producers are able to book big stars to perform in skits and present the prizes, I don’t think the show will suffer at all.”
Gray said the big challenge will be how to make the show entertaining — both to those attending and for people watching on television — while sticking to the promise of a three-hour telecast.
“I think the hostless situation is going to force them to come up with something imaginative,” he said.
“And the fact that the show is going to be different could keep the energy going.”