CAIRO: “Think of a viola soloist presenting a fusion of gypsy jazz and Arabic music, then think of the viola — itself an underrated musical instrument in the Arab world — as the leading instrument of this blend,” Palestinian violist and composer Samer Rashed says of his singular musical project, ahead of his UK tour this month.
Between November 16 and 29, the Jerusalem-based musician and his trio will perform in London, Coventry, and Birmingham as part of a double-bill featuring British-Bahraini trumpet player Yazz Ahmed, before concluding their tour in Sheffield on the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
The tour will bring Rashed’s second album, “Tales of the Gypsy Jazz,” to an international audience following its launch concert at Ramallah Municipality Theatre in May, which began his tour across Palestine. Now available on several streaming platforms, the album has created considerable buzz since its May release, with “April in Jerusalem” and “Wedding, for Zeina” in particular gaining acclaim.
In August, the magazine This Week in Palestine named Rashed “Artist of the month,” praising his new album for its “diverse range of upbeat and slow music that takes listeners on a variety of journeys and presents yet again an unprecedented employment of the viola as the key instrument in this genre.”
Rashed’s success, the review continued, “sets a great example for young Palestinian musicians, showing them what can be accomplished with minimal resources and maximum ambition.”
Featuring seven original compositions all written by Rashed, the album was sponsored by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Palestinian Performing Arts Network.
While Rashed’s signature sound certainly employs the “joyful and upbeat rhythms” typical of gypsy jazz, he says he is not interested in “imitation of the genre’s features or the simple creation of musical replicas.”
“It’s not like listening to the music of Romani guitarist Jean Django Reinhardt or French jazz guitarist Biréli Lagrène,” Rashed says of his musical style. “I try to bring in my own interpretation of the genre.”
In “Tales of the Gypsy Jazz,” that “interpretation” means the viola takes center stage, explains Rashed, and is apparent in the “musical experimentation” that underpins the compositions, particularly the inclusion of the accordion and buzuq.
Two years in the making, “Tales of the Gypsy Jazz,” builds on the success of Rashed’s first album, “Gypsy Rhapsodies,”” albeit in a “more experimental manner.”
Released in 2016, Rashed’s debut album also consisted of seven tracks; five original compositions in addition to “innovative rearrangements” of two traditional Arabic songs: “’Ala Moj al-Bahr” by Syrian singer Mayada Bsilis, and “Bint e-Shalabiyah” by Lebanese legend Fayrouz.
A 2012 graduate of the National Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem where he would later teach, Rashed chose to specialize in the viola (“a very challenging instrument,” he says) early on.
“It’s unusual to see instruments like the viola or violin become leading instruments or main solos in a music project, with other instruments like the piano, buzuq or accordion as only accompanying instruments,” Rashed says.
Determined to create his own viola-inspired sound, Rashed traveled to Istanbul in 2013 where he studied Turkish gypsy and jazz music with renowned Turkish violinist Nedim Nalbantoglu, before returning to Jerusalem and specializing in music composition.
He has since performed in music festivals across the Arab world and in Europe. He has played alongside established musicians including Lebanon’s Marcel Khalife at Beiteddine Art Festival and British violinist Nigel Kennedy at the The Proms in London.
Being invited to play at major festivals, is, Rashed says, a major boost for instrumental music, which remains underappreciated in the Arab world.
“People still believe that an instrumental performance is not worthy of their time,” he says. “But things are changing, and we are discovering that people are thirsty for change and are starting to like this music more.”