Worlds in collaboration: international jazz in Abu Dhabi

World jazz’ is a sometimes overused concept that covers adding some non-Western musical elements – usually rhythms, sometimes instruments – to the structures of traditional (aka Western) jazz. Too often that’s as far as it goes; but the best of world jazz is a dialogue between cultures, where individuals bring their musical upbringing and their personal and cultural preferences to the party, then see how they all fit together.

That’s what we’ll be getting from The Arts Center’s 14 April Boom.Diwan concert with two top jazz pianists – Nduduzo Makhathini from South Africa and Jean-Michel Pilc from France and North America.

Boom.Diwan has featured regularly at The Arts Center, not least because of the proximity of the band’s creator and leader Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi (right) – he’s Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at NYUAD and teaches nine courses there. Boom.Diwan is a jazz ensemble that takes as its starting point the very characteristic rhythms of Kuwaiti pearl-divers’ music (Ghazi Al-Mulaifi’s family came from the pearl-diving tradition and his grandfather was one of the last of Kuwait’s pearlers).

“It’s a common misconception is that the Gulf is a geographically small region with a largely shared body of music,” he says. “Some rhythms are shared between parts of what we would call the Gulf countries, but by and large Kuwaiti seafaring music is its own thing.

“It was born of trade, basically the interaction of sailors with local musicians at the ports where they unloaded goods and had to wait for winds to change. When they came back home to Kuwait they might have brought new instruments, maybe a new rhythm, maybe a melody.”

Clearly the music Boom.Diwan plays is rooted in a history of exchange and dialogue – “about being open to being influenced and to influence” as he puts it. “So what Boom.Diwan is doing is actually something very traditional, even though ironically it’s being perceived as something very contemporary”.

At the same, with Boom.Diwan he’s pushing back against the notion that this bahri music (‘bahr’ translates as sea) should be relegated to the sphere of ‘heritage performance’; he sees jazz as a natural development that takes core elements of traditional bahri and demonstrates a dialogue with other influences. “Improvisation is at the heart of both – having a theme with a variation is at the heart of both. There’s also the notion of dialogue in jazz as well. Jazz originated with a population of people that was already cosmopolitan in nature, so both jazz and bahri are styles of music with a definite origin story., And both jazz and Kuwaiti seafaring music take the notion of playfulness as something that is sacred – not something trivial or immature, but something that, that needs to be cultivated in a real kind of way.”

Nduduzo Makhathini

Working with Nduduzo Makhathini and Jean-Michel Pilc provides more musical strands from different traditions. There are many clear parallels, according to Ghazi. Nduduzo (right) is steeped in his own KwaZulu-Natal traditions; Jean-Michel Pilc is a very well-respected pianist and composer, a “dazzlingly inventive” (NY Times) musician who has been playing in the New York scene for over 20 years now. “He can take one simple melody and give it back to you in a thousand different ways on the spot, but he also a tremendous fan of classical music and for him the line between classical and jazz is blurred.”

Ghazi Al-Mulaifi has interesting relationships with the two. For a start, he has never met Nduduzo Makhathini in person . “We worked together online between Kuwait, South Africa and the Emirates for creating and recording Minarets” (a jazz suite that was commissioned by The Arts Center, developed over the internet, streamed live and recorded as part of the Barzakh Festival 2021, and soon to be available as an album).

And Ghazi was sufficiently impressed when he heard Jean-Michel Pilc back in the noughties that he asked to study with him. “It’s a big honour for me to have my teacher now perform with me. I want him to hear these Khaleeji-Kuwaiti seafaring themes that I’ve composed; and for him to apply his theme and variation sensibilities – I’m just curious to see what he comes up with.”

The 14 April concert has two clear parts. It will start with Jean-Michel Pilc (right) and Boom.Diwan performing a set of Ghazi Al-Mulaifi’s compositions (“what’s interesting to me is that he doesn’t want to have a lot of contexts or rehearse very much before we play. He believes in freshness over perfection. So he wants to come in and not overthink it”).

Part two will be the Minarets suite. This will be the first live performance of Minarets, a composition of immersive ritual music that touches on ideas of cosmopolitanism, community, dialogue, and healing.

There may also be other pieces from Boom.Diwan and Nduduzo Makhathini in this section, but that’s yet to be decided.

The third part is also undecided. Says Ghazi: “We don’t know whether or not we’re all going to get on the stage together at the end, but that’s a possibility. Nduduzo Makhathini is very happy to experiment., and when I talked to Jean-Michel about it, he said ‘yeah, I’m open to that. If it doesn’t sound good, we’ll stop quickly. If it sounds great, we’ll keep playing’.

“So I’m hoping that at least for one or two pieces of music at the very end, we’ll have at least three worlds in play and dialogue together.”

Boom.Diwan in concert, Ghazi Al-Mulaifi on guitar

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