Palestine Jazz- an interview with Mohamed Najem
By Bella Kessedjian
This summer, Mohamed Najem & Friends along with Nai Barghouti: Moments toured the U.K. with “Palestine Jazz”- a unique blend of Classical, Arabic and Jazz music raising funds for Médecins Sans Frontièrs and UNICEF. Despite the political and humanitarian situation in Palestine, these young performers have not only found a voice through music but are leading lights in a blossoming contemporary Arab culture. I was lucky enough to catch their performance at Birmingham Town Hall in July, and it was clear my fellow Brummies were equally delighted with their sensitive melodic fusions.
Mohamed Najem is a clarinet player and innovator. In “Mohamed Najem & Friends” he is accompanied by Clément Prioul (piano), Thomas Julienne (contrabass) and Baptiste Castets (Drums). As I listen to “Floor No.4”, a piece from his album of the same name I am transported by the music. He begins in controlled contemplation. It feels distinctly Arabic but then there’s this jazzy ornamentation. The clarinet soars between octaves, like something you must chase. Strings thrum beneath it, sounding almost like human humming. The percussion steps in, the pace quickens and the mood lifts and intensifies. I try to count the layers of instruments but get distracted because they all seem to be in conversations with each other. I didn’t even know a clarinet could sound like this- it is new and exciting and uncategorised. Ramallah. A flat on “Floor No.4” where the clarinet player sits watching the glitter of a distant (and inaccessible) sea, composing something joyful in honour of his grandfather’s soul. This is Mohamed Najem’s music.
Following the concert, I was absolutely delighted to have the chance to interview Mohamed and learn more about this bold style of playing. Not least because Mohamed Najem is an incomparably elegant man; formidably educated and widely acclaimed but self-effacing. A prime example of this is his audience introduction to “Bus”, a piece inspired by the rhythms and people of his bus journeys across Paris, where he pauses deadpan and adds, “Yes, I know. I am very interesting.” This is Mohamed’s way in everyday conversation too. It was a real pleasure to spend an afternoon listening to his thoughts on fusion, connection and making it work in the Paris jazz scene…
Firstly thank you for doing this while you’re on tour. Do you have any impressions from your time in the U.K?
It’s a different vibe to play for the British public- I enjoyed it a lot and I’ve had this experience before. I get the impression that British audiences are open to any style and they really appreciate…shall we say the new styles? It’s just great to be in the UK, I like this country and I like to come, visit, play, meet people…socially it’s different to France…I feel that people are warmer in a way… So these are my impressions of the U.K!
So I want to ask a bit about your story, you’ve studied in Bethlehem at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, Palestine and also the Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional d’Angers, France but when and where did you start playing music?
I started music in both conservatories as you said and music started to interest me let’s say from 1998 or 1999 when I was a child in the first intifada. We were staying at home and not playing on the balcony or in the neighbourhood because it was dangerous of course, so I was listening to a lot of music. It was really always attached to the orchestras and the music groups that were on the T.V. I remember when I saw my first concert live in around 1996. I was just taken by that moment and I said, “I want to do that”. But basically, I started playing the recorder at the school in the third grade… I remember I started playing the music I knew by heart on it without any effort, it was normal to me. So that was my first instrument the recorder. In 1997, when the conservatory had first opened, I wanted to play the violin, then I chose saxophone but my teacher did not play it at that time so he recommended the clarinet. So I did clarinet and… I stayed on clarinet! In 2002 I started the nay with an American then a Lebanese teacher, so this is how it went.
Do you have any fondest musical memories or big influences from your early days?
Yes! A lot! I was lucky that my father used to listen to a lot of music. He had a lot of cassettes in his small library. I remember the Bee Gees, ABBA, Boney M very well... I was very influenced by the Arabic singers and composers Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Um Koutholm, Sayed Darwish, Marcel Kalife Samih Shoulder and so many others but mostly I was influenced by classical music… I was listening to Tchaikovsky.
You’ve studied clarinet and nay- could you speak about the differences between the two and why you played largely clarinet on this tour?
Very good question, the nay is an Arabic instrument traditionally made out of bamboo and it is very old….We can play from C to A…it depends on the piece or the scale of the piece…there is no mouthpiece…it’s a bit like a flute…we have to find an angle, the right angle to blow and get a sound. It has only seven holes and we get two and a half to three octaves. The nay also has a soft sound and we can play quarter tones. The notes, if we travel all the way to the Arabic world, that are the semi tones beside the sharp and the natural ones if you were finding it on a piano… The nay is designed to get these quarter tones while the clarinet is an occidental classical instrument, with 24-25 keys and has a single reed to get a sound. No reed no sound on clarinet, this is the difference between the two. The clarinet was basically handmade in Germany around the 1730s and was used for classical music only….(Then people) started using it in traditional music styles all over the world-Turkish, Balkans, Klezmer, Jazz and so many other styles, that’s basically the difference between the instruments. One has mouthpiece the other no, the nay is limited by… energy while the clarinet you can give such elegance.
Why mostly clarinet? I brought music from the beginning. During my studies, I was really trying to find a way, a style of composing, a style on my clarinet so those pieces were written for clarinet and I continued playing this program on clarinet. Presently there are two pieces that I wrote for nay and I think I’m going to perform them for the next tour or concerts... I think it would be interesting to get the nay involved. This time I preferred just to focus on clarinet… I would love to interpret the clarinet with a new sound, a new way of playing in the Arabic style one day. So I’m working on getting the nay more involved!
For some time you worked in Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nablus as Palestine’s first professional clarinet teacher, did teaching affect your relationship with music?
Yes! Teaching is something essential in each person’s life! What’s nice about it is it makes you discover yourself, discover the person in front of you, discover the music. You have to simplify it, you have to you feel it. It lives in you, but when you want to explain it to somebody it should be simple and it should be to the point. When teaching you have to explain, to convince and give motivation to the student so they can understand and continue and learn. I think teaching made me appreciate the human aspect more. When I taught the kids it built a relationship between me and not only the students but also their families, convincing them to do those exercises and to play that piece and to come on time to the class and to work and play in the concerts… It changed my relationship with music because it made it easier also for me. When you were a student you were taking and now you are giving…. yes… it affected my relationship with music. Now when I listen to music I also simplify it to myself and when I work on new pieces I also simplify them to myself. What’s nice is that it’s a way of thinking in life too. You don’t complicate things around you, you make it easy for yourself and for others… I think teaching makes you discover another person hidden in yourself… the real good you comes out….if you see what I mean?
It seems like place is very important to your compositions- could you tell me a little bit about that?
For a while, I believed that in every place there is an energy that surrounds you. People pass there and things have happened here before you…places… affect your vision- by the view, the breeze, the smell, the colours, the buildings, the atmosphere of that place… it leaves a small memory. That memory can affect you or not, but when an idea happens to come out of a place it happened for a reason, the atmosphere helped let this idea come out…I did not want complicated titles for these stories….I’m somebody who is just of a simple way of thinking… I don’t complicate things and I did not want to tell a false story that talks about…why I composed it there… It was really honest how those ideas came in that situation, how those ideas came for that reason… Should I talk about stories? They are not as deep as stories, they are not very interesting, but for me they are. I met that, I saw that…and the music came out. Greatest for me are the stations of my life, but also each person’s life, you go to that place and it’s a station, you spend your time amid people, you saw people or you saw something and your brain made you remember something. As I said the breeze, smell, view, colour or whatever the chemical operation in your brain creates an idea or a memory or something… I did not want to go further or complicate the title… So “Floor No. 4”, what is that? Well “Floor No. four” is my apartment… but I was with my flowers and et cetera and et cetera… So I think I acted naturally with the titles and the places …. I think it is difficult to tell a story by playing. For me, the pieces are stories that hold the title even if I don’t say the title. And it’s okay if each person understands them in their own way- there’s no obligation that you have to understand the music… I prefer sometimes not to say anything and just let the people travel and go to their own places… I hope I answered the question!
How do you feel your identity as a Palestinian informs your work and does it present challenges to your international career?
This is a very good question and is something that has bothered me for a while. This is why I just chose my group name “Mohamed Najem and Friends”- and I did not call it anything that relates to Palestine. I want people to really appreciate my music, if they would and come to my concert if they would, because they are interested in listening to the music. The idea that I am a Palestinian and it’s my duty to bring my message to the maximum number of people - that was something that bothered me. I wished just to be recognised as a musician before I was recognised as Palestinian. This tour is different and it’s special because we have something to tell and to give. We don’t do it to get sympathy from people, we do it because we have a good level of music and we have something to say. So Nai or me, we come to perform and to say, “this is our fusion from that area and this is what we can do and give”. We also do it to support UNICEF and the refugees. I don’t like to say it but I’m so proud to do that. For my projects, I participate in concerts that are different. For Palestine I participate because I want to give another image of the music, culture and people. I am capable of doing that, so yes I do it. However, when I played in Gabon with my group we went as a French group that has diversity in their music, so I represented France in this way. I’m not necessarily representing only Palestine or France: my point, my dream, is that I play, people come because they appreciate my music and to be recognised as a musician above people coming to my concert out of sympathy. I’m also there to carry a message, give another face and new ideas about Palestine and Palestinians. In Israel, because of all these difficulties and pressures and unjust acts against us, they simply prevent me from entering (Palestine) directly. They always keep me 5, 6,7 hours on the bridge. Maybe just because I shared my political views, or maybe because my name is Mohamed and I live in Paris- for them this is suspect. I don’t care. I say what I think. I am proud of being Palestinian, I am proud of being Arab, I’m proud of my name. I am a clarinet player and I will always do what I do, and say what I say. I do not agree with the occupation and I do not agree to live under the occupation. I’m amused now to say what I think because you are used to democracy in Europe, where I can say what I want.
Last thing- I do not use the fact that I’m Palestinian to get more chances. I refuse many concerts like that. I always participate in those concerts that are organised in a good way, not in a way to get the sympathy but to give light to the point, give light to Palestine and give light to the people- to let them know more.
Thinking about your work now, what are the most enjoyable and the most challenging elements?
This is a wonderful question! The most enjoyable and the most challenging element is being in Paris and making music in the middle of giants, monsters, dinosaurs of music! They are really great at having a great level, and new projects and new music. I enjoy climbing slowly between all of those and getting recognised as a musician. The most challenging thing in general is to keep playing, to keep working and not to fall at the first hurdle- that means if something does not work or an accident happens to continue, to keep working hard. This is a challenge for me. There are many clarinet players in Paris, many musicians in Paris, many theatres and jazz bars not only in Paris but in the world! The challenge for us is to keep increasing the quality and to bring new ideas to…people. The joyful thing is each time you play the music comes out differently. In a way, the audience plays a role. They give you power and they give you a way of communication with energy from space! Ah! I know it’s awkward when I’m talking about it, but it’s true! You feel it when you play for an audience. I don’t know how to say it. I just feel it and I can feel it. For me, it’s like our voices and our words are a tradition of translation of what our brain thinks. The music is the sound of how you feel, of your spirit and sometimes the spirits meet and that’s magical.
And again there are many challenges to convince potentially big music concert halls or festivals to invite us, to start doing the administration and communications... This is a challenge; to get all this stuff, to convince someone to do all these things and also to always continue with the music.
You seem to be part of much innovation in jazz and Arabic musical communities - is there anyone contemporary that you are excited to listen to or work with?
Wow, yes yes yes! Anouar Brahem a Tunisian oud player and composer. I’ve been listening to him for a long time and I still do. My dream is to play with him on stage. Only one concert! This guy is also an influence-back to the influences- this guy influenced me a lot. I wish to one day at least meet with him… Yes, Anouar Brahem oud player and composer!
And finally, where can people find your music or hear you performing?
Some of my music is on Youtube, most of it is on Soundcloud. For performances- this would be amazing- visit my facebook page or website where I put all my upcoming concerts and gigs. My CD is on Deezer or Applestore- Mohamed Najem Floor No. 4. The last thing I would like to add is at the beginning of the coming year we’re hopefully preparing to record our first album as Mohamed Najem and friends!
My warmest wishes to all those who brought Palestine Jazz to the U.K. but an especially big shukran, merci, and thank you to Mohamed for his time, sincerity and most of all music!