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Anouar Brahem and the Art of the Oud

Anouar Brahem in NPR's Studio 4A.
Anouar Brahem in NPR's Studio 4A.

The Oud
The Oud

The oud, a kind of fretless guitar with an egg-shaped body, has been played throughout the Middle East and North Africa for centuries. In Anouar Brahem's home country of Tunisia, the oud in current popular culture has been known mainly in the context of loud and large ensembles, where the instrument is all but buried in a dervish of sound.

But for the last decade, Brahem has highlighted the oud in a delicate, often introspective context. And for his new CD Le pas du chat noir, the oud is part of an unlikely trio including piano and accordion.

Anouar Brahem's music is on ECM Records, whose catalog is famous for its crystal-clear production and contemplative sound. The ECM label seems a good fit for Brahem, since its special brand of jazz sensibility was an influence on him — in particular, the work of one well-known ECM pianist.

"When I was 15, I listened to a record of Keith Jarrett," he tells NPR's Liane Hansen for Weekend Edition Sunday. "It was a big shock for me, in a positive way. In some way, he opened the door for me to jazz music. From that time, I really wanted to play with jazz musicians."

For Brahem, it's not easy to explain the links between jazz and the Arabic musical tradition from which he sprang. Beyond the fact that both employ small groups of musicians and improvisation, the parallels aren't obvious. "It's very difficult to speak about influences because music in some way comes from inside, and what you have accumulated."

Brahem says the influences he's accumulated come at least as much from outside music as from inside it. Growing up, he says, "I was fascinated by cinema," particularly French New Wave. "I used to go when I was a teenager more to the cinema than to concerts."

And the influences don't stop with art alone. For instance, when he was writing the music for his new album, "A tree helped me a lot." A tree? Yes, outside the window of his room. The waving branches helped him "find some elasticity in the rhythm," he says.

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