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.”