Just like him, all the instruments he brought along with him were half of something. The one he has on his hand at that particular moment was half oud, half guitar. He hummed for a little bit waiting for it to talk to him.
“I let them talk to me. I ask them if they want to play. The instruments would tell me if they are in the mood,” he was addressing the crowd.
Abaji is a musician and an artist. A multi multi-talented French Lebanese who has produced several albums and has toured in five continents. He was in Muscat for only a night and for a performance to only invited guests.
He plucked the strings. Slowly at first. Feeling the imaginary heartbeat of his chimaeric friend.
He closed his eyes remembering how the melody goes. He didn’t bring any notes or music sheets with him. It was apparent that all that he is playing for the evening is etched in his heart and printed in his mind.
The sound coming out from Abaji’s friend is organic — a combination of something familiar. On his feet were ghungroo and they complimented every strum he made in his instrument complimenting its melody really well.
He has spoken for a little bit before he played. He said that the song, the third or fourth in his lineup was called ‘Essaouira’. That was what Abaji was like. Other than the music, he takes you on a tour.
This particular piece he was playing is a memorable one. He said that inspired by the beauty of Morocco, he created it — written in notes that only the stark landscape and often colourful streets of the said historic country can inspire.
He shared that it is memorable to him because one evening, while he was performing it, an old man dance to its beat. The said old man is an important member of one of Morocco’s villages. For years, he hasn’t moved that much as his joints are pained by his old age.
“Out of nowhere this old man danced to the music. He danced there like a kid. When the performance ended, he hugged me and with tears in his eyes, he told me ‘thank you,” he shared.
“I’d like you to do that as well. As I play this meaningful song, I’d like you dance.” It was an invitation to the crowd who came.
An intimate affair
The evening was made possible by the efforts of the Centre Franco-Omanais (CFO) and the Oman France Friendship association (OFA). On a Tuesday evening, the event was hosted at the heritage Omani French Museum also known as Bait Faransa. Delegates and fans of Abaji of all nationalities came to enjoy the music, stories and energy of this unique musician in the beautiful outdoors of the museum.
Like the CFO, that was set up as a middle ground for culture and education sectors of the Sultanate and France, OFA was established as a non-profit organisation along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide a platform promoting friendship and understanding matters of interest in regard to French and Omani business and social communities present in country.
OFA and CFO hosted the evening as an opportunity for guests to network with fellow French and Omani nationals and residing in the country with business and social connections in these nations. The prestigious guests of honour included Rahma Qasim Al Farsi, General Director of Museums Department, Ministry of Culture, Oman and Fathiya Al Kindi, Director of the French Omani Museum (Bait, Faransa). Other notable guests included Giles Bordes, Head of Economic Mission, French Embassy, Oman and Atisha Furtado, Bahwan Group along with Johaina Samaha, Coordinator of Events (OFA) and Christian Adam De Villiers, Director (CFO).
The main attraction of the event was Abaji.
The musician and the artist
Music is a large part of Abaji’s identity. He comes from a family to whom music was of utmost importance, Abaji quotes that “When I was ten or eleven, I got really involved with sounds. Not just the guitar, but the sounds themselves.”
Abaji arrived in France in the late 1970s where he practiced his other passion for traditional Chinese medicine: Tai Chi Chuan and Do In. He studied in Paris at the Medical University and became a therapist for several years. But his tradtions were an important part of his culture and identity and music was a large part of that.
He plays an array of instruments like the clarinet, percussion, ouds, bouzouki and flutes, all acquired during his travels all around the world. He has also invented instruments that he said “like me, are combinations of sounds and instruments from various cultures”.
In 1996, Abaji composed and released his first album “Paris-Beyrouth” in which he sings in Arabic, English and French. After that, in 2009, a very special year for Abaji, he came out with his fifth album Origine Orients. The album was a feat of talent and a work of art as it was done in one take, even more fascinating is that the songs were in the different languages that are a part of his family – French, Arabic, Greek, Turkish and Armenian.
Abaji strays of their “traditional” uses and creates a sound that have a strong Mediterranean feel even with western instruments. His sound is rooted in various genres that he feels a connection to, Indian and Oriental music with a mix of the western blues.
He transformed the various instruments he acquired to create a sound that produced a sound that was a blend of cultures and unique only to Abaji himself. This multitalented man has a unique musical vision, his albums defy traditional genre categorizations. His vision is a happy combination that crosses cultures and brings them together.
Along with composing music for his albums, Abaji also composed music for film and television with the French label Kosinus. He composed music for Jean-Charles Deniaud’s documentary “Le Temps des Otages”. He has also led various musical meetings on five continents creating music with the local cultures like the Zulus of South Africa, Gnawas of Morocco, the Kawwali of Lahore, Pakistan and even the Indians of Mexico. He believes that music goes beyond language and the beauty of it is that it can be shared with all.
He came to perform
Abaji’s performance lasted only for barely an hour but it was a definite treat to all who attended his performance. It was intimate, meaningful and it provided a glimpse of what he is like as an artist.
After playing six of his creations, it was apparent that each piece takes him somewhere. Abaji’s story is not all success. Most of the success he is enjoying now, he owed to what he has gone through in life.
For most of his pieces, there is a sense of lamentation. Every time he closes his eyes before a performance, he goes deep within himself — into a time not so long ago where he took his inspiration from. Those memories float in the air with his music and when the sound is sad, it is easy to understand that he was forcing it out from a dark, challenging past of which he has emerged triumphant.
Abaji is charming and humorous and if one listens well, he has a lesson to teach.
“I love Oman because majority of the countries in the Arab world can learn a thing or two from its people. Omanis are calm. Diplomatic. And if we all are calm and diplomatic, humanity an definitely go a long way,” he said.
He moved from one piece to the next with ease playing each instrument with mastery and command. Every so often he would hum and whistle. In his voice, a story of a man — pained, overjoyed and calling to everyone to pay attention for his is the kind of music not often seen or understood.
Titash Chakraborty & Yeru Ebuen