The high-flying career of Australia’s multi-award winning master of the Arabic oud, Joseph Tawadros, has entered an exciting new phase.
Hot on the heels of the release last month of an extraordinary new album that features him playing no fewer than 50 instruments, the young Egyptian-born maestro will be heading off to London with a 5-year work visa tucked into his top pocket.
Tawadros is keen to build on a UK tour last year that included performances for the august Academy of Ancient Music: “I met a lot of great musicians there and I want to explore those relationships a bit more and hopefully that’ll inspire my music into another direction.” He also has a project with the BBC Symphony Orchestra lined up, which he’s very excited about.
While he’s rightly acknowledged for his unparalleled excellence and exploratory zeal on the Arabic lute, the Sydneysider is accomplished on a wide array of other instruments, a point that’s spectacularly endorsed by World Music — the 13th album in as many years from this prolific musician, who has made ARIA-winning records with A-league musicians from the jazz and classical ranks, both home and overseas.
Besides his beloved oud, over the 29 tracks of his odyssey, varying in duration between 70 seconds and 8 minutes, Tawadros plays … take a deep breath … a gamut of guitars, lutes and percussion instruments, plus a handful of different bowed instruments, including double bass and cello, also banjo, bouzouki, charango, tres, domra, mandolin, sarod, cello, double bass, qanun, Celtic harp, nay, hulusi flute, clarinet, cornet, trombone, alto saxophone, accordion, harmonica, piano, kalimba, whistles and drum kit. He even throws in some atmospheric wordless singing. The only thing missing is steak knives!
So, what prompted such an ambitious tour de force from Tawadros, how did it take shape and what exactly does he hope to achieve with this new epic?
“Since the start of my musical journey, I’ve always been interested in other instruments, particularly those of the Middle East. I’ve always collected instruments other than the oud and have a diverse collection that I always wanted to do something with. I felt this was the right time, in terms of the experience I’ve gained from working with great musicians from diverse genres, my understanding of how instruments work and the confidence to record on instruments I don’t play on a day-to-day basis and make them sound acceptable, and [my ability] to bring something to them in terms of composition and playing style
“It was quite a big undertaking, but I had a lot of fun exploring ways of playing my new ‘voices’ and partaking in organic music making. I didn’t go into the studio with any other recording in mind, or to attempt to copy another concept or project. With more and more layers being added, the project took on a life of its own. My technical limitations on some of the instruments seemed to dictate the melodies and inspire the music. Of course, having a versatile percussionist like [brother] James pushed the music in certain unexpected rhythmic directions also
“Even though some of the tracks are modally, texturally, rhythmically and tonally different, there’s a strand that binds it together. It’s most effective to listen to the track order as it is on the CD. The compositions do stand alone as separate pieces, but it’s a well thought out journey. It’s OK if the listeners want to choose their own paths of it, as long as they see the destination.”
So, with so many instruments at his disposal, what was Tawadros’s modus operandi?
“After fleshing out the main instrument track with James in which the piece was to be built upon, I experimented with different instruments and picked what I felt would best complement the lead instrument. My music has always been ambiguous and hard to categorize so maybe some blurring [of cultural boundaries] occurs. One thing I did learn, though, is that a lot of instruments from totally different backgrounds have similar fingerings and playing styles and some instruments uniquely complement each other, even though they would never be thought of being paired.
“There are a lot of surprises on this album and some very musically pleasing experiments, I think. You can be sure that I’m very much being myself on each instrument and James is being himself, it’s just that our voices have changed in some parts. My only intention was to create music that meant something and not to make a fool of myself on instruments I’m not familiar with.
“The first day in the studio was spent more or less just recording the duets and then having a listen to what was created. It was very important to keep space in mind just in case an instrument was to be added later.
“James and I have a strong musical connection, and that was a very important part of this recording. He’s quickly onto it with changes in tempo, different grooves and feels and can really read a special moment on the fly. On the album, James also challenged himself with recording on other instruments he doesn’t usually use on stage like Indian tabla, cajon and face percussion. He has a percussion duet with himself on one track, ‘Desert Rhythms’ and it’s awesome in true James Tawadros fashion.”
Apart from the oud (of course), Tawadros says he was most comfortable playing traditional Arabic instruments such as qanun (zither), nay (flute) and bowed violin-like instruments such as the rababah and kamanjah. “I’ve always had an interest in these instruments, and played those for a bit while I was learning the oud. I more or less used my knowledge, techniques and experience of these instruments to apply to the less familiar ones. The nay really helped with wind instruments like the hulusi, Irish whistle and clarinet and sax to some extent. The oud helped with all the plucked instruments like the Portuguese guitar, saz, domra, banjo, etcetera. The violin (kamanjah) helped with all the bowed instruments such as the rababah, cello, double bass and viola.
Although Joseph noticed an improvement in his playing of some instruments as the recording sessions progressed, he asserts that oud will always be his first love. “Oud is very dear to me and I’ll never be done with it. In fact, every time it enters on the recording it makes me appreciate its sound and magic even more. In the words of Miles Davis, you need two lifetimes to master an instrument. I’m still on the first one with the oud.”
Joseph Tawadros has pretty well single-handedly changed perceptions of oud — at least in Australia — by taking the instrument out of its traditional Middle Eastern setting into other realms. “I’m very proud that I’ve been in some part responsible for expanding the oud’s repertoire in other genres, but I think my greatest achievement is the emotional connection I feel with an audience that’s not used to this instrument or culture. That they can see past category and ethnicity and allow themselves to be lost in the music, feel its joys and happiness and that each melody means something to them, as it does to me. This is the greatest part of being a composer, and that’s what keeps my thirst alive. I feel I have some sort of responsibility to people I may not necessarily know.”
WHY WORLD MUSIC?
Given his oft-stated dislike of the moniker ‘world music’ it was a surprise to find that title on the CD cover. Joseph Tawadros explains his rationale thus: “Even though the album is not named after the genre literally, it’s a trip around the world. I believe the tracks encourage a lot of imagery and shift you to parts of the globe. Sometimes the Middle East, sometimes Africa, China, India, Ireland and Spain. There’s a lot of influences here and I thought the title best described the journey.”
The young maestro, who’s only a couple of years the wrong side of 30, says he has learned to live and gradually accept the term ‘world music’ as genre nomenclature. “Every album speaks for itself and it’s a genre that celebrates many great cultures around the world. It’s only problematic when artists from totally different styles are compared to one another due to genre. I’m of the world, I perform in this world and have an audience from different parts of the world … after all, I’ve been nominated a dozen times for Best World Music album at the Aria awards, which is something I’m very proud of. I work with musicians from many different genres. I look beyond their category to what they will bring to the music. I’m aligned to music and dedicated to finding different ways of making it with different people.”
- The above is an extended version of a story on Joseph Tawadros that was published in the May/June print edition of Rhythms.