Music Between Cultures

    A Poet among Musicians
    An Interview with Abed Azrié

    The Syrian singer and composer Abed Azrié is blessed with an unforgettable voice. His baritone is expressive and full of emotion and is characterised by an insistent strength. Suleman Taufiq spoke to him about music and poetry.

    The Syrian singer and composer Abed Azrié was born in Aleppo in 1945. ‘I wanted to blend poetry and music,’ he has said. ‘The words were imprisoned on the page; I wanted to liberate them through music.’ This was why he decided to move to Paris in 1967 to study music, where he lives to this day. When he began studying the origins of Arab culture, he came across gems of poetry, some of which were thousands of years old. He succeeded in setting not only ancient texts but also new ones to music in a way that is absolutely unique in the Arab world. His oeuvre now comprises a large number of such texts set to music, both from the old and the new Orient, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh right up to contemporary Arabic poetry.

    Almost magically attracted to the musicality of the Middle East, he sees himself as a person of freedom who helps visionary texts from the Orient to modern existence through his melodies. This is the case with all his work. The French newspaper L’Express once wrote: ‘Don’t ask him what his nationality is. Abed Azrié has spent his entire life liberating himself from such definitions. He is a musician. His scores are his only identity; the texts that he sings are the instruments he uses to search for himself.’

    Abed Azrié is blessed with an unforgettable voice. His baritone is expressive and full of emotion and is characterised by an insistent strength. This emotional intensity is perfect for his preference for music and poetry and their pronounced mystical teachings.

    Suleman Taufiq spoke to him about music and poetry.

    Suleman Taufiq: Abed Azrié, your music is inextricably linked to poetry. There is an almost organic link between poetry and your melodic expression. Are you obsessed with poetry?

    Abed Azrié: I love lyric verse. I grew up in an atmosphere in which I unconsciously had the feeling of wanting to extend the Arabic language. Ever since my childhood I have preferred lyric verse, because I consider poetry and above all poetic language to be a reservoir for the human memory. It is an aesthetic resonant space; there is something melodic about it. I have always worked on material that brings this reservoir together across all the ages.

    Do you mean that you don’t work directly on a text, but on a specific subject?

    Abed Azrié: Yes, because the subject encompasses a period of time that can last a hundred years, sometimes two thousand years. The experience of humanity cannot be covered in a single day or in a journalistic work. It requires a lot of time until it can be expressed comprehensively. I am not working on the musical heritage or on that which is generally called traditional music; I am working on a cultural memory. Memory is timeless. It is not tied to a specific historical phase; it is the expression of a region. This expression always represents the soul of that region. I believe that all regions of the world resemble each other in their expression, but differ from each other in their methods.

    You are not just a singer of poetry, but a singer of language. Would it be correct to say that you are spellbound by the Arabic language?

    Abed Azrié: Language is the font of memory, so to speak, the awareness, and the subconscious. Poetry compresses these parts to form a whole. It is poetry that is best able to endow language with passion. A poet will sometimes express his vast human experience in only ten lines.

    You once said that, for you, the Arabic language is a holy temple. What did you mean by that?

    Abed Azrié: Language encompasses all human experiences. That is what makes it like a temple. However, it is not a place for fear, but a place of joy, concentration, silence, and encounter with others; a place to dance and to celebrate.

    Although you have lived in Europe for a long time, you have not distanced yourself at all from the Arabic language. This is noticeable above all in your perfect singing.

    Abed Azrié: I have never left the Arabic language. When I came to France, I couldn’t speak a word of French. I decided that I would learn to speak French just as well as I speak Arabic. I said to myself: If you live in a country, you have to adapt to that country and become a citizen of that country. But you can continue to live your own inner, spiritual life. You must follow the rules of the society, and one of those rules is the language. I became acquainted with the beauty of language through poetry, both in French and in Arabic.

    What is the difference between the way you compose and the way other Arab musicians compose?

    Abed Azrié: Today there is a misunderstanding when it comes to composing in Arabic: the composers are all doing the same thing. For me, a composer has to understand a lot about the language and must have a perfect understanding of the text he is setting to music because linguistic, human, and atmospheric experiences differ from one another. For me, poetry is always of its time because it expresses a human experience. Humanity’s problems are always the same. Take, for example, the experiences of Gilgamesh, his rebellion against death and the gods. That is a problem that we still have today. Love, hate, weakness ... these are all marvellous human themes. Every poet is of his day, and tries to tackle these themes in his own way. Every musician tries to express them in his own way. The Renaissance musicians in Europe wrote their compositions differently to the musicians of the nineteenth century. We Arabs are still composing in the same way.

    Do you consider rebellion to be aesthetic? Is that why such texts appeal to you?

    Abed Azrié: One day, I saw a play by Racine in Paris. Racine was a court poet, but he also had his own ideas. He noted down these ideas in the margins of his pages, but he could not publish them. The director collected all these notes, which Racine had not published out of fear of the king, and turned them into a play. I love this kind of text in Arabic. I love texts that were not discussed at school and were forbidden because they openly spoke about human freedom, about the freedom of belief and its existence in this world. This great freedom means that a person thinks as an individual and not as part of a society or a clan.

    The German lyricist Jean Paul once said that ‘music is the poetry of the air’. Do you share that opinion? Would you like to write poetry through music?

    Abed Azrié: In the Gospel according to St John it says, ‘In the beginning was the word.’ Other cultures say ‘In the beginning was the sound.’ With music, you can lend great significance to every word in a language. When composing, I try to follow wherever the text leads. I try to find melodies behind the words, the vowels, and the consonants. Composing a musical work means creating new forms. Sometimes you can combine different forms with each other to fit them to a poem that has been written by an old or a new poet.
    The word always has a significance and a symbolic content. Sound has an allegorical meaning. When we combine music and words, we create a specific atmosphere that is timeless and does not have a meaning that can immediately be grasped.

    Before coming to Paris, you were in Beirut, where you made contact with the avant-garde poetry movement, with the group involved in the legendary magazine Shi’r [Poetry]. You were also the first musician to set these texts to music and to perform them. Why did you take on these texts? Weren’t you apprehensive?

    Abed Azrié: I had already encountered this poetry in Aleppo. Back then, it was not easy to find this magazine because it almost belonged in an antiquarian bookshop. When I was in Beirut, I was always waiting for it to be published at the beginning of each month. Other boys my age were reading football magazines, adventure stories, or something about games, while we – a few isolated individuals – were fascinated by this magazine. And we found treasures inside it: conversations about poetry, philosophy, and other intellectual themes. Even then, for me as a young man, these texts were something new. They sought new worlds; they sought an open world, a universal, intellectual world.

    Your most recent work focuses on the poetry of Adonis. In mid-May of this year, your musical adaptations of his poetry were played for the first time at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

    Abed Azrié: The name Adonis was a constant feature of the magazine Shi’r. He was one of the magazine’s founders and often wrote poems and articles for it. Later on, his magazine Mawakif was published.

    I then got to know him personally, in 1968. That was right at the start of my musical development. I set four of his poems to music, made contact with him, and visited him in Lebanon. It was a lovely encounter. I was surprised, in a positive way, by his modesty and the warmth that he exuded. This was how our friendship started.

    Were you attracted to the warmth, but also in particular to the rebellious spirit of Adonis’ texts? 

    Abed Azrié: His poetry knows no fixed boundaries. Adonis rejects all limitations that were previously part of Arab literature. His poems were not formal, like the Arab poetry to which we were introduced at school. The Arabs used to prefer a fixed form, a rhyme, and a steady rhythm. The rhythm used by Adonis was new; it was a free rhythm. The atmosphere in his lyric verse was different too. His humane attitude fascinated me a lot. A work always has a certain aesthetic, but it must also have a humane objective.

    Adonis’s poems are something new in modern Arab poetry. They are not part of the tradition; they are short and, for me, like a cloud passing by. This poetic moment in the poems interests me. Every work of art is a battle against time, against restrictions, against topicality. These poems tell of this struggle. One senses time, which is a constituent part of his poetry. These short poems are the attempt to philosophise about time.

    In 1970 you discovered the Epic of Gilgamesh. You said that you discovered in it something for which you had long been searching. Eventually you wrote your own version in Arabic and created your own music for the Epic of Gilgamesh.What was it about this text that so fascinated you?

    Abed Azrié: I was already living in Paris when I composed the Epic of Gilgamesh. At the time it was very difficult for me to find poetic texts in Arabic in France. I then came across a few lines from this epic. Because I didn’t know who had written them, I thought they came from the pen of a modern poet. The verses were as topical as if they had been written just at that time.

    Then I discovered that these verses were more than four thousand years old. That interested me and I went out and got the entire text in a number of different languages. I was deeply moved by this text. It was undoubtedly a turning point in my life.

    Through these texts I discovered that the history of humanity did not begin with the start of the monotheistic religions. Even before then, the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Pharaonian cultures had brought forth important ideas. All these ideas emerged on the banks of three rivers: the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Tigris. I embarked on an intensive study of this past era.

    The Epic of Gilgamesh is humankind’s most important literary creation and its first ever written literary work. It tells of the fate of humans, not of the gods, as had always been the case in the religious texts. It tells of a man made of flesh and blood, of how he lives and then dies.

    As with all your work, you set the beauty of Arabic poetry to infectious melodies. On your CD devoted to mysticism you set off on a journey through several centuries of medieval Arabic Sufi poetry. What is it about Arabic mysticism that fascinates you?


    Abed Azrié: The poems were written by a number of different poets. They complement each other and all address existential questions: the passion of love, the unity of religions, the unity of existence, the fact that God is present in all three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    For the Sufis, the relationship between humankind and God is a loving relationship, not a question of subjugation. God is present in both spiritual and worldly questions. This intense relationship between God and humankind is also reflected in the relationships between people. This idea of the Sufi poets is wonderful because through it one person can love another, if that person loves God and is not afraid of him.

    All of the poems that you have set to music focus on things that one cannot touch, but which still consume people’s thoughts. Yours too?

    Abed Azrié: I think that since the very beginning of its existence humankind has invented faith, religions, and philosophy because it was unable to reach certain things. Art, music, and poetry were created to express things that one cannot touch. For example, the poet Quais said to his lover Laila: ‘Your love is like water in my hands that trickles away between my fingers.’ Art is like his love for Laila: it exists and plays an important role in your life, but you can’t touch it; you can only feel it.

    You dedicated one CD to the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam. What motivates you to keep launching such comprehensive lyrical projects?

    Abed Azrié: As a child, Omar Khayyam witnessed an invasion that destroyed his city. Maybe it was through these early experiences that he discovered the meaning of the here and now and the transience of things. At the age of thirty, Omar Khayyam was a polymath: he specialised simultaneously in geometry, physics, mathematics, philosophy, and medicine. In the year 1074 – about five hundred years before the Gregorian calendar was introduced in Europe – he reformed the calendar. He was the author of numerous scientific works. For him, there was just this one world, and he wanted to experience it in all its facets, he wanted to inebriate himself with it. In an era dominated by orthodoxy, wine bars were the place where free thinkers and independent men went seeking refuge. Khayyam’s wine is a wine of revolt, a revolt against the institutions, bigotry, and the subjugation of nature. His wine is true and intoxicating; it creates a drunkenness that allows a dream to emerge, a dream that recreates the world.

    For you, cooperation and the blending of various kinds of music from different cultures is an important experience. You recorded your CD Suerte [Fate] with Spanish, Arab, and French musicians. Was that your personal way of dealing with the Arab-Andalusian civilisation?

    Abed Azrié: The texts are nine hundred years old and could be an example of modern-day fusions and encounters between different musicians and cultures. Andalusian poetry, Andalusian art ... this greatest experiment in the history of peoples, in which religions, different kinds of music and cultures bonded with each other is exemplary for me, because I love the blending of cultures and encounters between them. If you love other cultures – and by love here I mean familiarising oneself with the knowledge, poetry, music, and culture of the other – then a real bond is possible.

    You composed this work for the Arabic and Spanish languages. Did you want to blend the two languages?

    Abed Azrié: Something unique happened between these two languages over the course of history. Each language accepted the other. The people who spoke these different languages also accepted each other. They created something new together. For me, the Arab-Andalusian era was like a brief dream that quickly passed by. But this dream became possible, and one could realise it again at any time. This is why I call all moments where people come together and meet in tolerance an Andalusian moment. This is why I had to use two languages and three different ensembles.

    Why three ensembles? The Arabic language needs Arab instruments, the Spanish language needs the guitar and rhythmic clapping. At the same time, however, we all live in France, in Europe. This meant that I also needed the instruments of a chamber music ensemble. I adore chamber music. Two languages, two singers, and three ensembles; for me, it was a little Andalusia that exists only in music.

    One major project was setting to music the Gospel according to St John in Arabic. You performed this oratorio with the choir and an ensemble for traditional music from Damascus, and with the Orchestre des Jeunes de la Méditerranée from France. The premiere took place in May 2009 at the Opera House in Damascus, followed by performances in Fez, Marseille and Nice. Why did you set the Arabic-language version of this work to music?

    Abed Azrié: I wanted to tell this story, the story of a person who was born in the East and now lives in the West. He is recalling his childhood. With this work, I am returning to my childhood, but at the same time making a journey westwards.

    I am working on texts that shaped the culture of the Middle East. The Gospel according to St John is one of these texts. Jesus, man and God in one, emerged from the fertility beliefs of the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Canaanites, and the Phoenicians. With his life, his death, and his resurrection, he is picking up on a very old theme and creating a link to a mythology that is thousands of years old and at home in the entire Mediterranean region. In this way, it is part of the common foundation of this cultural region.

    I myself am not a devout man. However, I did feel the need to put this text on the stage. For me, the characters in this Gospel are normal people. I see them today before me in the faces of the people in the East. I wrote modern music as if the story and the people in the Gospel were alive today.
    Suleman Taufiq
    is originally from Syria, and has lived in Germany since the late 1960s. He is a freelance writer and regularly presents radio programmes on Oriental music for German listeners on Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2011

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