Lunch with Ghassan Bouz

With Ghassan Bouz from Lebanon, I had more than one talk about music and his activity as a percussionist here in Romania. This interview was not a standard one, and the reasons why it was like that are plenty: beginning with my trying to squeeze myself into his busy agenda and ending with finding a (challenging) way to make him say things that usually the readers of an interview or the audiences of a live concert want to know about the musician on the stage. Another reason is that “I don’t want to make it a nice story”, as he told me. Even though, and I’m sure all of you agree, he could make it a pretty nice Lebanese story. Luckily I’m not writing for a glossy magazine, so the following are just interesting short stories and thoughts about this musician.
*Fun fact and insight joke: there are no camels and deserts in Lebanon!  

For Ghassan Bouz the world is small, when talking about playing music. He is based in Romania since 2013, but plays in different countries, with different projects, as a percussionist. From jazz to Ottoman music, usually the sounds of his Arabic instruments, darbuka and bendir, are a quite reminder of how twisted the history is, with one culture’s elements inserted into another. We are talking about the music and instruments of the Arab world, the ones from the Ottoman and Byzantine era, and their interaction in Eastern Europe.  

When talking about what’s more important for a percussionist in a live concert, Ghassan says that “the groove is the number one thing.” Actually, percussion instruments are the oldest musical instruments, this is why you can always find interesting stories about each one of them. Darbuka, for example, is played in the Arab world, in Africa and also in Eastern-Europe.

“Darbuka is what here in manele music they call "tarabana". But they name it wrong. They mean “darbuka”, which is an extremely old Arabic instrument. I began to play it since childhood. During the war, my parents took us from place to place, to the safe zones. One week I stayed at my uncle, another week at my grandma in a village. We were going where the safe zones were. I stayed a long time with my aunt. Her son was a professional percussionist. He used to play with the whole family gathered together and I was always around. Slowly they started teaching me to play, they gave me different instruments to try, and I got stuck in that.

After that, I started alone to study; to do music studies was not an option for me, during the war especially. Professionally I started playing around 18. I mean in gigs, with bands. I tried to learn from great musicians, one of them is a great percussionist Khaled Yassine, well known around Europe; he was a great mentor for me. In Lebanon, I played traditional Arabic music, but I also went to funk, I played Latin music with congas. In order to be able to play a lot in Lebanon,  you have to try different types of music. I also played salsa for example. “

 “When talking about music, the heart is what matters. If the musicians play with their heart, the music is great.”

This was actually a reaction I received from Ghassan when listening to some oriental music that I thought was really good… but it wasn’t apparently :). So starting from this thought, the talk went to comparing manele and Romanian pop music, simply because these two types of music you can hear whenever, wherever in the city. “Manele is a judged style of music. They are not so bad. Technically, this type of music is more complicated than some current pop music. Technically.”

 The jazz public in Romania

“When talking about live music, usually the clubs are full when it comes to cover bands. But I’ve seen a misconception from some people who think that any music that is not rock it’s called jazz. This is not correct. For jazz, there are several festivals in Romania that are full with people; this means the feedback is big. But there’s also a big problem here:  there is no support for this kind of scene, for example support from the government. They don’t invest in music, or in helping the organizers. If somebody brings a musician from outside, nobody will help him pay the costs. If Darius calls somebody from abroad, he’s paying for everything.

Investing in music has a lot of advantages, especially for the people’s education, but nobody is supporting this.  Still, at concerts we are always impressed when we see young generations coming to listen to live music. In general, people are curious and are seeking good live music. That’s impressive about Romanians, they are curious. Look at the Opera, it’s always full, the Philharmonic also. There is an interest in good music. The problem is that if you take all the jazz musicians in Romania, and you compare their work during a whole lifetime , with the one of a pop star, it was much harder for the first ones to succeed.”

Current projects

Anton Pann band - this is the part where the history gets twisted as I said at the beginning. The one where different cultures meet, and where the old Romanian music is revived.

“The first important project I’m involved in, is the Anton Pann ensemble. This is a project for old Romanian music, from the Ottoman era. Some of the music we sing was made by Anton Pann and Dimitrie Cantemir. I’m the latest member of the band, my colleagues are all Romanians. The leader of the band, Constantin Raileanu, has been studied for many years old Romanian music. Before we practice a new song, Constantin always tells us its history.  Actually Cantemir had a lot of influence on Turkish music. The words of his songs are in Romanian, but the music is oriental. You cannot say Ottoman music, without saying Dimitrie Cantemir.

It’s a difficult project. To play Arabic instruments is harder for Romanian musicians, because they have to use microtones, like in case of the oud instrument. It’s something that is not necessarily natural for them to do. This is why everything that is played by us, it has to be studied a lot.

With Anton Pann band I played all over Romania and in the Republic of Moldova also. We played in Chisinau “colinde” with oriental influences. Also we played in Turkey, where we’ll return in December for 3 concerts. "

MecHad, another project in which Ghassan is involved, is a new band made up of Romanian musicians from the Republic of Moldova: Nadia Trohin(voice), Alexandru Arcus( sax, kaval), Dan Brumă(guitar), Liviu Negru (guitar). They define themselves as an industrial-folk-jazz experiment.

“ MecHad is a new project, we just launched it. We did the first gig, as a test, here at Jazz Book in November. We liked it a lot so we decided to stick to this format. The first concert as a band will be on Decembre 20th, in Chisinau.

Besides these two main projects I play with a lot of musicians. I first played with Mihai Iordache, here at Jazz Book. I was also involved in Roots Revival Romania, where I met Alexandru Arcus.  I always try to play as much as I can, with different musicians.

As a musician you always have somebody to learn from, if you ask a seventy years old musician he will tell you the same thing, it’s a constant learning. That’s why going outside your country to play is always good, to interact with other musicians.”

And at the end, instead of a “What do you like about Romania?” question, and an “It’s history and nature” answer, I will just write down something nice that I remembered from one of the talks: “ I judge people by the music they listen to. I cannot become friends with somebody that doesn’t know about Pink Floyd.”


Photo 1: by Stefan Markov/BulFoto (playing a bendir)

Photo 2: by Evgeni Dimitrov/Bulfoto Agency: Ghassan Bouz, Teodora Enache, Daniele Di Bonaventura and Theodosii Spassov at Sofia Music Festival (Bulgaria)

Photo 3: by Iulia Kelt, October Photos

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