"I just can't play a new instrument," laughs Lebanese-born multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Abaji. "I always fall for the old broken ones. It's like one broken heart speaking to another, and I feel I can transform these old instruments into the sounds I hear in my head." These sounds and the adapted, revived instruments that make them reverberate on Origine Orients (Absilone Music; November 10, 2009), as Abaji reimagines his lost-and-found trans-Mediterranean roots and draws on a wildly inventive "instrumentarium," a deep sense of the global blues, and the five languages and traditions that shaped him.
For the young Abaji, "Everything was music. When I was ten or eleven, I got really involved with sounds. Not just the guitar, but the sounds themselves," the special sonic melting pot of Greek and Turkish his family spoke at home, the Arabic he used in public, and the French he used at school. From a musical familyAbaji's Armenian grandmother played the oud (lute), his great-grandmother the kanun (zither), and his six maternal aunts were all passionate and contentious musiciansAbaji started playing and experimenting on an inexpensive Chinese-built guitar alone in his Beirut bedroom, listening to Cat Stevens, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Dylan while strains of Oum Kaltoum and Turkish music drifted in the window.
However, his musical education began in earnest on his fateful first day in Paris, where he fled when conflict erupted in Lebanon in the mid-1970s. "I was saved from war, but war also saved me," Abaji reflects.
He had lost paradise, the peculiar mix of languages and the dozens of musical styles that echoed on the streets of his native land. It was something the rock-and-blues-loving teenager had never grasped while still at home. Yet at the same time, he realized that music was his calling and began studying percussion with an inspiring Brazilian player, soon moving on to voraciously explore dozens of other instruments. "I went through a whole life of instruments," Abaji muses. "I'm still buying instruments. Sometimes friends tell me, 'Hey, you don't know how to play those instruments Why did you buy them?' My answer: Because I don't know how to play them "
Abaji's passion for instrumentsand he has more than 250stems from his deep desire to take the sounds he began to hear as a young man and turn them into uniquely vibrant, uniquely personal music. As he devoured everything from the bouzouki to the Colombian bamboo saxophone, however, he saw he needed to more than just play them; he had to reinvent them.
"I always have a sound in mind, and one question: How can I bring it to life through an instrument? I had to talk to instrument builders and get them to change things, but I didn't have a dime to my name," Abaji recalls. "I had to find solutions with luthiers that weren't so expensive." This frugality-forced creativity breathed new life into old instruments on their last legs, transforming them into cross-cultural amalgams.
The result: one-of-a-kind hybrids like the resonant sitar-guitar or an invention that appears on Origine Orients, the oud-guitar. "It made perfect sense. I took an old classical guitar headed for the trash, removed the frets so I could play quarter notes, and doubled the nylon strings to have the lute effect," Abaji explains. "It was my first step back into paradise. I'm not Spanish. I'm not Lebanese. I'm a Mediterranean guy whose ancestors traded along the Silk Road, the missing link between the two, and the oud-guitar is my double."
Another missing link unites Abaji's diverse roots and musical visions: "Everything is related to the blues. People say the blues were born in Africa, but really, they appeared when humanity was born." For Abaji, the blues is a worldwide phenomenon, a sonic trade route stretching from Afghanistan to the U.S. "The blues are everywhere: Before America, it came from Africa, but in Africa, it came from the Eastern people who arrived with Islam," he explains. "People talk of the banjo coming from Africa. But before that came the rebab from Afghanistan, the great-grandfather of the banjo."
Abaji has worked to capture his own trans-Mediterranean brand of the blues, not only by creating new instruments, but by developing a unique approach in the studio. For Origine Orients, he decided he needed to record all his songs in a single take playing all the instruments himself, without overdubs. Abaji turned himself into a global one-man-band, in part thanks to the acrobatic aplomb and grace he developed as a tai-chi instructor. He began playing piano with the Colombian sax ("Origine Orients"), or oud-guitar with stomp boxes and rattles ("Min Jouwwa"), singing all the while in a deep voice reminiscent of one of Abaji's favorite folk-blues performers, Greg Brown.
On "Desert to Desert," he recounts, "I had the bouzouki on my lap like a lap steel guitar, with my right hand on the strings. In my left hand was a Balinese bamboo flute I was using as a bottleneck. That meant I could also use it as a flute. And while I'm at it, why not use this as a stick to bang on the daf drum?" Abaji laughs. "After I recorded the track, I thought I was in deep troublethat I'd never be able to reproduce it"
Along with unexpected instruments and intuitive techniques, Abaji also intertwines all the languages that have shaped his life: the Turkish of heated family discussions and secret maternal cursing; the Greek of parties and celebrations; the French and Arabic of everyday life; and finally, the Armenian of Abaji's long-lost roots, a heritage that he was not aware of until his brother did some genealogical digging.
This rediscovered language forms the heart of the album, and the song "Menz Baba" emerged from a bluesy exploration of Armenian's sound and the life of Abaji's Armenian grandfather. "When I started working on this song, I began to write some words in Armenian with help from an Armenian friend," Abaji notes. "Then she taught me some words. I asked for a translation of certain words, choosing words by the way they sing. Because the words sing, not only the voice."
Even after regaining paradise, the search for the ultimate soulful sound and deep link to the past continues for Abaji. "Sometimes you are happy because you think you've got it, that this is just the thing. But you always have to improve. In my head, I'm always searching, opening doors, going left or right. It can be a bit tricky to live with sometimes," Abaji chuckles. "But I made this album exactly the way I wanted it, totally and completely, and hopefully now people can understand my music totally."