Born on August 17, 1957, in Beirut, Lebanon. Education: Studied classical flute at the Academy of Music, Munich. Addresses: Record company--Enja Records, P.O. Box 190333 D-80603, Munich, Germany.
Oud player, flutist, and composer Rabih Abou-Khalil introduced the traditional Middle Eastern oud--a fretless, stringed instrument resembling a lute in appearance with a sound similar to an acoustic bass--into Western jazz music. He has popularized the oud through a series of well-regarded jazz recordings, as well as through recorded and performance collaborations with such world music and jazz artists as bassist Glen Moore, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, the Kronos Quartet, saxophonist Sonny Fortune, bassist Steve Swallow, and harmonica player Howard Levy. Abou-Khalil's music blends traditional Middle Eastern styles with Western classical music and the improvisatory approach of Western jazz.
Born on August 17, 1957, Abou-Khalil left his home in Beirut, Lebanon, during the country's civil war in 1978. He had been classically trained in both flute and oud from the age of five, and he chose to study flute at the Academy of Music under professor Walther Theurer when he moved to Munich, Germany. Theurer emphasized an analytical approach to studying Western classical music traditions, an approach that Abou-Khalil subsequently applied to Middle Eastern music. He recorded two albums as a flutist, including a duet album with pianist Michael Armann in 1981, but neither album elicited critical or commercial success.
In 1986 Abou-Khalil resumed playing the oud and formed a touring group with alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, percussionist Glen Velez, and Moore, the bassist from the world-jazz group Oregon. This group, supplemented with Ramesh Shotham on South Indian percussion, Christian Burchard on marimba, and Michael Armann on piano, recorded the 1987 release Between Dusk and Dawn, which also marked Abou-Khalil's debut on the Enja jazz label. In 1989 he released Bukra, which features Moore, Shotham, Fortune, and Velez. He toured two years later with Wheeler, Swallow, and Fortune. In the 1990s he led a group that included Levy, Syrian frame drummer Nabil Khaiat, tuba player Mark Godard, and drummer Mark Nauseef.
In 1992 Abou-Khalil released two albums, Nafas, on the ECM label, and Blue Camel, on the label he recorded for previously and subsequently, Enja. He would become Enja's best-selling artist. Of the two releases, Blue Camel garnered more attention, which may be due to the appearances of Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Swallow on bass, Milton Cardona on congas, Khaiat on frame drums, and Shotham on South Indian drums and percussion. Writing about the album's title track, Kurt Keefner wrote on the Bolero website: "Seductive percussion ushers in Wheeler and Mariano playing in unison a tune that is somewhere between Duke Ellington and the court of Baghdad." The album also features a track titled "Beirut," after Abou-Khalil's boyhood home. The composition begins with a subdued oud solo and climaxes into a cacophony of sound that recalls the civil war that caused Abou-Khalil to leave the city in 1978. In the early 1990s Abou-Khalil fulfilled a commission by Southwest German Radio to compose two pieces that were performed by the Kronos Quartet and recorded by the Belanescu Quartet several years later.
In 1998 Abou-Khalil released his soundtrack to the film Yara, which was directed by Yilmaz Arslan. Writing in the compact disc's liner notes, Harry Lachner commented: "Yara releases itself from its source in the film's continuum of images, similarly to how [Abou-Khalil] himself has abandoned the world of his own musical origins in order to reinvent it in a new and modified form." The soundtrack features a quartet comprising Abou-Khalil, Khaiat, violinist Dominique Pifarely, and cellist Vincent Courtois. Remarking on the music's relationship to the film's visual elements, Lachner noted: "At the same time the music has adopted the film's grammar to such an extent that, with its fascinating interplay of lacunae, rhythm and atmospheric sound, this confluence further intensifies the evocative imagery which has always been a characteristic quality of Abou-Khalil's work." Writing on the RootsWorld website, Rob Seiden characterized the soundtrack: "Overall the modes are distinctly Arabic, due to the percussion and oud melodies, yet the movements of the composition retain a Western form. The songs also sound like Sufi music at times, due to the frame drumming rhythms."
In 2001 Abou-Khalil released The Cactus of Knowledge, which again featured Godard on tuba, Courtois on cello, and Khaiat on frame drums; the recording also featured trumpet players Eddie Allen and Dave Ballou, French horn player Tom Varner, euphonium player Dave Bargeron, saxophonists Antonio Hart and Ellery Eskelin, clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi, and Jarrod Cagwin on drums. While assessing that the album "may not be one of Abou-Khalil's crowning efforts," Claude Lalumiere wrote in the Blue Coupe Magazine website that "it's a fine album, another undeniable testament to the breadth of his musical interests." Lalumiere concluded that The Cactus of Knowledge, "[l]ike all of Abou-Khalil's music, ... ignores and transgresses political, ethnic and geographical boundaries to celebrate a global music that embraces differences by letting them play together."
The variety of styles and influences on The Cactus of Knowledge include Middle Eastern folk and classical music, Klezmer music, Gypsy and Romanian folk music, and modern classical music. Some critics perceived the influence of American jazz composer Charles Mingus in several of the pieces Abou-Khalil wrote for the album. The first track, "The Lewinsky March," drew comparisons to Mingus, gospel music, and the marching-band compositions of American brass-band leader John Philip Sousa. The song, however, features distinctly hard-bop jazz solos by Varner and either Allen or Ballou. Other pieces on the album drew comparisons to the classical- and jazz-styled compositions of American composer Frank Zappa. A critic for JazzReview.com wrote that the song "Got to Go Home" "sounds like Frank Zappa's jazz-oriented writing for large groups, but ... imagine if Zappa had composed The Grand Wazoo or Waka/Jawaka after vacationing in Marrakech with Gil Evans." The JazzReview.com writer concludes: "This is no fluffy 'world beat' disc nor is it some dry, ponderous, overly somber Work of Art that you have to be a music student/snob to appreciate--The Cactus of Knowledge is a riveting listen, stimulating to both mind and heart."
by Bruce Walker
Rabih Abou-Khalil's Career
Recorded Between Dusk and Dawn, 1987; recorded Nafas, 1992; recorded Blue Camel, 1992; performed as representative of Germany in Damascus, 1995; toured United States, 1997; released Cactus of Knowledge, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Between Dusk and Dawn , Enja, 1987; reissued, 1994.
- Bukra , Enja, 1989; reissued, 1994.
- Roots & Sprouts , Enja, 1990; reissued, 1994.
- Al-Jadida , Enja, 1991.
- Blue Camel , Enja, 1992.
- Nafas , ECM, 1992.
- Tarab , Enja, 1994.
- Sultan's Picnic , Enja, 1994.
- Arabian Waltz , Enja, 1996.
- Odd Times , Enja, 1997.
- Yara , Enja, 1999.
- Cactus of Knowledge , Enja, 2001.
- Kernfeld, Barry, editor, New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, volume one, Macmillan, 2002.
- "Blue Camel," Bolero, http://www.bolero.ru/catalog/music/ABC/A/pages/pages-1345473.html (April 30, 2002).
- "Featured Artist: Rabih Abou-Khalil," JazzReview.com, http://www.jazzreview.com/cdreview.cfm?ID=2820 (April 30, 2002).
- "Music with Open Arms," Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/Print/0%2C3858%2C4212232%2c00.html (April 30, 2002).
- "Rabih Abou-Khalil," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 30, 2002).
- "Rabih Abou-Khalil," Enja Records, http://www.enjarecords.com/RAK.htm (April 30, 2002).
- "Rabih Abou-Khalil," RootsWorld, http://www.rootsworld.com/reviews/khalil99.html (April 30, 2002).
- "The Cactus of Knowledge," Blue Coupe Magazine, http://www.bluecoupe.com/avant/cactusenja.html (April 30, 2002).
- Additional information was obtained from the Yara liner notes.