Ibrahim Maalouf

Ibrahim Maalouf – A Portrait

Music that knows no borders: the French-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf.

Of all the instruments that found their way from Europe and into the world of Arabic music, the trumpet is perhaps the one with the most fascinating story. However, that story would not be quite as rich were it not for a certain Lebanese musician. Between European classical music, Arabic tradition, French chanson, American jazz and global rock and pop, Ibrahim Maalouf exudes an irresistible cosmopolitan charisma – with the trumpet as the central focus.

Multi-pronged development

You can still find a 20-year-old video on the internet in which the wunderkind belts out a Baroque trumpet concerto with dazzling virtuosity. Ibrahim Maalouf’s musical development was multi-pronged from the very beginning. Born in Beirut in 1980, his childhood – like that of so many Lebanese people – was geographically fractured. Forced to leave their homeland because of the civil war, the family headed for France, where the young exile struck a musical balance between east and west.

Father Nassim had developed a trumpet with four valves back in the 1960s, making it possible to play the Arabic quarter-tone scales. »His great dream was that this trumpet would be used across the entire Arab world«, says Maalouf. »But it was too complex for the manufacturers. To this day, very few instruments of this kind are around, and I am one of the few musicians to continue the tradition.«

Ibrahim Maalouf
Ibrahim Maalouf © Denis Rouvre

A human bridge

However, while Maalouf was growing up with this special instrument, he was also pursuing a career in western music at the Paris Conservatory, and even became a master student to the trumpet legend Maurice André. He was also fascinated by the world of jazz, and could be found performing on the stages of Parisian clubs, in addition to his solo appearances with orchestras. As a young adult, Maalouf already had a sure foothold in numerous musical worlds. »I have the privilege of playing oriental music on an occidental instrument«, he once said as his international career began to take off. »And so I really feel like a human bridge. What’s more, through the constant travelling between Lebanon and France, I can clearly feel both identities in me.«

Ties to his homeland and his relatives there remain strong, and he still feels a deep connection to the world of Arabic music. Maalouf draws his unique musical language from these various strands of his life – which he first presented on an ambitious CD trilogy titled »Diasporas«, »Diachronism« and »Diagnostic« in the years 2007–2011. On his debut with the programmatic title »Diasporas«, he combines electronic beats and the rock and jazz vocabularies with oriental melodies. Through the work, he expresses solidarity with communities living in foreign lands and he uses the sound of an underground train at the beginning of the album as a symbol of global togetherness: »Black people, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Chinese people all travel together here, and I imagine that there is a train that takes passengers from Paris to Beirut in two minutes, and then onwards to Tokyo and New York.«

Ibrahim Maalouf: »Diasporas«

Listen in!

Ibrahim Maalouf
Ibrahim Maalouf Ibrahim Maalouf © Joseph Bagur

The distances bridged on the first record are indeed formidable: a homage to his father Nassim with a quarter-tone wind orchestra is juxtaposed with a respectful bow to Dizzy Gillespie with a version of his classic »A Night in Tunisia«. In the two subsequent albums, »Diachronism« (2009) and »Diagnostic« (2011), Maalouf adds several new elements: he can be heard on the piano for the first time, and he draws inspiration from Balkan fanfares, Brazilian drum orchestras, Cuban salsa ensembles, heavy metal and Michael Jackson. The expressive range unfolds between delicate intros and rocky tempests of sound.

The following year, for his CD »Wind«, Maalouf relied entirely on a jazzy idiom in a quintet line-up, although this too is loaded with oriental elements. The album – a commission for Cinémathèque française – is a soundtrack to René Clair’s silent film »The Prey of the Wind« (1926). In the mysterious and visually stunning story, a pilot is forced to land in a park during a storm, and falls under the spell of the comtesse of the nearby chateau. A golden opportunity for Maalouf to pay musical homage to his idol Miles Davis and his legendary soundtrack to Louis Malle’s »Elevator to the Gallows« (1958). »That is one of the few compositions that very directly ignited my passion for the trumpet«, admits Maalouf.

40 tracks for his 40th birthday

»Wind« turned out to be Maalouf’s first soundtrack of many – and it is also his first time collaborating with the New York drummer Clarence Penn and the Dutch pianist Frank Woeste, both of whom would become long-standing collaborators. Then, on »Illusions« in 2013, he experiments with multiple line-ups and transfers the call & response singing of Arabic song into his sound world as a soloist with other trumpets. And he even employs a choir and an orchestra for the opulent fusion sounds of his »Levantine Symphony« (2018). Maalouf celebrated his 40th birthday in 2020 with the double album »40 Mélodies«, which predominantly features intimate dialogues with a guitar – supplemented with special guest performances ranging from Sting and the bassist Marcus Miller to the Kronos Quartet.

Ibrahim Maalouf: »Beirut« (40 Melodies)

Just two years later and his discography already includes two additional ground-breaking albums, »First Noel« (2021) and »Capacity to Love« (2022). Each new track shows once more Ibrahim Maalouf’s absolute openness: there are no dividing lines – be that in terms of style, history or gender – anywhere to be seen.


Text: Stefan Franzen, Date: February 2023
Translation: Seiriol Dafydd

Mediatheque : More stories

Play Video

: Elbphilharmonie Sessions: Lakecia Benjamin

The celebrated jazz saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin brings her single »New Mornings« to the Grand Hall.

Play Video

: Rebecca Saunders – A Portrait

On a perpetual expedition into the unknown, with an unmistakeable signature – a portrait of one of the most successful composers of our time.

War and peace in music

How does music speak about war? And what does peace sound like? An essay.