Mazen Kerbaj - A Radical Edge

Mazen Kerbaj - A Radical Edge

April 11, 2016

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Dragoș Rusu

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Mazen Kerbaj is a Lebanese writer, illustrator and musician who has helped break new ground in Beirut's free improvisation and experimental music scenes.

Since 2000, he has played in solo and group performances in the Middle East, Europe, Canada and the USA. He has performed with many musicians, some more frequently than others, including: Sharif Sehnaoui, Raed Yassin, Franz Hautzinger, AMM, Alan Bishop, Bill Nace, Burkhard Beins, Michael Vorfeld, Lê Quan Ninh, Mats Gustaffson, Pauline Oliveros, Sam Shalabi, The Scrambled Eggs, Guillermo Gregorio, Gene Coleman, Michael Zerang, Jim Baker, Mike Cooper, Michael Bullock, Vic Rawlings, David Stäckenas, Martin Küchen, Axel Dörner, Ricardo Arias, Jason Khan, The Ex, Thomas Lehn, Joe McPhee, Jean-François Pauvros, Bob Ostertag, Raymond Boni, John Butcher, Conrad Bauer, Tony Buck, Magda Mayas, Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, Greg Kelley.

We met Mazen in Berlin, during the CTM 2016 Festival. This interview was made in two parts: first part in Berlin, in Mazen's apartment, and second part via Skype, one month after.

Hello Mazen. I think we can start by asking why you are in Berlin? I heard you have an artist residency.

Mazen Kerbaj: Yes, I have a 1-year residency from DAAD. I am here as a musician, because as you might know, I am also a graphic / visual artist. So mainly I am here in a music residency; they gave me this very nice house, as you can see. I actually moved here with my whole family, and it’s one year where I present some projects that I want to do here, part of my application. Then you can work on anything you want, it’s really free, as how to give the money to the artist or how to help the artist. It’s very open; I am not obliged to finish something and to give it back, or something. I am really free to do whatever I want.

You come from Beirut. How did you see Berlin at first? Now that you are staying here, you probably see the city differently than a tourist.

MK: I travelled many times to Berlin, but always as a tourist… for a week or something. And all my life I lived in Beirut. Of course I travelled for a month or two for residencies, sometimes, but I never lived outside of Beirut…for 40 years I was there. Berlin is super, especially when you’re not a tourist anymore. You see…there are up to 7 concerts every night, it’s really crazy! And each one of them involves very good musicians. So it’s really great energy for the arts. There are exhibitions, there are many things happening all the time and there are many musicians that you can play with, or collaborate with. It’s like the opposite of Beirut. The scene is very small there, we all know each other and you are very limited in terms of who you can play with, where you can play and when you can play; if you play once or twice, or three times in a year, you would feel very happy. In Berlin I can play up to 7 concerts in a month, sometimes. And each time there is a minimum audience that comes at the concert. It’s really amazing how rich the cultural scene is here.

How do you see and perceive Berlin from the perspective of a person who grew up in a war zone?

MK: Not just a war zone, because Beirut was also cut between East and West.

But Berlin managed to rebuild everything culturally very fast. For some good years it has a lot of substance. So, even if we’re talking about two totally different world - Berlin and Beirut - do you think this can be like an example of good practice?

MK: It’s very nice to see how Berlin managed to do that, but unfortunately I believe that this cannot be achieved in Beirut, because we are very resilient people and with no memory. We try to forget. So they rebuilt very quickly in Beirut, but with a lack of memory of what has happened. They rebuilt to not see what has happened instead of rebuilding and trying to remember what happened. So it doesn’t happen again. In Berlin it’s super because you still see the war stigmata and you still know that people that are living here recognize what happened. The city itself recognizes what happened.

It is aware of its culture.

MK: Yeah, and this is very important. Nowadays, here it’s typical for a city like NY, maybe like in the ‘60s or ‘70s, when it was still cheap. It was pretty cheap here, because it was underpopulated. So many artists came here and then that’s how it goes. Where the artists go, the art goes, the audience goes, and then the people who would gentrify the city would come. Now, Berlin is not very expensive, but more expensive than before, according to people who live here for 10 years. I don’t know how long this will go on. Of course, for some years. But maybe in the long run, artists will not be able to make a living here, so I am glad that I am at least catching this energy that is really very present in the city.

In this music you are usually more interested in the process of doing music rather than the final result. There’s a communion with the other musicians and the audience and the place. This is what is important in this kind of music.
Mazen Kerbaj - by Sebastian Apostol
Mazen Kerbaj - by Sebastian Apostol

The Trumpet

So, sliding back into your past, you started by playing trumpet. But you soon switched to a self approached way of playing.

MK: I took 7 or 8 private lessons. When I started playing, it was really almost like a joke. Together with friend and collaborator Sharif Sehnaoui, we used to listen to a lot of music and at the time we were discovering free jazz and improv - mostly free jazz before improv. He used to play guitar when he was younger, like rock guitar, and then he decided to go back to study jazz guitar to play again. He had a trumpet that he received as a gift. So he once told me ‘I have a trumpet, do you want it?’ I said ‘sure’. It really started as a kind of joke, I never thought of becoming a musician until then. After that I took these lessons and I argued a lot with the teacher about what is music and what isn’t, etc. He was a very nice old jazz teacher, totally traditional, and for him, music stopped there. Even Miles Davis would sound… Anyway, I wasn’t interested in Miles Davis either.

How did you get to free-jazz?

MK: I would say through Coltrane (his last years) and Pharoah Sanders and these people. Then there were also Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy, people starting free jazz, and then of course, the rest, like Archie Shepp and the ECM and all these things. But that’s how I discovered the European counterpart, like Peter Brotzmann or Evan Parker, and then of course, improv. But even free jazz, I would say maybe I arrived to it from ECM jazz; and then I arrived to improv and sold all my ECM, at some point (laughs). It’s really interesting to see how you arrive from something that you don’t like anymore afterwards, but it brought you here in the first place.

Mazen Kerbaj - by Sebastian Apostol
Mazen Kerbaj - by Sebastian Apostol

Irtijal festival

You also started an improvised music festival in Beirut, Irtijal. How did the public or authorities perceive the festival at that time?

MK: When we started this, Beirut was a desert for this kind of music. It was nothing. Not a gig. The closest to free jazz would be some sax player who would play some harsh notes or in a fusion band or something. So it did not really exist; not to mention improv. So when we started playing, after a couple of years we thought that we should try to do a concert. We did this first concert, 25 people were there and maybe 3 or 4 stayed until the end. Some of them stayed just to tell us that what we’re doing is shit. So it was really difficult in the beginning. But we were dedicated, we didn’t care, we said ‘ok, we know what we’re doing’.

But there was a follow up.

MK: The problem was that Sharif, my partner, and Christine Abdelnour were living in Paris. They would come to Beirut, we would do a gig in the summer or something, and then they would go back to Paris. And I would be left alone; I had no partner to play with. So I tried to play solo. I played in a theater festival, people were laughing like they were seeing a Walt Disney movie or something. They weren’t laughing at me; somehow, they were laughing thinking that I am trying to be funny. Not laughing at me because I don’t know how to play notes, they thought that my thing was comedy or something. I remember this solo was really awkward.

So how did this change, during the years?

MK: Little by little. Some people would get interested in this kind of music, and others began to join us… musicians like Raed Yassin, coming from a contemporary classical background. He used to study bass and then he heard one track I recorded for a compilation. And one day he asked me ‘Are you Mazen Kerbaj?’, I said ‘Yes’, he said ‘Did you record this track?’ I thought ‘Fuck, this again, another person who is gonna say, oh, you are the one who did this track… it’s shit’. I said ‘Yeah, I am the guy’, and he said ‘I am Raed Yassin, I want to play music with you’. And this is how we met.

So little by little some bridges were made with other musicians and also, little by little, those friends brought some other friends, and people began to be interested in what we were doing. They were curious, like ‘why the fuck do you play like this?’ or ‘what’s that’? Or sometimes people were saying ‘you invented a new music!’ because it was so new. Of course you had to say ‘no, it has a history of its own, it did not come from nowhere’. But back then, this was very important for us. So all of this brought me to the festival and the label. It was very important for us to make a festival, first - of course, to make a platform where a scene could develop and other people could gather and play, and mostly to bring foreign musicians… musicians who have been doing this for a while, to legitimize this music, like it’s not some crazy Lebanese that invented it. No, it’s something that has been happening for a long time; when you bring somebody like Peter Brotzmann to play, and it’s all this beautiful energy, seeing this guy from the 70s performing, this makes a difference; you respect what he’s doing. It’s good to bring this kind of acts and present them to the Lebanese people and to bring international acts and, most importantly, to give a chance to Lebanese musicians to play improvised music with international and well-known or well-trained musicians.

So, little by little, there was the process of educating the audience, bringing good things and showing the variety of these things and trying to educate us as musicians. Trying to confront as much as possible and to put ourselves in very dangerous positions. It was a real challenge for us to say ‘ok, we are at the level where we could play a gig with a guy we admire.’ Since there is no trained audience and there is no history of this, you have to be very harsh with your own self or your own playing. You cannot say ‘oh, that’s great, I invented new sounds’. No, you have to be strict with yourself and your other partners to really get somewhere. Also, it’s very important that, at some point, you leave the country. What you are doing is great, but of course, you have to be good enough to, at some point, be noticed outside, because without traveling and doing what we do, we cannot live with music. So we have to play gigs. So the second step, after the festival, was a label.

We did the label and sold mostly online. Luckily, when we started, the Internet was already here; it was 2003. Before, it was mostly selling CDs after our gigs. Now it’s becoming a bit more difficult to run a label, because people buy less CDs. They buy more LPs now.

Looking back at the previous editions of the IRTIJAL festival, what do you think this edition brings new to the table for the festival? Or how does it continue the main idea that you started with?

MK: Well, all editions somehow continue the same idea but also bring something new. I mean, during this year’s edition at least, there is a big focus on the city of Berlin since I am here, and Rabih Beaini is living here, so we both proposed the kind of Berlin based musician program. This explains why I did this poster. And yeah, there is a lively scene of improv and experimental music that will be in Lebanon, so we’re looking forward to that and, like the last 4 years or even more, you will see that Irtijal continues to be open not just to improv and free jazz but to new music, to rock and drone music, to all kinds of experimental, or, let’s say, different music that does not fit the normal circuit.

BS*: When choosing musicians for the festival and deciding the combinations of players, do you go see them play live many times before? Do you also do first time combinations?

MK: We try as much as possible not to do first time combination, because we have this idea that Irtijal is only once a year, and there is nothing else like this happening all year long, so we really need to present the best possible groups to the Lebanese audience. We prefer not to take a lot of risks and have some good gigs. We prefer that each musician play once, but in a group that he wants to play in. Back at the beginning of the festival, we would bring very few musicians, maybe 2 or 3, and then we would make them play with everybody, so they would play 4 gigs each. Now we prefer to really concentrate on working groups, because we think it’s usually better. Not always, of course, some first meetings are great. It’s interesting to present working groups that have been playing like this for a while already to the Lebanese audience, which really gives the best idea of what improv or, let’s say, experimental music is.

Mazen Kerbaj - by Sebastian Apostol
Mazen Kerbaj - by Sebastian Apostol

Free in free improv

BS: Yeah. They have a lot of private experimentation at home with these. What does the free in free improv mean to you?

MK: Well, the term “free improv” is kind of funny. Words for music are always kind of funny so I don’t know what it means. Of course, there is free non-idiomatic improvisation. This would be more precise, but uglier than the first word so I don’t really know what to use. And for me, “free” means, of course, non-idiomatic, which means (in music) not following any idioms, like melody or rhythm or harmony or counterpoint. Of course, it could use them, but it’s not based on them, so you could use the rhythm or melody in improvisation whenever you want, but this does not judge the music.

Another important thing about free, I think it’s the music that’s free from any clear background or culture. So it’s not rooted anywhere. It’s free from all attaches. It’s not like jazz that is rooted in the American black community. Of course, you could be not black and not American and play great jazz. But still, jazz is rooted somewhere. Same thing goes for Indian music, or Arabic music, or any music for that matter. And free improv is mainly the only music that is free from these attaches. So, I could take it and make it totally my own in Lebanon, as much as an Indonesian guy could do it in Jakarta. And we could meet with a guy coming from Cote D’Ivoire and another one from America, and the four of us can play music that resembles us as musicians, rather than resembles any of our cultural background or musical background, for that matter. So it’s really music that could be appropriated by anybody, anywhere in the world, at any time. This is also what makes it free. It’s not only free from the form, but it’s free from the cultural background, or from the tradition behind it.

BS: I’ve seen a lot of people playing by just applying the concept; it’s like they think it’s enough to stop following the traditions and constraints. But by trying to play anything other than that, they’re still tied to these traditions, right? They don’t do much building, much construction in the playing…

MK: Yes. This depends. You cannot talk about this in terms of “is it good or bad” or by abstraction, “who are these players and what are they doing”, but in essence we all refer to a tradition. Of course, in my playing I would often refer to playing that would remind you of Evan Parker, let’s say. He is a very free musician but, for us, improv musicians, it becomes a tradition also, like AMM music or Peter Brotzmann, who became a tradition themselves, you know? So you would refer to them and say “oh, Mats Gustafson is a very loud sax player, he is even louder than Peter Brotzmann” because Peter Brotzmann is kind of a reference in loud improv / free jazz, you know…

BS: Can you tell us some of the formative experiences that made you get to this mindset?

MK: Well, I wasn’t a musician before listening to free jazz and improv. Somehow, I led myself here consciously, like when I took the trumpet that Sharif gave me. Back then I was already heavily listening to free jazz. So when I picked up the trumpet, I wanted to play that, which is what I’m playing today. I mean, it’s probably not what I’m playing, because the language develops afterwards with your own capacities, but I wanted to play free. I never wanted to learn the proper way to play the instrument. And I still don’t. Of course, I can play the tones, but I don’t know the names of the notes. Not only can I not read them, but also I don’t even know their fucking names. And I’m not interested in knowing that. It doesn’t mean I don’t listen to notated music or melodic music. I listen to all kinds of music. I listen to good music, I would say, the genres could range from French singer/songwriter, to Indonesian free-jazz, with everything in between, to Arabic classic pop music, etc. Whenever it’s well crafted and well done, I like it. But me, as a player, I am not interested in playing this. I like this idea, to be able to appropriate music and to create a very personal language that resembles no other. Of course it resembles some sounds that are common to many other musicians, trumpet players, sax players or even percussionists, but the language is very important. Each of us really invents his own. We have to invent our own. And this is what interests me. And the process of putting all these people together, with this very strong language is pretty interesting, but they have to abandon their ego somehow, because it’s the music that is the leader of the group and not one of the musicians. So it’s highly individual musicians who are trying to show as less as possible how highly individual they are. Because they have to really make the music work, and I think this is super. And I would say something that many other fellow improvisers say, which is that in this music you are usually more interested in the process of doing music rather than the final result. There’s a communion with the other musicians and the audience and the place. This is what is important in this kind of music.

Mazen Kerbaj - by Sebastian Apostol
Mazen Kerbaj - by Sebastian Apostol

Comics and time passing

Let’s talk a bit about your drawings. I read that you actually started with the drawings, and that they are not really connected, the music and the drawings… and I wanted to ask how you got to this in the first place?

MK: Well, as long as I can remember I always drew. When I was 3 years old I began to draw and I never stopped. Starting very early on, it meant that for a long time I wanted to draw, I wanted to make comic books but I had to teach myself the right way of drawing, so for years I learned how to draw perspective, how to draw shadows, symmetrical eyes and all kind of shit that I don’t do anymore. So I learned drawing the proper way, if you will. But then, when I grew up, I discovered free jazz and then all kinds of different things… in comics, or in music, or in movies, or in literature. When I discovered all these different ways of doing things, I decided to try to find different ways of doing comics, to not only teach myself the music that I wanted to play, but also to change my way of seeing comics, and trying to forget the reflex that I developed during the years and become what I am today.

I was really not searching for virtuosity anymore, or to demonstrate that I can draw very well, but rather put my capacities in the service of new ways to tell stories, which is what comics are for, so it’s really to challenge the form and the preconceived ideas of how it should be and how I learned it had to be. In this sense, there is a big influence of my music in my drawing, but at the same time, there is no clear relationship between my music and my drawing. There is a big mutual influence of my music making on my comic book making and vice versa but I cannot feel that they are connected unless in projects where I play live with Sharif, but this is not comic books anymore. That’s the only time when I am drawing something live but it’s not connected to my music practice.

Do you also write?

MK: I don’t do literature or something like that, but of course I write all my scenarios, so I also write, yeah.

Do you plan on doing a theatre play or something like that? Or just stick to comics?

MK: It depends on the projects that come. I mean, of course, I wouldn’t say that I want to do a theatre play, but because it costs so much, two years will have to pass for me to get the money to begin to do this. But if somebody would ask me to work on something like this, it might be possible. It depends on the projects that are proposed to you. I also like to work a lot in music and comics and visual arts because I know what I’m doing. I don’t think I’m the kind of guy who could easily write something that other people would use and put something together around. I’m not good, in the sense that I need to know what’s happening, I need to know how the final thing will evolve. I’m not a writer for somebody else. I’m never writing in a vacuum, you know. Like, I write something and then another comic artist or director or whatever can adapt it, because I feel it’s very connected to my being. When I write, it’s connected with how it will look at the end. Sometimes I could say, “yeah, I would like to make a short movie”, but for that I have to be the director so I have to teach myself how to do it properly. And since I like to do things with a radical edge, I like to push them very far in my art making, or at least in the forms I use it. I wouldn’t like to do a bad movie or an average movie, I should really try to do a very good movie and I think I don’t have the capacity or the know-how to do that, so I pass on this one. I hope I’ll have three or four years at some point to teach myself how to make a proper movie.

What do your comics reflect? Is it just reality or does it also contain things from your own universe, from your own mind?

MK: Well, it’s really a very, very wide array of things. I’m not a one-subject person or something like this. There are always some things that come back. Of course, most of the time it is related to myself, so there’s a lot of autobiography. It’s not autobiography actually, it’s things related to me as a person, and to what I live and to where I live etc. I would say that one of the biggest things that is underlying any of my comics might be time passing by. So this is really something that I am very interested in, and I think you can feel it in all of my comics. So it’s time passing by in the story, or time passing by in the form itself. How time passes between one frame and the other one and between a page and the next one. I mean, these two big questions are somewhere behind anything I do, but sometimes they become the subject itself, on rare occasions.

BS: Do you think time is linear or cyclical?

MK: (laughs) We need 5 more hours on another day for that. That’s a good question. I just think that time stays and we pass by, if you want.

BS: But who knows, maybe we come back in another form.

MK: Yeah, yeah... But that’s more than a 5 hours discussion. Of course, of course, we just need centuries to know, who knows…

BS: Do you also collect comics?

MK: Yes. I have a big collection in Beirut. Almost 4000 comics. Ever since I was a kid, whenever I had money, I would buy comics. It’s one of my passions, really. Let’s say, reading is a big, big passion. Besides eating and making love, maybe before eating, and sometimes even before making love, reading is my preferred activity on this goddamn earth.

Who are your favorite comic books writers?

MK: I have no clue. It’s hard to name one.

Not necessarily one.

MK: One of my all-time favorite artists is Alberto Breccia. There is another guy called Daniel Goossens, that is incredible. There is a new generation doing some very interesting stuff: Dominique Goblet is a very good Belgian artist. French Patrice Kiloffer, American Daniel Clowes or Chris Ware and some incredible talented old people, like this Alberto Breccia.

*Skype interventions by Bogdan Scoromide

About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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