Ahmad Al Khatib & Youssef Hbeisch

This album invites us to follow the mysterious paths of the soul, to a place where new impressions are created. Lutenist Ahmad Al Khatib’s deep and complex instrumental work intertwines with Youssef Hbeisch’s percussive virtuosity, offering us a vision of the future of Oriental music. Their music is poetic, sometimes as light as a breeze, sometimes restless and vigorous. It suggests, with great subtlety, a profound knowledge of man’s sentiments, desires, dreams, and nightmares.


1Khudnī macak/Take me along – 7’18
2Sifr El-Khurūj I- Musa/Exode I – Moses – 4’19
3Sifr El-Khurūj II – Kancān/Exode II – Canaan – 1’52
4Sifr El-Khurūj III – Nahrayn/Exode III – Two Rivers – 4’26
5 – Bayyāc El-Ward/The Rose Vendor – 5’46
6 – Li Alix/For Alix – 5’08
7 Maqām li Ghazzā/Maqām for Gaza – 4’39
8 Sabīl/On the Way – 4’39
9 – ꜥOrs/Wedding – 4’37
10 Shadhā/Fragrance – 4’35
11 Ya Halālū yā mālū/Their Palestine – 5’38

Interpreters and instruments

Ahmad Al Khatib (oud)
Youssef Hbeisch (bendir, derbouka, riqq)


Yawn a bed-sized yawn!
And sleep to your heart’s content!
In sleep we are all equal.
A believer prays on thorns,
A rebel courts a cup,
Tearing off the stems of a rose.
In sleep we are all equal,

We are all the same, in hate and affection,  
And when our eyes close,
The colours merge:
One man sleeps in the arms of his lover,
The other sleeps alone,
One man sleeps on ostrich feathers,
The earth consumes the other sleeper, 
In sleep we are all equal.
A poor man flies without wings,
A disc of precious metal glitters on his horizon 
And over his fingers flow his dreams 
Like beads 
Blind, in sleep he walks without his staff 
And a battle begins … and ends without arms. 
In sleep we are all equal.
Yawn a bed-sized yawn!
And sleep to your heart’s content!
For, after your sleep and one day 
Your bed seems less roomy 
And you awaken as the dream ends.

By Ibrahim Al Khatib
Translated from Arabic into French by Nadine Srouji, and from French into English by David and Jon Michaelson

In the empire of sound there is a yearning desire

The ūd player Ahmad Al Khatib and the percussionist Youssef Hbeisch invite us to follow them on a sabīl, a path leading to mysterious lands that create new impressions on the listener. They take us to places filled with desire and nostalgia, which beat deep inside us and constantly draw us towards special worlds in search of new experiences.

Driven by Youssef Hbeisch’s spellbinding and virtuoso percussion and the lyrical depth of the lutenist Ahmad Al Khatib, the duo offers us a promising vision of the future of Oriental music. Their music is poetic and soft like a breeze, and then vigorous and restless. And the album, on which the lute and the percussion seem to enter into a dialogue, captivates the listener from beginning to end.

Using a complex combination of ūd and percussion tonalities, the duo develops a poetic concept devoted to unfulfilled aspirations. The insistent music filters into the innermost depths of the mind and rouses the listener’s emotions, hopes, dreams, and nightmares.

Ahmad Al Khatib and Youssef Hbeisch improvise without using any dramatic device. The joy that flows from their improvisation is always perceptible, invigorating, and stimulating for the listener. With Sabīl, the Palestinian duo combines the characteristic elements of their personal styles to produce a shared and innovative style. Hence, the barrier between the sounds specific to the lute or percussion becomes less marked. It isn’t easy, therefore, to classify their music …

The music encompasses a whole range of colours and different sounds. The artists have succeeded in freeing music from familiar sounds. Their compositions reflect an extensive knowledge of traditional, classical, and contemporary musical forms. But their creations also bring together and contain suggestions of rhythms and melodies from different musical horizons. Tradition and modernity are given equal value: the musicians create contemporary melodies, whose soft and delicate sounds are as compelling as the rhythmical elements. The lute provides the melody while developing its own dynamic: the lute’s melancholic sound drifts in a solitary fashion and is balanced by the sound of the percussions.

The two musicians, who don’t stray from their Oriental musical roots, make a point of simultaneously exploring a range of musical influences to give their work a lasting richness. Ahmad Al Khatib’s and Youssef Hbeisch’s spiritual attachment to Oriental music and their deep knowledge of its subtleties are always evident. They develop an original approach to Near Eastern music, while drawing inspiration from traditional themes and integrating them in their work. Their music is pleasing to the ears. It is unusual and catches our attention. Its essence takes us back to our origins, our roots: it brings tranquillity and takes us away from the tensions and agitation of the modern world. Is this the essence of Oriental wisdom? It speaks to us, touches us, challenges us … and makes us respond to or question it. It tells stories and recounts tales.

In the empire of sound there is a yearning desire. It is not an external world, which needs to be described in order to be understood, but a world into which we penetrate as it contains lost worlds—worlds that we seek and of which we dream. Longing is hidden in these worlds that are controlled by sounds. We can identify with these musical sounds; they move us in a pleasant, almost sensual way.

The music is instantly seductive, so let’s listen to it and be enchanted by its charm!

By Suleman Taufiq
Translated from German into French by Dorothée Engel, and from French into English by David and Jon Michaelson

The Interview

Ahmad, could you tell us a little about the history of Arabic music?
Al-Fārābī wrote that ‘the Arabs derived their music from the Greek and Persian literature they had translated. They added what was necessary to sing in Arabic and, putting their poetry to music, they used rhythmical formulae that no one had ever used before to create melancholy’. As in other artistic and scientific spheres, the Arabs have translated Greek musical theory; they mastered it, and then developed it in a specific direction. And even though Arabic music has developed independently, it has a long history of interaction with musical styles from other regions. The musical syncretism results from the fusion of the various types of music produced by all the people in the Arab-Muslim world, and the cultures with which they had contact: India, the West, etc.

What can you tell us about the ūd?
The ūd is an indispensable and ancient instrument in Islamic music and, since the ninth century, it has greatly influenced the musical traditions of the Mediterranean basin. Unlike other plucked string instruments, its neck has a fretless fingerboard, which allows for greater expression though the use of glissando and vibrato. It also means that the micro-intervals in the Arabic maqām system can be played – this is a central element in music for the ūd. The term maqām (plural maqāmāt) designates a mode and type of melody based on one or more scales, according to a tradition that defines musical phrases, important notes, melodic developments, and modulations. Composition and improvisation are based on this system, which does not include the rhythmic element and can be applied to vocal or instrumental music.

Does Sabīl perpetuate the tradition of classical Arabic music?
Yes and no. In Eastern classical music, one also needs to be a composer, arranger, and improviser, while respecting the limits imposed by tradition. The virtuosity and creativity involved demand great sensitivity. And I have reached a point where I am becoming increasingly attracted to experimental music, which reflects my vision better than classical music. Fārābī wrote that music comes from the human need to express emotions, and that it is one way of finding fulfilment. When I recently reread his famous work, I realised that Sabīl is just one link in Arabic music, and that the various influences and experiments that I am involved with were forged from the ‘melting pot’ of the ūd and Arabic music. So, for me Sabīl is about transmitting emotions and ideas, extending the limits of musical expression, finding new sonorities, colours, and rhythms, and experimenting with new approaches, while staying in touch with my roots. There is always something new to try, something authentic the listener can connect with, and these two aspects need to be ‘bound together’.

Have certain influences or experiments in particular had an impact on you or some of the tracks?
I embrace any source of inspiration or influences. Each event, anecdote, and meeting – not necessarily musical – nourishes my passion and helps me understand the world and myself. I enjoy this constant quest for improvement, and while I am never completely satisfied, I never have any regrets. As for the tracks on this album, some of them have taken years to compose, some just a few days. Each one has its own story: love and exile, nostalgia and hope, anger, empathy, and pain … it’s up to each individual to listen to them and interpret their meaning.

Could you give us a few technical explanations about Sabīl, for those musicians who are unfamiliar with Arabic music?
We’ll take the example of samācī Bayyāc Al-Ward.I began composing this piece just after I arrived in Sweden in 2004. It is the most traditional piece of Arabic music on the album, because it has two characteristics.

The first characteristic is its mode (maqām), which is called Bastanikār: it is part of the Sīkah family, a special set of modes based on quarter-tones. The Bastanikār mode is a combination of the Sīkah (or Segah) trichordas the basis, and the third note as the starting point for the Sābā tetrachord; it influences almost all the other modes in the Sīkah family and others like the hat al Arwāh (Huzām), cIrāq, Mustacār, Mukhālaf, and cAwj, Hijāz, and Bayāti.

Bastanikār is one of those modes that are fast disappearing – they are rarely used because of their complexity. Its interpretation involves many micro-intervals, its musical structure is difficult, and there is an absence of available references. The idea occurred to me while listening to an Egyptian cantor reciting the Qur’an – I found the intonations and melodic structure surprisingly effective. I decided to set myself the challenge of composing an instrumental piece in this mode and introduce every possible modulation.

The second characteristic of this track is the samācī form, which is one of the most common instrumental forms in Near Eastern music. Its cornerstone is a 10/8 rhythmic mode in the first four sections; then, in the final section, the composer is free to be creative and introduce other rhythmic structures. I chose Georgina, a rapid 10/16 rhythmic mode, which is common in Iraqi folk music. And although the samācī has an ABCBDBEB classical form, I broke the rules by passing straight from the fourth section(C) to the fifth (E), without repeating the refrain (B) in between. The fifth section was inspired by a famous Iraqi folk song cAmmī yā bayyāc el-ward by Hdairi Abu Aziz, whose name appears in the title.

How did you meet Youssef?
I met Youssef in 1998, in Jerusalem. I was at a concert he was playing in and I was very impressed: he is a first-class percussionist and a very original musician. It is wonderful to play with him because his creativity and imagination are inspiring. And yet, accompanying an ūd is a tough challenge for any percussionist, because of the intensity of the ornamentation, the complexity of the structures, the rhythmical subdivisions, and the dynamics. Youssef’s success lies in his talent, the delicacy of his playing, and his mastery of highly unusual rhythmical structures. A perfect illustration of this virtuosity can be heard in his composition ‘For Alix’, which manages to transport the listener into a trance-like state.

Youssef, where do you get your love of rhythm?
Maybe it started when I was in my mother’s belly while I was listening to her heartbeats. I know I was very young when I started to pick up on rhythms I heard in everyday life: at the age of five, I was listening to my mother sifting wheat and I used to copy the rhythm of the sounds. And this love of rhythm is still there, because the rhythm binds the piece together, just like a building’s foundations and woodwork, which are invisible but which support the entire structure. When you listen to a piece of music the first thing you hear is the melody; then, as you listen to the rhythm, you realize it changes, and this changing movement generates a tension that increases the dynamics of each musical phrase.

So movement and dynamics are like the beating heart of the music, composed of notes and temporal divisions. I love the abstract nature of these divisions and creating beauty from mathematical abstractions. The invention of various rhythmic units can transform the melody, and I enjoy revealing completely surprising and new elements in the divisions that are created.

Do you think the Western world does not fully appreciate the richness of ‘rhythmical’ musical cultures?
Yes. Eastern music, in particular, places far greater emphasis on rhythm than Western classical music, whose evolution has always focused on harmony. But, harmonic music is based on symmetrical rhythms and has little metric variety.

Can you expand on that?
Eastern composers use a basic melody and invent many rhythmical variations, while Western composers, until recently, invented harmonic variations. Rhythmic ornamentation, therefore, doesn’t suit Western aesthetics, where the notes suffice to create enough tension without needing to augment it with rhythm. In Eastern music, however, the melodies are often short and less harmonic, and produce less tension, leaving more room for rhythm and movement. The percussionist’s role in harmonic music is confined to maintaining basic rhythms, creating a certain atmosphere, or strengthening the dynamics in certain places. The Eastern percussionist, however, has far greater liberty to develop variations and therefore has a greater role in the creative process.

Could you tell us something about the various instruments you use in this album?
The riqqis a small drum on a wooden frame and is about twenty-two centimetres in diameter, and is the ancestor of the simplified version of the tambourine. When struck, the skin produces a dry sound and ten pairs of small cymbals on the side produce a syncopated jingling rhythm. The riqq is widely played in Islamic classical music to create the rhythm and add ornamentation, but it also features in the more rapid, traditional music. It takes great dexterity to play the instrument well.

The darbuka, a single-skinned goblet-shaped drum in the Near East, goes back to ancient Egypt and even in the Sumerian civilisations. Its body, which is traditionally made from clay or copper, forms a resonance box with various sizes of openings. As a rhythmical instrument, it was widely played in folk music and then became a classical instrument. I use it in various ways, to create sounds and colours that match the different types of music.

The bendīr is a drum on a wooden framework, which is at least forty centimetres in diameter: in the Near East, it has neither metal jingles (like the Arab-Andalusian tār), nor strings stretched over the skin (like the North African bendīrs). As well as the standard bendīrs, of varying circumferences, I use a recent variety that can be tuned to the music. The bendīrs are easier to use and less complex than the riqq, and produce generous base notes. In addition to the sounds produced by striking the skin, you can use sliding and sweeping movements on the surface, which creates amazing sound effects. In the piece titled: ‘Wedding’, the role of the bendīr is to accompany the rhythm with lower notes and muffled, full tones. It gives the music depth and balance, and adds a spiritual and meditative note. It is commonly used in Sufi music and is also very appropriate for the samācī form.

Finally, the zarb, (or tombak), comes from Iran. It is a goblet-shaped drum and its skin cannot be adjusted. The techniques for playing it are very elaborate and its wooden body produces a deeper and warmer sound than the darbuka. It features in‘Exode III – Two Rivers’.

What about the concept of rhythm in this album?
In ‘Sabīl’, for example, the music is mainly monodic (even if harmony is not entirely absent). This enables the musician to develop a wide variety of rhythms, even polyrhythms and polymetre. This makes it the most difficult piece to play because of the sheer range of scales, modes, and rhythms.

In ‘Their Palestine’, the percussion instruments play a relatively small role at the outset as they enter into dialogue with the melody; then the second, metric part enables many rhythmical variations, and even to use polyrhythms to give the dynamics even greater intensity. 

I was inspired to compose ‘For Alix’ when I was superposing several rhythms during a musical session with my students. This piece is composed of seven tracks that are superposed during the recording, with each part played on its own instrument.

It begins with a dialogue in unmeasured phrases between two bendīrs with different pitches, until the bendīr with the lowest pitch constructs the first rhythmical line, comprising phrases of seven slow beats. On the second line the bendīr with the higher pitch inserts two phrases of seven beats in each phrase of the first line, which doubles the tempo of the first line.

The third line introduces a new atmosphere with the darbuka. The first few phrases use a polyrhythm of 4 and 3 beats; then the darbuka formulates the new line, in which the tempo of the first line is multiplied fourfold. The riqq on the fourth line also adds to the atmosphere. For a few phrases, it plays in symmetry with the darbuka: this time with 3 and 4 beats. Then it returns to its tempo, but with different, sustained subdivisions.

The fifth line is played by a third bendīr, with a higher pitch than the preceding ones. It follows the same tempo as the third and fourth lines, but with further subdivisions.

In addition to the tension they have created, these five lines have produced dynamics. They form a symmetrical cycle, which is always terminated with a glissando on the bendīr.

The last two lines are played with greater freedom. A riqq (played differently to the previous one) joins in on the sixth line, then on the seventh line enters into dialogue with a darbuka with a higher pitch than the previous one. They improvise with finer subdivisions, and the tempo of the first line now multiplied eightfold. This means that rhythmic phrases of 7 beats (sometimes 4 beats with thedarbuka can be inserted into the phrases in the first line. Then, very briefly, at the end, these two lines change polyrhythmically, which creates a more conventional tension in the movement, although the tension is already high due to the superposition of all these lines. The aim of the piece, therefore, is to create tension without resorting to traditional polyrhythms.

How would you describe your work with Ahmad?
Ahmad has become a close friend and I love working with him in a climate of total confidence, both from the human and professional points of view. The rhythmical accompaniment of his melodies requires a specific approach, so subtly intertwined are the depth of the music and the delicacy of the motifs. The percussionist has to be sensitive and flexible, while remaining free to explore the best avenues, to ensure that the resulting dynamics and expressiveness are homogenous. When the melodies have a strong rhythm, the percussionist’s role is to respond by adding colour and interpreting them in a unique way. The musical interaction during the working sessions fuels each musician’s inspiration. And this mutual fertilization produces solid collective dynamics that serve each piece and music in general.

By Alix du Mesnil, Manager, Tamour Musiques
Translated from French into English by David and Jon Michaelson

  • Reference : 3 149 028 014 228
  • Ean : 794 881 761 326
  • Main artist : Ahmad Al Khatib (أحمد الخطيب) & Youssef Hbeisch (يوسف حبيش)
  • Year of recording : 2011
  • Year of publishing : 2011
  • Music style : Classical instrumental
  • Country : Palestine
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language :
  • Composers : Ahmad Al Khatib ; Youssef Hbeisch
  • Lyricists :
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe