So Buzuq

So Buzuq


Issa’s recent musical creations give a whole new dimension to Kurdish music, when his compositions and arrangements combine his unique expression with those from other horizons, other musical languages. He has developed these convergences with several musical genres – from flamenco to jazz – , by choosing musicians who are also interested in developing new musical languages. Improvisation, which is still a vital part of this musical genre, stimulates their capacity to explore new forms. Their convergence creates new areas of exploration for musicians and new musical emotions for listeners. In this album, Issa expresses a personal universe, which reveals his talent, who he is, what he likes, and what he discovers every day.


1 – The Vestiges of the Past – 6’09
2 – Nubian Steps – 5’30
3 – The Fable of the Steppes – 5’55
4 – The 7-Beat Dance – 3’43
5 – Bécon les Bruyères – 5’18
6 – Kromatiko – 5’18
7 – 7-Beat Cadence – 6’16
8 – That’s The Way It Is – 8’38
9 – Nocturnal Silence – 6’21

Interpreters and instruments

Issa Hassan (buzuq, saz, cümbüs)
Elie Maalouf (piano)
Emek Evci (cello)
Youssef Hbeisch (percussion, cymbals)


Issa’s paradox

It is paradoxical that although Issa has never set foot in Kurdistan, he is one of the most imaginative musicians on the Kurdish music scene. Issa’s love of musical evenings comes from his childhood in Lebanon when his family would invite visiting musicians and singers into their home in the evenings. This tradition is rooted in the family’s Omeri origins, a Kurdish tribe that is famous for its musicians and dancers, who are often compared to gypsies. This daily immersion in Kurdish culture, in which the mother tongue was combined with music, cuisine, and Kurdish dress in a multi-ethnic Middle-East, has had a profound influence on Issa’s personality. Music is omnipresent as a tradition and a remedy for a succession of exiles: Issa’s grandparents left Turkey to live in Lebanon as exiles, and when Issa was young, he was sent to live in safety in France away from the war in Lebanon. So Issa has also experienced exile, being separated from his family, and being deprived of his childhood experiences, and the tastes, smells, and sounds that become such an essential part of everyone’s memory. Although Issa is clearly influenced by the resonance of this very specific Kurdish culture, he is not the type to indulge in nostalgia or dreaming about a distant country: he shares his innermost thoughts and feelings. He also likes to meet other musicians with multicultural backgrounds.

Early and contemporary Kurdish music

Like its many other oriental cousins, authentic Kurdish music was for a long time unrecognized and underestimated. This has been exacerbated by the fact that since the 1980s, it has often been used as a musical accompaniment to the vocals of politically committed singers, and has subsequently and inevitably been distorted through its use in commercial music. More recently, there has been a revival of Kurdish music through the publication of selected pieces, some of which were chosen on the advice of Issa, who spent several years working in the audio archives at the Kurdish Institute of Paris. This work enabled him to discover some forgotten jewels, which he has made it his duty – and vocation – to reinterpret by ‘revamping’ the accents of the past, in order to revive them as one might wake a sleeping beauty, so that her beauty can be restored. Hence, although certain Kurds know very little about their music apart from the collective dance music commonly played in marriages, Issa has a wide knowledge of the repertoire. He is already exploring – indeed shaping – tomorrow’s Kurdish music.

Issa’s music tomorrow

Issa’s recent musical creations give a whole new dimension to Kurdish music, when his compositions and arrangements combine his unique expression with those from other horizons, other musical languages. He has developed these convergences with several musical genres – from flamenco to jazz – , by choosing musicians who are also interested in developing new musical forms. Improvisation, which is still a vital part of these musical forms, is very important, as it facilitates communication between musicians. It stimulates their capacity to explore new musical forms together. Their convergence creates new areas of exploration for musicians and new musical emotions for listeners. A sort of multi-layered ‘Kurdish, Parisian, and Lebanese’ musical ‘dish’, this unique musical taste is savoured by simultaneously consuming all the ingredients of the musical delight …

In this album, Issa expresses a personal universe, which reveals his talent, who he is, what he likes, and what he discovers every day. His creativity has even been recognized and appraised by famous artists. Hence, during a chance (and lucky) encounter on stage at the Arab World Institute in June 2011, Naseer Shamma (a famous Iraqi ūd player) and Issa played together in a jam session, which left the audience wanting more; and this was the first time they had played together.

Interview with Haroun Teboul

Your buzuq playing is modelled on Kurdish music, but your music evolves. So what are the Kurdish elements in your music, and do you want listeners to continue discerning something that is specifically Kurdish, or even oriental?
There are several aspects that are always combined … (laughs). Playing the buzuq is somewhat Kurdish, and the melodies that I compose belong to the maqām system (Middle-Eastern musical modes), but retain an obvious Kurdish influence. At the same time, there’s more to this new music than that: I have sometimes noticed that some listeners discerned operetta melodies in one of my pieces, while others were convinced (!) it was jazz, ‘played’ on an oriental instrument. Each listener judges the music on the basis of his/her musical culture, and doesn’t always hear the same thing as the next person. So I know that my music is Kurdish music that converges with other forms of music. And if people appreciate my music for another reason, in the purest sense of the term, I have no objection to that!

Your music belongs to the evolutionary movement of ‘world music’ of the last twenty-five years, which integrates various elements of ‘sono mondiale’ (world music), but what is your approach to composition? And how much improvisation is there?
I think that a composition always – and quite simply – begins with an idea of the melody. It would seem to me that composition consists of establishing a melody that comes into my head. But improvisation is more about allowing the melodies to develop without establishing them … and sometimes I even enjoy distorting or drawing them out … . For me, the two forms are self-evident and each one has its place. But I don’t pick up my instrument specifically in order to compose, because it’s actually never far away from me. Often new melodies come to me when I’m not focusing on my music: when I’m talking to my children or when I’m thinking of something else. A phrase comes automatically, and I notice it, because its sound draws my attention. I use this initial phrase to develop the next part in the piece … Sometimes, a phrase comes to me without a rhythm, it’s just a melody, but I sense that it will work well with a certain rhythm, or the beginning of the melody set to a rhythm, and the end with another rhythm. The music develops in a progressive way. And when I conceive the general structure of a piece, I almost always reserve a part for improvisation, for me or the other musicians. Surprisingly, creating melodies is quite an intuitive process, because you can immediately tell which melodies can become the basis for a piece and which ones will be improvisational elements, which will – or won’t – be used on stage or in the studio.

So you’re saying that things can change right up until the last moment, even when you’re recording an album in the studio?
Of course! I told you that I compose my music in quite a spontaneous way, and that I then conceive the structure of the pieces, the breathing spaces, the speed at which I play each piece, and then the appropriate instruments and musicians. The other musicians subsequently contribute their ideas, and give their opinions on the mood of the pieces. Each musician contributes their creativity. It’s Issa’s idea of a ‘musical democracy’. My music is all about convergences, so it’s entirely normal and obvious that other musicians can contribute. So, effectively, new ideas can emerge in the studio, and we put the finishing touches to all the ideas right up until the last moment.

That prompts me to ask you about your musical training, because paradoxically, you need a solid musical background to be able to develop your music in such an open and unrestrained way!
I initially listened to a lot of music with my family, and then on my own: old recordings on cassettes, LPs, and of course the discs in the archives. I’ve met musicians in the East and Europe, and I have played with some of the musicians, such as Sivan Perwer (pronounced ‘shi-van’), the first Kurdish singer to become internationally famous. I began this journey at quite a young age; the backstages of festivals can sometimes be wonderful improvised conservatoires! I haven’t had any academic training, because there was no conservatoire of Kurdish music, as the Kurds don’t have a country of their own. So I progressed through a succession of encounters with various musicians. To sum up, I think I had quite a ‘passionate’ training! But traditional musicians have always trained like that. They often took an interest in a famous musician and then in another, when they’d heard about his reputation. This is how many of them have memorized impressive repertoires.

I’m not particularly anxious about how things can change right up until the actual recording (and sometimes even afterwards), because I learned to play music with a significant improvisational component, and it has prepared me to accept input from the other musicians. And, because I want to hear what they have to contribute, I like to listen to them playing my music! I know the musicians who play on this album very well and because I’ve already played with them everything is much easier. I know exactly what they are capable of contributing to the final result.

When I listened to this recording, I realized that each musician brought their personal contribution – their own style and culture – rather than placing an accent on ‘oriental’ music.

In the studio, we sometimes lower the volume of the buzuq right down: this leaves flamenco accompanied by percussion. Then, with the guitar volume down and the buzuq back up, the sound is like Kurdish music! As you can see, no one has altered, adapted, or artificially modified their playing to create a deliberately ‘oriental’ sound!

But the mix of styles produces its own sonority and atmosphere, so how is it all coordinated?
I believe that you have to take a bold approach and we rack our brains to make sure the music works! But it doesn’t mean that I’m going to water down my melodies to make them easier. And I wouldn’t expect Manuel Delgado, Elie Maalouf, and Emek Evci to play simple ‘arabesques’ on their instruments. On the contrary, I like their special way of creating surprising developments in the original musical theme on the flamenco guitar, piano, and double bass. I know that as far as they are concerned, they will do their very best to reproduce the melodies I composed at the outset. And most of the time, if they are played on many instruments, the melodies sound very different than when I play them alone on the buzuq.

Actually, that’s exactly what I’m looking for, and I like these convergences! In fact, the musicians draw on their own musical cultures, which converges with my melodies (they practically provide the foundation for our music), but what is remarkable, is that out of numerous possibilities, they manage to select the ingredients that contribute to the specific flavour of the ensemble. The result is a ‘composite’ music. This is the natural evolution for traditional music in our era. What takes the music beyond its traditional dimension is, of course, the introduction of harmonization and instruments that are outside its normal frame of reference; and it’s also – and perhaps above all – a new way of sharing musical pleasure. This pleasure is quite novel, because the ingredients in this music have never been combined in the past.

Can you tell us about the pieces?

In The Vestiges of the Past there is a sort of melodic strangeness and the melancholy associated with memories. I feel that this is like a piece of film music. The notes seem to soar in a scene where the main character is returning to his childhood places, which are viewed with the complex sensitivity of an adult; here, East and West are fused, as both have been part of his life.

Nubian Steps was composed in a major pentatonic scale, with a ‘locomotive’ rhythm, like the music of Ali Hassan Kuban. This is the kind of piece that you could imagine with an accompaniment of East-African high-pitched singing!

The Fable of the Steppes is a slightly nostalgic piece, which evokes the distant steppes. These are the images I see when I play this… like in a dream …I play the saz in this piece, not the buzuq.

The 7-Beat Dance is a piece in 7 beats, with a passage in 4 beats which really gets you dancing and waving scarves – just like a Kurdish dance!

With Bécon les Bruyères, I wanted to pay homage to the district I’ve been living in for the last few years, which has a very French name, with an almost amusing sonority. I played this piece some days later to Emek Evci, the double bass player, who played several of the notes on his instrument. It sounded really quite classical, and very removed from what I had envisaged, but at the same time it was instantly recognisable. I enjoy listening to new ideas developed by other musicians, using melodies I’ve created.

Kromatiko is a piece that uses chromaticism and scale changes; this piece has a flamenco sound, so I asked Manuel Delgado to create arrangements that would follow the melodic acrobatics.

7-Beat Cadence: this title was suggested by my 10-year-old son, who was moving to the rhythm of the piece while playing on his games console on the living-room TV. I looked at him and asked him to suggest a title, and straight away he replied:


‘Where did you hear this word?’

‘I don’t know, it just came out…’

The 10-beat rhythm of That’s The Way It Is is called a Georgina. It is very well known in the Middle-East. The reason why some rhythms are so familiar and popular is because not only do they indicate the bar lengths, but they also have an internal structure, with low and high notes, which makes their sonority instantly identifiable. Sometimes, listeners know a single variation of a rhythm or mode. One of the first times I played this piece in public, I must have played it quite fast, because a ‘purist’ pointed out to me that the Georgina rhythm wasn’t usually played so rapidly. However, the same rhythm can be played differently, depending on the region or the type of music. Lost for words, I replied: ‘That’s the way it is!’ Playing it a little faster or slower is also my way of interpreting my musical heritage.

Nocturnal Silence is a melody that came to me in the middle of the night. This piece creates a particularly effective mood when played at night. Curiously enough, even the instrument sounds different at night – it’s amazing! It does work in the daytime too, but it seems to be missing something. It makes me think of the cakes one eats with tea: without them the tea just doesn’t have the same taste!

I’ll leave you to introduce the musicians.

Emek Evci, double bass: his classical training means that, paradoxically, despite his Turkish and Armenian background, his knowledge of European culture is greater than that of the other musicians on this album. Also, because he lived in Paris in the 1980s, he developed a taste for rock and jazz, so he knows how to introduce unusual accents. He doesn’t play in an obvious way, and he brings a novel touch – he never goes where you expect him to!

Youssef Hbeisch, percussion: he has a really traditional culture, but he’s capable of departing from it – he’s more than an accompanying percussionist, he adds his own touch and language, relates a story, and virtually plays the melody. In addition to Middle-Eastern percussion, he has also studied Indian, African, Cuban, and Latin percussion, and all these influences add subtle touches to his playing.He introduces his own personality while ensuring his playing is in keeping with the spirit of the project.

Manuel Delgado, flamenco guitar: invents unexpected arrangements whose complexity is limited, and is as dynamic and effective as the basic chords, but which are far more appreciated by musicians… and dedicated music lovers!His finely crafted music commands the listener’s concentrated attention and admiration. It avoids the obvious, while being natural and effective.

Elie Maalouf, piano: he contributes his knowledge of oriental music and harmonization. His ability to harmonize modal melodies never descends into insipid and facile music, as is often the case in many modern versions. He has real talent and creativity; our musical interaction is all the more fruitful because we were both born in Lebanon and came to France at the same time.

  • Reference : 321.095
  • Ean : 3 149 028 014 624
  • Main artist : Issa (عيسى)
  • Year of recording : 2011
  • Year of publishing : 2012
  • Music style: Classical instrumental
  • Country : Lebanon
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language :
  • Composers : Issa Hassan
  • Lyricists :
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe