Since the late 1980s and through an impeccable discography with the Munich-based ECM Record Label, Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem has been flirting with jazz improvisation, fusion, modern classical or chamber music while recording solo, with small trio or quartet formations. Traditionally an accompanying instrument, the Arabic lute takes centre stage in the hands of Anouar Brahem. Primarily influenced by image and cinema, many of his early albums include music that was originally composed for films.

A film already has a musical meaning before the composer arrives. When he does, it is important for him to listen to the music of the image, to perceive and capture the film’s musical meaning. This musical meaning is to some extend the music of the film […] The way the camera moves, fixed or fluid, slow or fast, nervous or measured, leading or following the subject, also resembles the movement of a piece of music. Anouar Brahem – Horizons Touched – The Music of ECM (2007)

Anouar Brahem - Souvenance (2015)
Anouar Brahem – Souvenance (2015)

This approach has always dominated Brahem’s music and often translates into long meandering meditations and solo variations on the oriental scales, subtle impressionistic pieces arranged for piano and accordion or beautiful conversations with a double/electric bass, a bass clarinet…or with silence.

The political upheaval which rocked Tunisia in late 2010/early 2011 and plunged the country into a period of uncertainty also disrupted the musician’s creative process and approach to composition. “I don’t claim a direct link between my compositions and the events taking place in Tunisia,” says Anouar, “but I have been deeply affected by them.”

Six years after publishing his previous album The Astounding Eyes of Rita (2009), the musician released Souvenance (“Remembering”) in January 2015 on the ECM record label.

Following a prolonged period of silence, Anouar Brahem has a lot to say and catches up over a double CD of 11 new tracks. Reuniting with long-time collaborator François Couturier on piano as well as with Klaus Gesing (bass clarinet & soprano saxophone) and Björn Meyer (bass) from the “Rita” sessions, the musician also pitches his oud against the strings of Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana for the first time.

All of this work was new discovery; my musical studies had been devoted to our traditional music only. So I had no compositional role models in mind. And obviously I wasn’t drawn to the power and volume that an orchestra can supply. For me, it’s most exciting to improvise against the strings when they are very piano – the detail in the sound and texture, the delicacy and the chamber music quality of it, can be very touching.” Anouar Brahem – ECM Records

For the first time also, Souvenance doesn’t feature any solo improvisation as every track is precisely scripted around a few recurring themes outlined on the piano, oud and clarinet. As hinted by the black and white still photograph on the cover, this new approach only serves to emphasise the cinematic element of Brahem’s music whose visual cues perhaps stem from live news channels this time. The opening track “Improbable day” probably epitomises best the mood of the entire recording: 12 minutes of “immense fear, joys and hopes” meticulously scored to reflect the unscripted events of the 2011 Tunisian Arab spring.