A visual marvel, Le Piano Oriental is a graphic novel originally published in 2015. Written by Franco-Lebanese author Zeina Abirached, the story delightfully weaves together the parallel lives of Abdallah Kamanja, an office clerk and piano tuner in 1960s Beirut with modern day Zeina growing up between Beirut and Paris. The publication of the graphic novel prompted Zeina Abirached to contact friend and jazz pianist Stéphane Tsapis with whom she had collaborated previously to suggest a musical illustration for the novel.

Released in November 2019 on Cristal Records, Le Piano Oriental – the solo piano recording – is one of two musical projects initiated by Stéphane Tsapis to serve as a soundtrack to the graphic novel.

Le Piano Oriental – The graphic novel

This oriental piano, its double music, this strange juxtaposition of two worlds that nothing seems to unite, the lighter sound of a note undulating mid-sentence, I carry them in me. Zeina Abirached

A passionate pianist, Abdallah Kamanja is concerned with finding a mechanical solution to transforming a well-tempered piano – tuned to play western classical music with a tone or a half-tone between each notes – into a piano that can play both the western and the Arabic modes and its quarter tones.

Many oriental string and wind instruments such as the oud, the santur, the kamancheh or the ney are all naturally tuned to play the quarter tones and can easily switch between the two modes. A traditional western classical piano needs to be entirely re-tuned to play oriental music.

Zeina Abirached - Le Piano Oriental (2015)
Zeina Abirached – Le Piano Oriental (2015)

Constantly juggling between two cultures, two languages and two capital cities, Zeina Abirached’s dual upbringing finds a touching echo in this elusive search for a bilingual piano. Replete with sounds and onomatopoeia, the graphic novel becomes the music staff paper on which the black and white piano notes elegantly resonate on the page to tell a moving story.

The fictional character of Abdallah Kamanja is based on Zeina Abirached’s own great grandfather Abdallah Chahine (1894 – 1975) who designed and built such a piano in the 1950s in collaboration with the Hofman and Renner factories in Vienna and Stuttgart respectively.

The prototype upright piano features a mechanical customisation which allows the pianist to shift between the two modes – Western and Eastern. By pressing the middle pedal, the keyboard shifts slightly to the left, allowing the hammers to hit the quarter tone strings.

Abdallah Chahine went on to establish the very successful “Voix de l’Orient” record label in the mid-1950s and recorded a couple of LPs on his oriental piano. The instrument was never developed further or commercialised and still exists in Beirut.

With the prohibitive costs of shipping the piano over to Europe, Zeina Abirached met with piano tuner Luc-André Deplasse based in Tournai, Belgium, who suggested the building of a replica. Based on Skype conversations with the Chahine family in Lebanon, Luc-André Deplasse successfully modified a baby grand piano in his workshop.

Le Piano Oriental – the solo piano recording

Stéphane Tsapis - Le Piano Oriental (2019)
Stéphane Tsapis – Le Piano Oriental (2019)

Born in Switzerland in a Greek family and now based outside Paris, Stéphane Tsapis also grew up in a dual cultural environment. This multicultural upbringing has found an echo in the musician’s choice of projects to date. A Thelonious Monk devotee, the pianist has also collaborated over the years with Turkish, Iranian, Tunisian, Greek and Armenian musicians in various ethno-jazz or Balkan-tinged ventures, thus constantly toying as well with the two musical modes.

Inspired by the themes explored in the graphic novel and released on 8 November 2019 last on Cristal Records, Le Tsapis Volant (a pun on the pianist’s surname meaning “the flying carpet”) is the soundtrack to a musical show which was first staged in 2016. Blending music, spoken word, live drawings and shadow puppet theatre, Le Tsapis Volant features Stéphane Tsapis on piano and keyboards alongside a trio of musicians (double bass, drums and percussions) as well as six female vocalists.

Released on the same day, Le Piano Oriental features 14 tracks with Stéphane Tsapis on solo piano. All the compositions were also part of a touring musical show launched in 2016 and featuring readings and slides.

Needless to say that for a jazz musician, playing a customised piano allowing the live fusion of two distinct musical modes and the ability to overcome the limitations inherent to the classical instrument has been a godsend.

Right away, this newly-found freedom finds its expression in two taqsims – namely “Le Taqsim d’Abdallah” and “Le Taqsim de Zeina”. Based on the Arabic maqams, a taqsim is a form of solo melodic improvisation in oriental music which usually precedes a longer composition.

Other compositions are named after characters (“Abdallah Kamanja” , “Victor Challita”) or events in the novel such as “La Valse de la Pierre de Rosette”, the latter being the name of the ship boarded by Abdallah and his friend Victor to sail from Beirut to Marseille and onto Vienna to exhibit the modified instrument to piano manufacturer Hofman.

Stéphane Tsapis uses prepared piano techniques on several tracks. Plucking, brushing or dampening the strings with his hands, the pianist elicits the metallic resonance of the hammered santur. And the more experimental “Abdallah in the Sky” sounds like a cathartic “look under the bonnet” for the pianist, a joyful physical contact with the mechanics of the modified instrument.

Le Piano Oriental also features a cover of the well-known “J’ai Deux Amours”…mon pays et Paris (My heart is in two places, my country and Paris). With music by Vincent Scotto, the song was popularised by Josephine Baker in 1930 to become a classic – and a very apt accompaniment for the themes of exile, immigration and multiculturalism deftly explored throughout the graphic novel.

The graphic novel was originally published in French by Casterman and has not been translated into English yet. To coincide with the release of the solo piano recording, the graphic novel was re-released in November 2019 with the accompanying CD.

A vinyl LP of Le Piano Oriental is available from the Bandcamp page of Stéphane Tsapis.