"Silence is power. It's the place where you breathe, and just as you cannot see the stars at night without the darkness, so you need the silence to feel the full force of the music."
So speaks Samir Joubran, eldest brother, leader and musical director of Palestinian oud ensemble Le Trio Joubran, describing the precious moments when the group hold a tune in silent suspended animation before plucking notes out of the still air as they embark on another weaving, cascading run, skilfully improvising around each other to produce moments where Middle Eastern roots meet flamenco and Mediterranean styles with an energy not usually seen when the instrument is played solo. "The oud is not just for small halls,” Samir claims, “It can be played in a cosy room in front of ten people, or at festivals with 100,000 people - why not? This instrument is the father of the guitar; it’s not a museum piece."
It’s a subtle form of power, though, built in waves of increasingly intricate rhythm and melody, pushed along in an understated manner by recently-added percussionist Yousef Hbeitsch.
"I felt we needed more energy after our first album, something to play off, although Yousef's very gentle in the way he plays," says Samir. That album, Randana (released in 2005) was the first to feature all three brothers - they are the first to deploy the instrument in a trio, according to Samir - the two younger Joubrans, Adnan and Wissam, having joined Samir as they matured as performers (Wissam is also the trio’s luthier, hand-crafting the instruments just as their father Hatim did before him).
“Mâjaz means “Metaphor,” explains Samir of the latest, recently released, album’s title, “The songs have metaphorical titles - Process, I Wish, Maybe - that leave the audience open to ideas, to make up their own mind what the songs are about. On the album we tried to break some of the rules in Arabic music such as always starting and ending in the same scale. I prefer to be freer in playing, my joy comes from composing to different scales, and I try to see how I can make the music more international, more effective for both the younger and older generations."
There's a drama to this music, a cinematic quality that betrays Samir's film scoring pedigree (he worked closely with director and compatriot Rashid Mashawari's acclaimed documentary of Israeli occupation Ticket to Jerusalem, in 2002) and work with celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Laytana in particular has a wide-screen, lyrical feel, perceptibly Middle Eastern but with a hint of Texan twang, and possessing a well-honed sense of craftsmanship married to improvisational techniques, which is typical of the album as a whole.
"I always start with a picture in my head when I compose," explains Samir "and often, we will start to improvise and after six to seven hours we’ll catch one idea and start to build on it. Sometimes you don't find anything, you practice again and again for four or five days, and there's nothing..."
You must hate each other by then.
"Yes, it can get very difficult! But I need to surprise my brothers, and they try to surprise me. Sometimes it happens very quickly, we don't play for a week and suddenly we play and the melody is there. It's a very nice moment to catch the idea as it forms. But this instrument is part of us; we are not dealing with the music as a subject, it's like breathing to us, a natural process that we don't even think about. For the album, we worked nine hours a day for three months solid. It's a matter of working, working, working till the album is done. Maybe I'll sleep in one of my brothers' houses, or he’ll sleep in mine, but we work without any relationship to time or anything else."
That closeness is reflected by the fact that all the Joubran brothers are now resident in Paris, Samir having moved to the French capital four years ago.
"It's complicated - I left Palestine because of my career, it's easier to travel and our management is there. But also, my wife is from Ramallah and has Palestinian and American passports. I am from Nazareth and have an Israeli passport. I cannot live with my wife there because she is a Palestinian married to an Israeli and the Israeli Government would not allow her to return to Ramallah to see the rest of her family. So Paris is not just where I built my career but also where I can be with my wife and daughter. For sure it's bothered me as musician,” he adds reflecting on the way the situation impacts his work and family, “the whole thing has affected my career, but I always try to do concerts in Palestine, the people deserve to share our success. We are losing everything, our country, our houses, our careers, everything. But one day we will be back."
This feature first appeared in fRoots magazine.