Abaji at a concert presented by the Alliance Francaise du Bengale at Princeton Club. Picture by Sudeshna Banerjee
The raised platform at Princeton Club is full of musical instruments. But there is just one musician. He picks up one or the other at will to play. At one point, he beats a drum with pedals struck by his feet, strums a string instrument with one hand and uses the fingers of the other to play a flute — all at the same time.
This one-man music band calls himself Abaji. He has about 400 instruments at home in France and has taught himself to play each of them.
“I am from many traditions. I am a continent by myself,” the jovial man declares during a chat that took place later at the residence of his host, the Alliance Francaise du Bengale director Stephane Amalir.
“My family is from Istanbul but our origin is in Damascus. My father was of Greek and Armenian stock. My great grandmother used to play both Arabic and Armenian traditional music. There was music in my family’s everyday life, with maqam (‘It’s somewhat like your ragas’) being played at home on oud (a kind of a lute) and qanoon (an ancestor of santoor).”
After World War I, Abaji’s parents had to flee Turkey. “My mother went to Lebanon and my father to Greece from where he headed for Lebanon. That is where they met.”
Growing up in Lebanon, Abaji was 10 when he fell in love with a tune his cousin was playing on the guitar and coaxed him to teach him the basics. “My aunt was the director of a music conservatory. But the teacher deemed me too young to be accepted. For months, I would quietly attend all the classes listening to how that tune was played. Three months later, I walked up to the teacher and played the piece, recomposing it the way I played it in my head.”
In 1974-75, a civil war started in Beirut and the family was yet again uprooted. This time, they settled in France. “Lebanese people, possibly because of our history, adapt quickly. Others find new cultures hard to adjust to but we are an open shop.”
Abaji was a bad student in Lebanon. “But at the lycee, I found my French was better than the students who were born in France.” No wonder, the 17-year-old felt at home.
He revived his interest in music, picking up Brazilian percussion and listening to Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens alongside Ravi Shankar and Fayrouz, “the most famous singer in Lebanon”. The next 10 years, he spent learning Indian, Japanese and Korean music.
“Then my own music was born — a mix of the West and West Asia.” He was so captivated by new sounds that attending a single concert of Hariprasad Chaurasia in Paris was enough to make him get hold of a flute to play. “The pleasure is not just to play an instrument but to compose with it. Every country, for instance, created a flute with wood or bamboo. As the wood varies, so does the emotion it conveys.” He has no count of the types of flutes he plays. He has 10 violins. “Each has a different number of strings.” On a recent Bangladesh tour, he bought an ektara but his favourite is the arhu, a Chinese viola.
“For me, folk music everywhere is the same at the core. Chinese music for instance was influenced by Persian music via the Silk Route.”
He sings too, with a deep-throated voice, in Arabic and French. “In my last album, I sang in Greek, Turkish and Armenian as well.” But he does not make much of his singing. “Voice? It is the first instrument that brings out the emotions best. The others try to be like it,” he affirms.