Jazz musicians in Jordan struggle to compete for an audience

Story and photo by Eryn Carlson

AMMAN, Jordan – The Village Vanguard. Le Caveau de la Huchette. Preservation Hall. For jazz lovers, these legendary venues are intricately linked with their respective cities of New York, Paris and New Orleans. Omar Faqir wants to add to the list. For him, there’s another jazz hotspot: Amman.

Faqir, a stout man in his mid-30s with a receding hairline, is not elusive like Miles Davis, and doesn’t hold the mystique of Monk or Coltrane. He’s dressed in business casual and speaks with passion of his day job as a school principal. When he talks about his love of jazz, though, Faqir sheds his modesty. He calls himself the “Founder of Jazz in Jordan.”

“It all happened in my house,” said Faqir proudly. “I started in 1990 and formed the first jazz band [in Jordan], Faculty X. My mission was to bring jazz talents here, and I did it all myself.”

Omar Faqir calls himself the founder of jazz in Jordan. But still, he struggles to popularize a genre that doesn’t have many fans in this region.

Faqir’s pride may be warranted. When he sits down at the piano, his style is reminiscent of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea’s on albums such as Head Hunters and Crystal Silence that were driven by electric instruments in the funk-fusion style. Both artists are major influences, Faqir said. He incorporates the funk-infused style of these masters with traditional Arabic music to create his own sound.

“It’s not oriental jazz – that’s like mixing oil with water – but I have oriental instruments playing jazz music. It’s fusion. I want to keep the identity of jazz but have my values in my music, too,” said Faqir, citing his family’s background in oriental music as key to his own. His father, Hasan Faqir, is a famous nai (which is an oriental flute) player, while his late grandfather, Omar Faqir, produced many well-known oriental compositions.

It is this blend of styles and fusion that Jordanian musicians are embracing. Fusion, as opposed to bebop (a term that, for many, has become synonymous with modern jazz), combines elements of different genres ranging from oriental music to Latin, funk and pop.

“[Jazz fusion] is what we can relate to because it’s closer to pop and rock, which most of us grew up listening to. That, and funk, soul and gospel. At the end of the day it’s about fusion and rhythm,” said Yacoub Abu Ghosh, a fedora-donning bass guitarist, composer and producer. “The traditional American sound – like Charlie Parker, Dizzy [Gillespie] – doesn’t exist here, or anywhere anymore, even in America. But the attitude is here.”

This attitude is one inherent in the Arab world’s musical roots. Ghosh explained that audiences in the Middle East are more interested in the immediate feelings a song can evoke than the complexities of its composition. Therefore, traditional Arabic music is based on rhythms that will immediately capture an audience’s attention.

“My favorites are Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans; Miles [Davis] of course, and I’m a huge fan of [Charles] Mingus and [John] Coltrane. But Arab musicians just can’t imitate that sound,” said Ghosh, who, though never formally-trained, has been playing music for 18 years, both as a solo artist and with his band Sign of Thyme. “A Jordanian musician can’t play bebop, just like an American can’t play traditional Arabic music. You can try, but even if you get it right, it’s not fully right. It’s like languages: you always have an accent.”

Instead of trying to mimic the greats, Ghosh and other musicians are trying to add special elements of Arabic music to jazz.

“There’s something about Arabic passion. The Arab people, we’re very emotional, we use heart before rationale. This shows in our music,” said musician Aziz Maraka, who describes his music as Razz – a combination of the energy of rock, the emotion of traditional Arabic music and the improvisation and freestyle attitude of jazz.

Or, as Ghosh said, the idea is to play music that could only be played here in the Middle East.

“That’s my quest,” said Ghosh. “I’ve recorded three albums and all of them are about speaking the language of the world, with an Ammani accent.”

Unfortunately, the Jordanian jazz men share one thing with their American counterparts: it’s hard to get a lot of people to listen. Though it is growing, the market for jazz and other non-mainstream musical genres in Jordan, and the greater Mideast region in general, is miniscule.

“We have a very small music community here, and it’s a very desperate music scene,” said Faqir, noting that music sales, interest in live performances and musical education are all severely lacking. “All the talented musicians leave [Amman] because no one’s interested.”

Instead, younger generations seem solely interested in mainstream, Western music, Faqir said. There is still life to traditional music as well, but that too is diminishing. Amman-based musicians have to fight not only to find audiences, but also to please them.

“It’s a constant struggle between trying to please the audience and doing what you want. Jordanian crowds are so tough – the toughest in the world, and so critical. When you see them happy, it’s like you solved the greatest problem in the world,” said Maraka, whose new album, Beginning of the End, comes out next month.

With this lack of popular interest, musicians are left moonlighting because they can’t afford to devote themselves to jazz full-time.

“There must be a budget for jazz. We have the audience and musicians, but it can’t take off without money,” said Faqir.

That doesn’t mean he’s giving up. Faqir is working with well-known jazz musicians like Stanley Jordan and John McLaughlin to bring a jazz festival to Amman. Additionally, he hopes to launch his own weekly jazz radio program.

“We need more outlets for musicians to put themselves out there,” said Maraka, referencing the limited stages for performances. Amman restaurants like Blue Fig and Canvas Café, Restaurant and Art Lounge are among the handful of venues in which jazz musicians are asked to perform.

“Our Tuesday jazz nights are pretty successful,” said Canvas’ events coordinator Alida Orfali. “But it’s hard to get people interested in these performers as anything more than background music while they’re eating.”

Musicians are still confident, though, and hope that, as the Middle East transitions politically and socially, it will do so culturally as well.

Ghosh summed it up: “The jazz scene is growing, but it’s still just baby steps, taking its time. But it’s going.”

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