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At first glance, the old adage of carrying coals to Newcastle seems to offer an apt description of Thierry Titi Robin's forthcoming musical intent in this part of the world. What could an oud player from France possibly have to add to the plethora of our own local ethnic musicians? We may not exactly have the economic robustness or, indeed, political stability of western Europe but we do have ethnic musicians practically coming out of our ears.
But, rest assured, Robin says he has no intention of showing us how to play our own indigenous music.
"No, I don't pretend I am an Arabic musician or that I come from the Middle East," said the guitarist and oud and bouzouki player in an interview from Paris. "I think I bring something else to the music." This Friday, Robin will demonstrate his added artistic value, with his quintet, to an audience at Jerusalem's Maabada venue, after performing in Gaza and Ramallah on the two preceding days.
Although it looks like Robin is not exactly a product of his times or cultural climes, in fact he is both and neither. Now in his late forties, like others of his generation Robin grew up with a heady mix of Sixties and Seventies pop and rock. In fact, when he got around to picking up a guitar, while in his teens, it was the iconic figures of the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton who initially inspired the budding musician. But there were other, local, influences that pulled at Robin's heart strings and guitar strings.
"Where I grew up, in west France, I had a lot of Moroccan friends. Sure, I listened to [American] blues, jazz and rock and roll on the radio like all French boys at the time, but I also played this Moroccan blues everyday with my friends. I had a source of blues, from Africa, just ten minutes away from my house. That was wonderful for me."
There were other sources of inspiration near at hand too as Robin was drawn to the sounds and rhythms of the French gypsies he met in his neighborhood and at music venues across France.
"Their music really appealed to me. I liked the joy and the stories they told through their playing." For most music lovers in the West gypsy music is generally associated with legendary Belgian-born jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt who brilliantly incorporated his own ethnic music in the merrily undulating swing style jazz format. However, Robin's gypsy music interests pertain to a different area of the genre. "In the north of France there is the manouche style, like Django Reinhardt's, which has some jazz influences...I love what Django did but I have more of the Mediterranean influence."
For Robin, the latter also includes sounds and rhythms from this part of the world. "In France there are many people from eastern countries and North Africa, Arabs and Jews and Christians, who know these traditions very well. I felt very comfortable with the things they played." However, there were plenty of people around Robin who did not appreciate these extraneous musical styles, and his interest in them sometimes got Robin into trouble. "I have been asked by people before why I don't play French and western music, why I play music from the Mediterranean and the east. Some of them actually get angry about it, as if I shouldn't play that music. But for me it's natural. It's what I want to play."
So, in France, local audiences think Robin plays an exotic mix of Middle Eastern and gypsy music. But, what about people in the Middle East who know a thing or two about Robin's adopted style? "When I play to Arabic audiences they say I have a gypsy style, and when I play to gypsies they say I have an Arabic style. People in the Middle East don't need someone like me to play their music. Still, I think I have something else to offer them. When I play I don't think about the style; I think about my life and all the experiences I have had, and the music I have learned."
The Thierry Titi Robin Quintet will play at the Maabada in Jerusalem on December 16. Doors open at 10 p.m. For further info call 02-6292000 or go to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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