BEIRUT: Bojan Zulfikarpasic and Julien Lourau are sitting at a table shoved up against the famed glass windows of the Gemmayzeh Cafe - a pair of musicians, a pianist and saxophone player, situated opposite a raucous dining room from another pair of musicians, a percussionist and an oud player. It's nighttime, the restaurant is just over half-packed, the audience is loud and the live music - pumped through four outrageous speakers in each corner - is louder, much louder. Randomly, a few young women in the crowd sport Ottoman-era tarabeesh.
Zulfikarpasic and Lourau are picking up rhythmic patterns and melodic lines from the music and acting them out with an improvised language of hand gestures, as if they were listening not to a duet but to a dialogue. Zulfikarpasic translates one sound into movement, then Lourau answers back. All this is done conversationally but without speaking. All the better. Amid the dining room racket, they can't hear each other, anyway.
On Wednesday night, Zulfikarpasic and Lourau are performing together at Music Hall, the cabaret-style venue tucked under the Starco Center in Downtown Beirut.
Their show marks the latest installment in Liban Jazz's "Musichallogies" series.
Lourau, who has been called the Peter Pan of the French jazz scene, came to Beirut once before, in the late 1990s, as part of a regional tour. Zulfikarpasic, who was born in Belgrade and goes by the name Bojan Z, is taking in the details of his first adventure in the country.
On first glance, the two musicians couldn't be more different. Lourau, in his mid-30s, sports an ample afro and is languid and soft-spoken. Zulfikarpasic, 39 and highly animated, is built like a boxer or a bruiser and seems to delight in everything.
Their unspoken conversation over the tables of the Gemmayzeh Cafe isn't merely an ad hoc performance over dinner; it's an insight into a musical collaboration that goes back 17 years.
"We come from the same generation in jazz," says Zulfikarpasic. Each is unconventional, and each pulls elements of reggae, funk, rock, electronic music - along with influences from Africa, Latin America and Central Europe - into more classically defined jazz idioms. Each composes his own music and steps in to support other musicians. Both have recorded with the likes of Magik Malik and contributed to Henri Texier's Azur Quintet.
Lourau set up a group called "Groove Gang" in the early 1990s, which yielded a critically acclaimed album of the same name. Later he set out on his own and recorded such albums as "Voodoo Dance," "The Rise" and "Fire/Forget," which featured, among other collaborators, Bojan Z.
Zulfikarpasic, meanwhile, was born into a musical family and started studying classical piano at the age of five or six. At around the same time, he got his first album, "Revolver," by the Beatles. By 14, he was playing in local bands.
"Between classical and rock was jazz," he says. Plus, "music is a big part of life" in the country formerly known as Yugoslavia, so Zulfikarpasic used to hear Balkan folk songs everywhere and everyday, at home, even while he was sleeping and his parents' friends continued playing. Listening to such albums as "Solobsession," "Transpacifik" and his latest, "Xenophonia," one can trace those roots in the waltz and swing of key compositions.
At this point, Zulfikarpasic has six albums to his name, and tends to be known for what critics call his more "flamboyant" and "bombastic" pieces.
So what's changed over the 17 years Zulfikarpasic and Lourau have played together?
"We've gotten older," says Lourau, ruefully. "We don't need to talk anymore. That's the thing about a duo."
As for what they plan to perform at Music Hall, Lourau insists they never know exactly.
"It depends on the mood, on us, on the town, on the venue. But," he laughs, "we have a lot to choose from."
Bojan Z and Julien Lourau are performing February 7 at Music Hall. For more information, please call +961 1 361 236