KASLIK, Lebanon: The darbouka is very much anchored in Middle Eastern music traditions. You can hear the drum played at weddings, accompanying belly dancers and during rounds of dabkeh. Lebanese percussionist, composer and producer Rony Barrak has made a name for himself for his outstanding playing of darbouka and other percussion instruments. The 41 year old has performed in the U.S. and Europe as well as around the region, and collaborated with such artists as English soprano Sarah Brightman and flautist Pedro Eustache and he’s had recording sessions with producer Jaz Coleman.
Barrak spoke with The Daily Star in his Kaslik studio.Q: What’s your musical background? Your website bio says you picked up a drum at the age of 4 and began playing “intuitively.” People are skeptical of this.
A: I can’t remember the first time I played. My family ... are from South Lebanon, from a small town called Al-Qanaya. My father used to play table, but in amateur way, with friends, [during] Sunday luncheons.
In the [village] shops they used to put small darboukas outside, cheap ones. I said “I want this, I want this!” My father bought me a small one and ... I started banging on it ... My father told me [this story.]
My older brother, Elie, started playing harmonica, then guitar and keyboards. Not piano because we didn’t have a piano at home ... Since then, we started playing together, my brother and [I], for birthdays, family gatherings, with friends. Yalla! My grandfather, from my mom’s side, used to be a good musician and clarinet player. He used to have a small orchestra. Maybe it’s from the blood. My mom has a nice voice, she used to sing as an amateur.
You still hear the voice and the charm of Fairouz songs, the melodies of Arabic music ... It all goes back to the childhood. No one has taught me how to play darbouka. I play piano now ... I used to repeat the songs [my brother] used to play on keyboard. I discovered everything by myself ... I didn’t have a drum kit when I was a child ... but we had a washing machine. I used to play on it.
Q: When you were young, did you have a darbouka hero?
A: I don’t remember the first time I’ve heard someone playing darbouka, but I went on television when I was 7 years old. I used to go with my father and see musicians playing. I discovered my own techniques.
Q: Were you ever interested in any other classical instruments – nai or oud, say?
A: No. Oud I played when I was 16. A friend of mine was playing and I asked him if I could use his oud and then I played bits by bits what my friend was playing. Now, I would like to buy a clarinet and start playing the clarinet ... But all those things have helped me and I discovered other instruments.
Q: On your website it is written that your early success encouraged you “to unleash the darbouka from the chains of its long-standing traditional context and explore its full potential.” What do you mean by “the chains of its long-standing traditional context?”
A: Everyone I used to see on television used to play the same patterns of darbouka. I played something completely unique. That’s why the audience and jury were amazed. It was the first time they heard this change of style, with a soloist performing different patterns with dynamics.
I played with Spanish, Moroccan players. I was 17. I was always asking myself “Why are they playing the same things?” I wanted to do something different. Even the endings of my songs were very dynamic. I didn’t know it was this amazing until I finished playing my songs.
[People] didn’t care about solo players because they all played with belly dancers. For me I wanted to change the idea. I am a solo player. I have more creativity to [give] and more ideas. I respect belly dancers, but they followed the Egyptian system – belly dancers with darbouka players. I have a completely different concept. That’s why I took the instrument as what it is and took it the symphonic orchestra, to fusion bands.
I didn’t see the tabla as a “table.” I saw it as a piano, as drums, as compositions, as many things. I didn’t see it as “this is the traditional darbouka and it has to stay this way.”
I wanted to discover new sounds, techniques and ideas ... I started discovering other instruments to add the sounds to the darbouka, like djembes for example. Then I added the cymbals ... I wanted to create and build up a set that can fit classical or fusion music. Performing my own music but adding different sounds than the darbouka.
In the Middle East, not everyone believes that I play piano and compose. For them, there is still the idea of how someone who plays darbouka can be a composer. You can play three instruments and be a composer, or you can play one instrument and not be.
Playing piano helped me a lot ... I like composing for orchestras. I didn’t study composition or arrangement but until now, I did three orchestra compositions. I have studied music of course ... I have also done pieces for piano only ... It was a dream to hear my music performed by symphonic orchestras. I’m lucky. Michael Jackson died, and he never had his music played by symphonic orchestras.
Q: Who is your favorite percussionist in the Middle East right now?
A: I don’t know many people, to be honest. I don’t have a favorite. Some people tell me that maybe I should have someone to [inspire] me. As a composer, maybe yes, but as a darbouka player, not really, no. But if you ask me as a composer, I will tell you Ziad Rahbani of course. He has done Arabic music and also his [own] style.