MUSICIAN WHO PLAYS 400 INSTRUMENTS
The Telegraph (India)
April 6, 2014 Sunday
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
"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
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,"