To play an ancient instrument is to be at once fortunate and cursed. Fortunate, because you can call up sounds that have all but disappeared from music, like words that have fallen out of a language. Cursed, because most people expect you to be a "traditional musician," a messenger from the past whose peculiar duty it is to defy time itself. You have a role, and not merely an instrument, to play, and that role can quickly become a trap.
Anouar Brahem is a Tunisian master of the oud, the Arabic lute, a pear-shaped, wooden box with five or six double strings that produce a dry, haunting sound. Originally played as an accompaniment to the poetry of traveling Arab minstrels before the rise of Islam, it is widely seen as a symbol of cultural continuity. Yet this is a somewhat misleading view. For the oud's history is also peopled with innovators like Mr. Brahem, who have transformed its style much as Arab poets have revolutionized their language.
''All traditions arise as ruptures with their epoch,'' said Mr. Brahem, who will be appearing at Joe's Pub on Tuesday. ''In the history of Arabic music there have been many such ruptures, with Ishak El Maousili or Ziryab for instance.''
The reference to Ziryab, a ninth-century Iraqi virtuoso who is said to have memorized 10,000 songs, is telling. Chased from Baghdad by El Maousili, his jealous mentor, Ziryab fled in 822 to Cordoba, where he introduced Moorish Spain to the oud and laid the foundations of Andalusian music. Ziryab's influence can still be heard in the work of Spanish flamenco guitarists like Paco de Lucia.
When Mr. Brahem praises de Lucia in his soft, mellifluous French as ''one of my masters,'' you realize that the adventures of the oud, a link between the civilizations of East and West, have come full circle.
Mr. Brahem, 45, who spoke by phone from his apartment in Tunisia, lives in the ancient coastal city of Carthage. His American tour, his first in 12 years, coincides with the release of ''Le Pas du Chat Noir'' (''The Black Cat's Footsteps''), a meditative trio recording with the pianist François Couturier and the accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier.
The album is at once an extension and an audacious departure from the tradition of the oud. Despite his formidable knowledge of the maqamat, an ornate system of modes that anchors Arabic music, he seldom bases his improvisations directly on the maqams. His phrasing is pure and uncluttered, expressing itself through silence nearly as often as sound. If he is an heir of the Mounir Bachir, the Iraqi who was known as the ''emir of the oud,'' he is equally an heir of Don Cherry, the free-jazz trumpeter who returned from his travels in North African and Indian villages to create an inspired and altogether personal synthesis of jazz and indigenous modes of improvisation. As the jazz bassist Dave Holland, who played on Mr. Brahem's 1999 album, ''Thimar,'' put it: ''Anouar's music is sensitive, passionate and eloquent.''
At Joe's Pub, Mr. Brahem will be performing with his band Astrakhan Café, a trio featuring Lassad Hosni, a Tunisian percussionist with a light, beautifully refined touch, and Barbaros Erkose, a Turkish-born Gypsy clarinetist who marries Eastern wailing with the cry of 60's free jazz. Named after a town in Central Asia, Astrakhan Café is Mr. Brahem's most ''ethnic'' ensemble (and, not incidentally, his hardest-swinging) but his concept of ethnicity is characteristically supple.
''I've never been to Astrakhan,'' he said. ''For me, it is, above all, an imaginary place, a crossroads of East and West.''
Mr. Brahem, a son of a printer, was born in Tunis in 1957, a year after his country achieved independence. Though he shared his father's love of Egyptian popular music, he was especially captivated by ''music that even my grandmother no longer listened to,'' the work of early 20th-century Egyptian operetta composers like Sayed Darwish. It was this taste for old things that led him to take up the oud at the age of 10, and to enroll at the National Conservatory, where he studied with Ali Sriti, a master of the maquamat. At 18, he began taking lessons at Sriti's home.
''For the next four years, I spent all my afternoons at his house,'' he recalled. ''Arab music is like jazz in being a very oral music. If you learn it in school, you really can't enter the interior of things.''
Through Sriti, Mr. Brahem discovered a vanishing tradition, that of the takht, a small, chamber ensemble that typically consists of an oud, a qanoun (a 26-string zither), a violin and one or two percussion instruments. In the takht, each instrumentalist alternates between playing with the group and solo improvisation, much as in jazz. In the Tunisia of Mr. Brahem's youth, the takht was all but eclipsed by big ensembles playing in the garish Egyptian-Lebanese style. In those bands, he said, ''the oud had lost its stature, becoming a merely decorative instrument.''
Deeply immersed though he was in the maqamat, Mr. Brahem felt the irresistible pull of the new, and like many of his peers in the late 1970's, he developed a passion for the films of Pasolini and Bergman, for avant-garde French philosophy and for painting.
His musical tastes were no less outward-looking. In the music of Turkey and Greece, and in flamenco, Mr. Brahem said, he ''came to think of the Mediterranean sound as my musical universe.'' At 15, he heard Keith Jarrett's solo recording, ''The Köln Concert,'' which reminded him of a taqsim, a solo improvisation in Arabic music exploring the various dimensions of the maqams.
All these influences found their way into Mr. Brahem's music. When he finally mustered the courage to perform it in public, he provoked heatedly polemical responses in the Tunisian press. Most Tunisians, unaccustomed as they were to purely instrumental music like Mr. Brahem's, were simply perplexed.
''People would ask me, 'Who's singing with you?,' and when I said no one, they found it strange,'' he said.
There was no way he could support himself in Tunisia, so in 1981 he moved to Paris with his wife and their year-old son. The French were hardly more receptive to his work: ''In France, to be an Arab or African musician who didn't play traditional music was to be automatically suspect.'' But he eventually found work in Paris writing music for the Tunisian cinema. Composing for film, he arrived at his mature style, a poetic mélange of jazz, minimalism and Eastern influences that manages to swing while preserving a sense of the sacred.
In 1985, Mr. Brahem moved back to Tunis. Three years later he sent a few homemade tapes to Manfred Eicher, the head of ECM, the Munich-based label. Mr. Eicher came upon Mr. Brahem's package while rummaging through the mailroom. ''The music on the tapes sounded incredibly inspiring,'' he said. ''In places, Anouar was playing music I didn't believe the oud was capable of.''
In 1990, Mr. Brahem made his first album for ECM, ''Barzakh,'' a mesmerizing recording with the violinist Bechir Selmi and Mr. Hosni, the percussionist. He has released six more albums for ECM, each one strikingly different from the last.
Mr. Brahem wrote most of ''Le Pas du Chat Noir'' on his piano, having laid down his oud for the first time since his childhood. ''The sound of the oud has an identity and a specific Arabic character,'' he said. ''The piano gives me another sonority.'' It was only later that he picked up the oud, accompanying Mr. Couturier, the pianist. Mr. Matinier, the accordionist, was the last to come on board, because Mr. Brahem needed ''a sustaining sound.''
Filled with variable tempo markings and subtle changes in dynamics, the score for ''Le Pas du Chat Noir'' leaves little room for improvisation. At the same time, Mr. Brahem said, ''I wanted the spontaneity of gesture, the elasticity you hear in improvised music.''
Composed of elegantly flowing lines and somber, breathlike silences, the music shimmers with the overtones of the piano. ''This is a music of whispers,'' he said. ''You shouldn't listen to it too loud.''
Mr. Brahem bases several of the tunes on spare, broken chords, repeated in the childlike manner of Satie. Simple though they are, however, they contain beguiling Arabesques. The three musicians rarely appear at once, performing as a trio on only seven of the album's 12 tracks. For the most part, you hear duets -- piano and oud, oud and accordion, accordion and oud. The musicians often double each other's lines, but seldom in unison, which enhances the music's intimacy while producing a floating, echo effect.
If every band projects “an image of community,” as the critic Greil Marcus once suggested, then Mr. Brahem’s trio – part takht, part jazz trio, part chamber ensemble – evokes a kind of 21st century Andalusia, in which European and Arab sensibilities have merged so profoundly that the borders between them have dissolved. The image may be utopian, but its beauty is undeniable.
Adam Shatz, The New York Times, September 29, 2002