For the Palestinian composer and pianist Faraj Suleiman, the past year has been one of intense activity and artistic growth.
Based in Paris, where he maintains an artist residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts, he has been touring the top festivals across Europe (the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and, for the second year in a row, the EFG London Jazz Festival), as well as performing concerts in Jordan, Tunisia and elsewhere.
In between those gigs, he has released his sixth album, Second Verse, his first with his own vocals, and on which he pointedly sings in his own Palestinian dialect.
Such success is perhaps unexpected from someone who took a hiatus of approximately 12 years from the piano between childhood and university. Hailing from Al Rameh in Galilee, Suleiman initially was drawn to the piano as a child, playing for three years under the tutelage of his uncle. He came back to the instrument during his university years in Haifa.
After experimenting in other disciplines, including psychology and law, he turned to music full time with the intention of becoming an elementary schoolteacher.
“I didn’t have a piano in Haifa,” he says. “I was practicing long into the evening using the university’s practice room until the end of the night. Slowly, I started to discover that I could really play the piano and then become a composer.”
As a performer, Suleiman is among a select group of Arab musicians pushing artistic boundaries and gaining prominence throughout Europe and among other internationally known musicians, including the Palestinian singer Kamilya Jubran and the Lebanese trumpeter and composer Ibrahim Maalouf.
Suleiman forms his own sound from a blend of genres. “I grew up with Arabic melodies which remain in my head, but I compose with elements of jazz and rock music,” he says. However his work is not limited to solo piano or jazz ensembles.
“I grew up with Arabic melodies which remain in my head, but I compose with elements of jazz and rock music,”Faraj Suleiman
In 2017, Suleiman composed and performed in The Cabaret, a music theater collaboration with Bashar Murkus, at the Khashabi Theatre in Haifa. The same year he worked with the singer Raneen Hanna composing and arranging an album of children’s songs, My Heart Is a Forest, produced by Tamer Institute for Community Education in Palestine. Suleiman considers projects like the children’s album “his responsibility,” due to the lack of works for children in the Palestinian dialect.
Over the past year, Suleiman has expanded his musical skills in other areas, too. He collaborated with other artists on “The Trace of the Butterfly,” a work celebrating the life of the Palestinian singer Rim Banna, who died of cancer in 2018. Suleiman rearranged Banna’s songs for the tribute, which was commissioned by Marsm, a London-based concert producer that promotes Arab talent, and was performed at the Barbican in London this summer.
Suleiman’s first music video “Mountain Street” from the album “Second Verse”
Echoes of Haifa
In many ways, Suleiman’s personal artistic growth echoes that of the city and community he considers his home and “the love of my life,” Haifa. On his new album, Second Verse, the first track, “Mountain Street,” centers on the politically and culturally significant road of that name in the city.
Throughout his career, Suleiman has collaborated with authors, actors and other musicians from Haifa—including Amer Hlehel, Habib Hanna, and Majd Kayyal—as the city has established its reputation as a Palestinian cultural center.
Nostalgic whimsy and childhood memories are common themes that run through his work. “Beneath the Walnut Tree,” recorded on three of his six albums, was inspired by a tree in his garden in Al Rameh where his family would often gather. “We used to eat lunch and dinner all together underneath the tree. … Then there came a time we needed to build a new building and we cut down the entire tree. This melody is for that tree.”
The three recordings of the piece demonstrate Suleiman’s artistic growth and crystallizing vision moving forward from a solo piano act, as it appears on his first album, Login (2014). On his fourth album, Once Upon a City (2017), with piano, guitar and drums ensemble, the song takes a fuller form, with Habib Hanna on oud bringing a decisively Eastern communal atmosphere. On the 2018 album Toy Box, recorded live at a concert in Haifa, he again plays with the instrumentation, replacing oud with accordion and adding trumpet. It is this continuing improvisation and interest in exploring new colors of sound that makes it exciting to watch Suleiman evolve.
From the live recording Toy Box (2018) “Beneath the Walnut Tree”
In concert, Suleiman impresses with what David Jones, director of the EFG Jazz Festival, terms an “embrace of intimacy.” He manifests a humble confidence, playing with crisp, decisive vision on the piano, and is the ensemble leader on stage. While he appears incredibly comfortable at the piano, Suleiman possess a vulnerability while addressing the audience with minimalist, dry-humored dialogue.
Acutely aware of the challenge that purely instrumental music can present to some audiences, Suleiman, laughing, reflects on his first concert of compositions that would eventually form the material for his first album, Login (2014).
“The concert was really terrible,” he says. “My work was all overly complicated without a purpose, very difficult, very rigid. … I remember that there were around 300 people in front of me and not one of them enjoyed it.”
But the experience was a valuable lesson, he says, “because I learned to think about what is music, what constitutes a performance, the stage, what does an audience mean? All of which we didn’t learn at university. … They didn’t teach us that the people who come need to enjoy.”
A Musical Dialect
This is a lesson that Suleiman has taken with him, adjusting his performance based on his audience. During the concert recorded on the live album Toy Box, Suleiman experimented with singing an unfinished song he later called “Bad Timing.”
The video quickly racked up thousands of views (now over 700,000) and sparked a crowdfunding campaign to produce an album with his vocals. Between support from the campaign and the A.M. Qattan Foundation, the album was produced swiftly, with Suleiman reaching out for lyrics from many familiar collaborators in Haifa.
“People were very happy, they had already memorized the lyrics. It had been launched online a few months before but in the live show people were literally singing along.”Aya Nabulsi
Al Balad music festival’s executive director
Suleiman sings all of the songs in his Palestinian dialect, following in the footsteps of singers like Rim Banna and Kamilya Jubran, in contrast with the more represented Lebanese, Egyptian or neutral (“white”) dialects. “The majority say that a Lebanese accent is more musical. I don’t agree, I believe our accent is also musical.”
In one of the first full concerts of Second Verse, in June at the Al Balad Music Festival in Jordan, which focuses on supporting new artistic projects from the region, Suleiman performed a large number of his new sung tracks to a new audience. Aya Nabulsi, the festival’s executive director, noted the project’s positive reception. “People were very happy, they had already memorized the lyrics. It had been launched online a few months before but in the live show people were literally singing along.”
Part of the album’s appeal, she continued, is the music’s “very natural Arabic lyrics. It talks about things we discuss in everyday life.”
While the past few years have been very eventful for Suleiman, he shows no signs of slowing and is currently working on a new album along with other film and theater projects. Will there be more singing? He is keeping his options open