Amir John Haddad, a multi-instrumentalist based in Madrid, is involved in projects that stand out in the wide-ranging music scene in the Spanish capital. Supplied with the teachings of the finest flamenco masters and the touring experiences with Spanish folk and fusion bands such as Radio Tarifa or Chambao, he continues to develop his ideas and talent with solo projects and groups with unconventional profiles such as Zoobazar and Members of Parliament.
In addition to mastering stringed instruments, Haddad also wanted to make a tribute to Spanish guitar makers in his new solo album, “9 guitarras” (9 guitars), where he performs each composition with a different guitar.
Born in Germany of Palestinian-Colombian heritage, you’ve lived in Spain for 16 years. ¿Do you feel German, Colombian, Palestinian, or Spanish?
It’s an interesting question, because I’ve always lived with the influences from these the cultures: Colombia, the Middle East and Germany. What has shaped me a lot is Germany because I was born and finished school there. But my parents always taught me their culture, specially the food and music which was the most important thing for us. My father plays the Arabic lute (oud) and as a child I learned how to play this instrument and I assimilated the musical culture of the Middle East. Later, when I couldn’t find my music way in Germany, I decided to come to Spain to improve my flamenco skills, which I also started to play as a child. When I arrived here, after a while I understood.
Why do I like Spain? Because it combines the two cultures: South America and the Middle East, because of its long history. And I think because of this I have adapted to it.
You’ve been here for 16 years. Do you think it’s a better country for a musician than Germany? Is there more musical diversity?
With time, at least living here in Madrid, I’ve had the luck of finding musicians with a vision or musical taste similar to mine. As a cosmopolitan city, it allows you to encounter various cultures, although I didn’t come to Spain for that, but strictly for flamenco guitar. I started to play it at 7 at home and at 22, I decided to go to Jerez de la Frontera, to Andalucía to learn and improve with the masters here. I studied with Pepe Justicia, Enrique de Melchor, the great flamenco guitar artists. Later, the encounter with other musics here in Spain was in Madrid.
Obviously the mix of your roots is reflected in your art. If you had been born in other circumstances, would your music have been different?
I think so. I imagine that if for example if my parents had moved to Uganda instead of Germany, then I would have learned the music of Uganda and would have made another mix, a fusion of Afro-South American-Arabic or Middle Eastern.
To me, the great thing about growing up in Germany is that I enjoyed many music genres, specially Anglo-Saxon music; jazz, pop, rock, funk, rock, heavy metal, hip-hop, electronic music… everything that I learned playing the electric guitar at a young age. These experiences combines with the flamenco part, the Arabic part, the Mediterranean folk music that I assimilated with Spanish folk music bands like Radio Tarifa, Eliseo Parra; all these musical experiences helped follow a path that is yet to be explored. Since I’ve always played separately, now I’m starting to join these languages and little by little forming a more coherent identity.
But everything is still a game, I don’t tell myself I’m going to take this and that, and mix it with something else. It goes with sensations: it appears and you do it.
Your projects include styles as different as flamenco with your sextet “El Amir”, hard rock with Members of Parliament or Mediterranean fusion with Zoobazar. Can you tell me to which of these acts you feel closer to than others?
I think that it must be similar to having children: you like all, but you get along better with some or sometimes you see some of them more and others less. In my case, some genres or projects I carry out more often, because we’ve been able to organize better and they are working well, while other projects I have not supported as much: because of time or because it’s not the right time to release an album. For example, the rock project is pretty much on hold, although it’s pending and can appear at any time. What I’ve done the most is flamenco, fusion, and Mediterranean music. I’ve always worked in that area, in the roots and traditional music, although rock also is, it’s simply Anglo-Saxon and is not eight thousand years or less.
You play very diverse instruments: from flamenco and electric guitar to more exotic ones like the Arabic lute, Turkish saz, Greek bouzouki. Do you express better with some better than others, specially comparing the acoustic and electric guitar?
Between the electric and acoustic world there is a great change in sensation. First with volume: the electric guitar with distortion evokes other things. Some say it’s more aggressive, I say it’s more intense.
I started playing the acoustic Arabic lute and flamenco guitar. At 12 I heard some Metallica tapes: “Ride the Lightning” and “Kill ‘Em All”, Metallica recordings from the 80s. I heard these guitars and couldn’t understand; how did they make that sound? Because I didn’t know there were electric guitars! That’s how I found out and started using electric guitars.
Later in Madrid I worked with Joaquín Ruiz, a great dancer and flamenco master. He had a group that fused flamenco with Mediterranean sounds and I played oud and bouzouki there. At one of the concerts I was seen by the members of Radio Tarifa, a very important ethnic music group in Spain, and they invited me to join their band. Then I started playing bouzouki, banjo and I bought all the instruments. I’ve used the pick technique for the oud and the guitar finger technique since I was young so it’s been very easy for me to change a technique or to switch from one instrument to another. Besides, each instrument is like a trip through other parts of the world…
On your latest album “9 Guitarras” each piece is performed with a different guitar. Can you tell us how you came up with such special idea to record an album? How was the process of selecting an instrument adequate for each piece?
It was a pretty quick process. After I composed the music, I went to Germany to a studio run by friends where I recorded my first album “Pasando por Tabernas”. A friend, Johannes Inhoffen, who is the executive producer of the album, has been selling flamenco guitars for 20-25 years. He proposed: ‘if you feel like it, I can let you use the good ones before I sell them; we’ll record the pieces and will make a tribute to the guitar makers.’ I loved the idea.
Choosing the guitars took place at the studio. We had about 30 guitars and had to make quick decisions because in a studio you don’t have all the time in the world. We spent two weeks there watching and comparing sounds, recording each time and commenting: this one is better, this one sounds more beautiful, but this one is sweeter, and this one is louder…
I like to seek the soul of each instrument and feeling the sound and by listening to the sound and how it filled me up, I decided: this guitar goes with this piece. And I think we got things right, I’m very pleased with how the guitars sound. Some are not available anymore because they were sold. Because some people asked me ‘when are you going to play a concert with all?‘ Then I tell them; they are not mine, some have already been sold.
Recording this album was a beautiful challenge, a trip through the sound of each guitar. We also sought making a tribute to each guitar maker (guitarrero), which is at the same time a tribute to flamenco guitar and flamenco guitar makers. I don’t think anyone has done it before; at least no one in flamenco has dared to do anything like this.
What’s the attraction of the stringed instruments that led you to dedicate your life to them?
It’s the interaction with the Wood. The symbiosis of the left hand and right hand touching in different places and the things you can feel according to how you do it. It fascinates me.
As I always repeat, the guitar makers are the ones that make my fingers make sounds. Without the wood and the strings I would be nothing at a musical level. It’s an exchange: people who like Wood for some concept, to build it and make it sound beautiful and I like to use it and create sounds.
Of course, when you learn how to play, the instrument dominates you. But with time, you are the one in charge, you have a medium to communicate, you do what you please. I always played in an intuitive manner, by ear. When a band let me do a solo, I play what I want, that is I know that I’m within certain notes and concept, but I go to places that may not be in that music genre. That way musical fusion is born.
I like variation a lot, not to get bored of genre or instrument. What I do with one is reflected in the other and at the end all this is combines in a musical language that to me is very personal and authentic.
What are you working on now?
We are working on the second album by my band, Zoobazar. We have recorded all songs and now we are doing overdubs, which means recording arrangements and additional instruments to make it more beautiful, and collaborations with other musicians. The collaboration that we just completed is with Jorge Pardo. He recorded a flute solo for a piece that appears in my guitar album, Al-Mawsisli, an ‘abandolao’ that we are going to include, with a different version, in the Zoobazar album.
We also recorded an Indian singer from Mumbai, Hamsika Iyer, who is well known for songs like ‘Chammak Challo’ or ‘Chennai Express’ and was given an award for best Indian singer. In addition to being a friend, she is a great artists and it’s been a great pleasure having her voice on one track. For this occasion I composed a song that is based on a raga, an Indian tonality, and it came out really well. We are waiting for other names, but we have to confirm them and until we finish it would be strange to name them. But there are very good surprises, there are still two collaborations pending with Spanish singers and another vocalist from India. I hope we can carry it out.
When do you plan to release the album?
The album is scheduled for April. We don’t know the exact date yet, but it will be around April so we can promote it this year. Of course, we’d like to present it outside Spain, which would be interesting for us as well as audiences in other countries; getting to know something new and different. My dream is to take my own projects to various parts of the world, because the music that I make is very emotional and appreciated everywhere. Anyway, music is universal, it has to be shared.
How do you compose your pieces? Is it a hard process or the result of inspiration?
I’m very anarchic; I don’t have any discipline in this sense. What I do is play a lot; I don’t study music scales and arpeggios for 8 hours a day. Now is the time where if you have a technical difficulty, you study that specifically, but the fundamental thing is to play. When you play ideas start appearing and if you are sensitive you capture an idea, an inspiration that you later need to elaborate. I say that I’m anarchic at the time of composing because I go flowing, but once I have concepts that I like, I start the discipline work: repeating, changing a note, chord or rhythm, and that takes more time. Composing is a difficult process because, whether you play or not, you keep thinking about the music, the shapes, the structures. I imagine it’s like any other person that composes.
I work a lot with intuition and want to like whatever I play, something that is worth it that is not composing for the sake of composing. I wouldn’t want to do something commercial, just a product. To me, music is a broader language and nearly healing, in the sense that it does something good to people. At a concert, everybody comes from work, from their daily problems and is looking for something different. When they leave happy, I consider it a success. I love this symbiosis and when I compose I want to give my music a universal nature so that not only flamenco fans will understand y flamenco music, but rater many more people.
At the time of composing, what inspired you?
It’s very difficult. Sometimes it’s subtle things, small feelings. Other times specific situations with people, cities, when I travel. Other times it’s landscapes, the music of someone else or a phrase by someone who has influenced you in some way and you can’t forget. I think that being an artist you have to have the sensibility to translate one thing into another; that is the source of inspiration. Absorb everything that surrounds you; everything can be valid; because everything affects us. You have to be sensitive and try to be honest with yourself.
Would you imagine life without music?
It would be very hard. I can imagine not playing for a few months. I’ve done backpacking trips without carrying my instruments. I didn’t play for a month and I didn’t need it. On the contrary, when I returned home I was eager and had new inspiration because the mind keeps working.
But it would be very difficult to quit making music. Truly, it’s the first thing I heard when I was in my mother’s womb; she was singing South American folk music and my father playing the ud.
I tried to imagine what I would like to do if I didn’t play music and I have not found it. Maybe it’s taking care of a forest or continue doing something artistic. I’m very attracted by the idea of acting. When I was younger I did 5 years of theater in Germany. On stage I’m not one of those musicians that hides behind the instrument, instead I look at the audience and communicate with them. During concerts you have to be present, it’s part of a musician’s performance
Is music one of the most important things in life?
I think it’s a very important that beautifies life. In my case it’s really important, because aside from the fact that I love it, live it, it’s a form of expression. The things that I can’t find with words, or communicate with people face to face, I can communicate with it [music].
Aside from that, it pays my bills, it’s also a job. This is all essential to me.
In general, I think it should also plat a very important role in the lives of all and from a young age. You don’t have to become a very good, important or virtuoso musician. It’s about having music as a companion, like a good friend and each one chooses his or her best friend and their music.