Mazen Kerbaj performing at Crown & Harp on Monday
Mazen Kerbaj performing at Crown & Harp on Monday
Jeremy Hallock

Mazen Kerbaj Expresses the Chaos of War-Torn Lebanon with His Trumpet

For someone living in the relative comforts of a city like Dallas, it's easy to take music and the arts for granted. But for free jazz trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, who visited Crown & Harp last night for the weekly Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions and is the featured guest tonight at La Rondalla, such a reality was anything but a given.

Born in Lebanon in 1975, Kerbaj spent the first 15 years of his life in a civil war. "It was, 'That is a shoe, that is rain, that is the sound of a bomb,'" he says. "It seemed natural. It's not until later that you become afraid and understand you can die from it."

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In 2000, Mazen played publicly for the first time in Beirut with a saxophone player. It was perhaps the first fully improvised, free jazz performance in the Middle East. The effects of the civil war help put this in context. From 1950 to 1975, Beirut was a cultural center and Lebanon was a place with lots of freedom, especially compared to many dictatorships in close proximity. But during the civil war, from 1975 to 1990, it was as if no one was taking care of the arts.

It wasn't for another five years that the intellectual scene started rebuilding in the mid-90s. From there it was up to date rather quickly, but with the exception of music. Kerbaj and a few others developed a free jazz scene in Beirut. With a small group of people he started playing free jazz in bars, often clearing the places out.

"Five people would stay," he recalls, "and three of them were insulting us." With few people in Beirut interested in improvised experimental music, Mazen often performed solo. But by 2003 a scene started to grow. "I'm not even 40 and I'm a grandfather of that fucking scene," he says. In Beirut there are now several musicians interested in this music as well as a receptive audience.

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Mazen had initially been interested in rock music, but that changed when a friend brought free jazz music like Pharoah Sanders and Evan Parker back from France. That same friend offered him a trumpet, which he did not know how to play, and he spent years playing music that sounded like trumpeter Don Ayler, brother and band mate of Albert Ayler, the avant-garde saxophonist.

Today, his music is improvised and experimental, as he modifies the trumpet to completely change its sound and purpose and uses it more for percussion than melody. The noises he makes are often rumbling or electronic, but created acoustically. "The idea is to deconstruct the instrument and make it my own," Kerbaj says.

Yet for many folks, Kerbaj is better known for his work as a comic book artist. He published several books of comics before 2006 and has published several since. He focuses on social or personal issues. "But living in Beirut," he says, "politics invite themselves into your work sometimes." However, he insists he is not aligned with any political party.

But the specter of war had not left his life. By 2006, Kerbaj had started his own label and toured internationally. When he returned home to Beirut from the largest tour of his career, the Israel-Hezbollah War, known in Lebanon as the July War, was just getting started. Kerbaj sent his son to stay with his ex-wife and the boy's mother in a residence in "the mountains" where he would be safe. For the next 34 days Lebanon was a warzone, with the Israel military steadily dropping bombs on Beirut. Kerbaj remained in his apartment with his girlfriend, whom he later married.

"I consider myself lucky to be an artist because I could continue my work," says Kerbaj. He kept working to keep his brain active and to defend his sanity. Most people with regular jobs were unemployed for a month -- not just afraid, but depressed. Without work or other distractions, they just lived through the war somehow passively. He continued working on his comics, which now reflected his immediate surroundings, and began uploading them to his blog. He did this naturally, with no idea what would come of it; the war could have suddenly ended or went on for years. But his blog went viral.

Kerbaj was already a successful illustrator and musician for several years, but his blog made him even more well known. When he introduces himself to publishers and authors, they are typically familiar with his work. "I feel very bad about that," he admits. "It makes me feel that it is for the wrong reasons." It also creates a false relationship with his audience, who may expect him to be the guy who made comics during the July War. But this part of his life is over; he has moved on and very rarely uses the blog now. "To be recognized for one thing," he says, "that's difficult to escape."

Kerbaj eventually started playing his trumpet during the bombardment, standing on the balcony of his apartment improvising minimalist music as the bombs fell. This did not make him feel any safer, but it was another distraction, something to do besides sitting on his couch during wartime. More than anything he was just doing what he always did, accustomed to war after growing up around it for 15 years.

Kerbaj now has two other children and all three attend the same private school he attended. "My only goal is to surprise myself with new things," he says of the future. In July, he takes his family to Berlin for a whole year in the Artists in Residence program, DAAD. He will be focusing on his music during this time with one of the most prestigious programs in the world.

Mazen Kerbaj performs today, from 5:30 P.M to 6:30 P.M., at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center, 223 W. Jefferson Blvd, Free show.


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