Artist Feature: Adnan Joubran
One of a Trio, one of a Kind: The oud maestro, film-maker and entrepreneur carves his own path
Growing up as the youngest in a fourth generation family of oud makers and players, Adnan Joubran learned to respect his instrument many years before he began playing it. Now, after almost twenty years of performing, half of which spent playing with his two brothers, the oud player, composer and entrepreneur now carves his own path, leading his own projects, both cinematic and musical.
Joubran joined his two brothers to form Le Trio Joubran in 2005 and they released their debut album Randana in the same year. Performing internationally since, they have also composed soundtracks for award-winning documentaries and films, and released their fifth album The Long March in 2018, which included a striking collaboration with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. In 2014, Joubran launched his own solo project and band, sharing stages with a diverse range of acts such as the Mexican duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela and the French-Lebanese jazz trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf. Most recently, Joubran created the professional oud case company PROUDCASE and is currently working on a documentary about the story and brotherhood of Le Trio Joubran.
Revealing his own unique contribution to the Joubran name, the youngest brother describes his early love of cinema, the trials and wonders of brotherhood, and the rocky road to musicianship. Last month, his third son just born, Joubran sat with Marsm, and reflected on his upbringing and delves into the knowledge and experience his small trio will inherit.
Joubran comes from a musical family from Nazareth in northern Palestine. A musical family, his mother Ibtisam was well known for singing muwashahat, a popular Arabic poetic genre. His father Hatem is a renowned oud and violin maker and a skilled performer, whose iconic workshop in Nazareth still attracts clients from around the world.
Joubran saw his three older siblings make their mark in the world of music in distinctive ways. His oldest brother Samir started to play the oud at an early age, while Wissam followed his dream of becoming a luthier, and became the first Arab student to study at the renowned Italian Stradivari conservatory, where he was able to skip the first three years, because of his impressive hereditary knowledge. His sister Suha, a singer, spent much of her time singing with choirs and frequently sings alongside her brothers when they perform in Palestine. Joubran looks forward to the next opportunity to collaborate with her, hinting that she may feature on the next Trio Joubran album.
According to Joubran, each child discovered their creative passion early on.
“Samir never made ouds. I don’t know if he ever helped my Dad, but he wasn’t interested. But Wissam has been interested in making ouds since he was five. He left regular school when he was thirteen to enroll in a school which focused on woodwork and metalwork”.
Joubran did not actually begin to play until he was in his late teens. Instead, his passion, from early childhood, was cinematography, filming and directing.
“I used to play in the house with anything I could convert into a camera – even a shoebox with a mirror inside. Moving around chairs to make camera dollies, filming things in the house, I was living as a cameraman”. Watching films with his mother, they would pour through scores of Arabic black and white movies and old Egyptian classics.
“I was criticising the movement of the camera and the lights and so on. I didn’t even know that I was criticising. I was ten years old”.
His love for film-making also became a clever excuse to skip the classes he didn’t enjoy at school. With a crafty premise, the budding filmmaker convinced the director he needed to work on his documentary about their school. Most of the time, Joubran escaped to the library. Yet this early passion was far from a momentary infatuation:
“I never got out of it…”.
By the time he was a teen, his brothers had left the house to pursue their studies and budding careers. He had big dreams of working in film, but lacked the means.
“When I was sixteen, I filled out an application for a cinematography school in San Francisco that I’ve never submitted because I didn’t have $25,000”. Around the time, his oldest brother Samir, who was living in Ramallah, befriended several local filmmakers such as Rashid Masharawi and Raed Andoni who became trusted and familiar faces over time. “That’s what triggered [the discovery] that actually I do have a talent in it – Samir would just come with them to the house and we’d have long discussions. I went to Ramallah and I met Raed and we started to talk about cinema”.
Around the same time as Joubran’s film dreams were starting to take shape, he began to discover music as another passion. But it wouldn’t be an easy path.
“When I was sixteen – which is when I first took my instrument, my oud in my hand – I used to play in front of the mirror just to watch myself, to be my own mentor, but at the same time, see what people could see. I felt that I could be Carlos Santana on the guitar, or Michael Jackson as a performer, and that I could take a few small bits from each of them. But unfortunately I’ve never had a mentor myself. This is why today I can say I am self taught.”
It was a rebellious project that I wanted to do on my own.
In the early days, when he was just beginning to gain mastery of his instrument, Joubran was invited to take part in an oud competition. Though reassured that he was at the right standard, Joubran found that the challenge he would face was more than merely musical.
“I didn’t want to do it. I said I’m not an oud player and I don’t want to play. He insisted it was not for professional oud players, it was for people my age, [but] when I went there, it was all musicians from the college who were twenty-three or older.”
The three judges, musicians and teachers from the conservatory, stopped Joubran before he had finished playing, telling him that though he played well, he was not qualified for the competition, as he didn’t hold a diploma. He was therefore surprised when, a month later they called him to tell him he had passed the first and second level of the competition, and was to perform in front of a live audience, for the final.
“When the announcer came on stage (I was the last one to play) he said: ‘Sorry if you please, Adnan, he’s not a competitor, because he doesn’t have a diploma. But I’m asking you to please have five minutes to listen to him’. I went on stage with someone begging the people to stay and I didn’t even want to be here. This was double humiliation. They had told me what to play beforehand, but when they said I wasn’t part of the competition, I thought I’ll play whatever I want. I improvised for five minutes and people went crazy. They called me to take the flowers and I never did.”
This is when Joubran decided he wanted to become a professional oud player.
“A professional starts with respect to the other player, to the teacher, to the student, to the public. They had ruined every aspect of respect in art. It was both the worst and best experience that I’ve had.”
What does ‘better’ mean when you’re making art? My brothers always taught me how to love and give, and not challenge.
A decade after joining his brothers as part of the Trio, Joubran released his debut album Borders Behind in 2014.
“It was a rebellious project that I wanted to do on my own. I wanted to achieve the legitimacy of being with the Trio on stage. People thought [Wissam and Samir] recruited and trained me to create the Trio. But it wasn’t true – I trained myself. All eyes were on me [to see] what I could give… I wanted to do this to prove that I was capable of doing something as good as good, as deep, as experimental and as challenging.
“My parents said: ‘Adnan, are you going to leave the Trio? You can’t do something on your own’. I said it’s legitimate, I have to do something to bridge the Trio. Samir and Wissam have done that with other players. I haven’t. On stage I always felt that trust between two brothers. So I wanted to know that I can be on stage on my own and give trust to other musicians as a leader of a project”.
Beyond being a key performer in the Trio. Joubran sees his passion in cinematography as an important contribution to the group.
“I do it from the heart, I do it from the passion, from the knowledge, reading, feeling and trying”.
He has filmed and edited every one of the Trio’s videos, and is proudest of Carry The Earth featuring Roger Waters.
“It was the simplest to do but the wisest. We shot in one day, in one hour. Roger Waters lives in Manhattan, he came to London and we went to Abbey Road Studios. I was crying while he was reciting it. I had tears on my face. I had the idea and it happened, and it worked. Sometimes the ones I’m the most proud of are the trickiest”.
The same might be said of his recent venture, the PROUDCASE. For most of his performing career, Joubran had struggled, like many oud players, to find a suitable case to protect his precious instrument: the available cases made by big companies were either too heavy, bulky or impractical to take on tour.
“Neither did they properly protect the case, or represent the knowledge and experience of oud players.”
Joubran wanted to carry something he could be proud of.
In an ingenious spirit, he decided to take on the project himself. Meeting with over a dozen seamstresses to discuss its design, he was repeatedly told it would not be possible given the case’s shape and stitching. But Joubran’s skin had grown thick. That answer wasn’t going to suffice any more. He, and his fellow oud players, risked damaging or breaking their instruments with every flight, train or taxi ride they took. Given that most professional ouds are a lifetime investment (and in his case, hand crafted by his brother Wissam), travelling became a nerve-wrecking process that needed a better solution.
With no previous experience, he bought his own sewing machine and taught himself to sew. The design was constantly being improved by feedback from peer musicians, touring oud players and designers, who were travelling the world with Joubran’s various models. After a year of research, design and creating fifteen prototypes, the PROUDCASE was born. Joubran would go on to train two seamstresses to support the growing enterprise and now sends out cases to oud players around the world.
Trust that there are always more good people than bad people, in every aspect.
What advice would Joubran give, based on his own experiences in live?
“There’s a nice line that Norah Jones said in the film My Blueberry Nights: ‘I’m happy that I’ve always failed to not trust people’. I’m always happy to trust people […] Trust that there are always more good people than bad people, in every aspect. For me, I use this in art. Everyone tries to use me in the Trio Joubran to achieve something. And I just give. Many musicians come to me for consulting. I give as much as I know, maybe more. Some people ask why I don’t keep this for myself, because if I did, I could keep it for myself and be better off. What does better mean when you’re making art? My brothers always taught me how to love and give, and not challenge. There’s no challenge between us, except musically on stage.”
A few days before we spoke, Joubran’s third child was born. He tells us his children will carve their own destiny, as he had done. While there is always encouragement for them to pursue their own passions, Joubran is adamant he will not force anything on his children, especially not at such an early age. What would he like them to learn?
“I would love to transmit this quality, these key notes, key ideas. I would like to transmit it to other oud players that want to achieve their own sound. Because me, within the Trio or outside the Trio, I have my own sound. whether in playing, composition or performing. And this is what everyone should have, should do, or deserves to have as an oud player. They always have oud players or teachers that say ‘you have to play like me’. If you’re not playing like me, then you’re not good. And this is bad. And this is what I refused when I was sixteen. And this is what I want to transmit”.
A warm thank you to all of those who submitted questions. To respect some privacy requests, we have kept names anonymous.
In your eyes, who is the best oud master/virtuoso and why? What’s best about their technique?
I don’t think there is ONE best, there are many I learn from, and much more I enjoy listening to, techniques are here to serve an idea or a story, or a feeling, if we forget all about this and focus on techniques we lose the music.
What’s your favourite childhood memory?
So many, running in the woods with Wissam and collecting wild fennels and zaatar, and stopping by a family having lunch under a shade of a few trees. And if I think about it now, I see the beauty of not even knowing it was called Palestine, and not knowing that lands were stolen, and families had to flee, or fight till death… the simplicity of the reality, my house and the trees around was all my world.
Spill the tea – are you related to Kamilya?
Not at all, she is Palestinian, born to an oud maker father as well, herself is a great oud player and musician, but in Palestine there are several different Joubran families, but unfortunately we are not family related, she is a good friend though, highly respected and respectful.
What is your favourite novel?
Paolo Coelho – Eleven minutes.
When can we expect to see you perform next? Are there any new projects?
Performing Next is our topic with our agents, this seems to be a difficult to answer, as we have missed two booking seasons due to the pandemic, but we are so eager to be on stage, just as much as our public is eager to see us live, never the less, this is how long the three brothers haven’t seen each other and this is when we expect to see each other next. As for projects, we’ve just released a singer with a great Iranian singer Alireza Qorbani and we have a remix ready to release, waiting for the right idea for the video clip.