Artist Feature: Faraj Suleiman
Setting the stage: trailblazing the new Arabic jazz
Currently regarded as one of the leading contemporary jazz pianists and composers of the Middle East, Faraj Suleiman built his scene and sound, from the ground up. With an impressive six albums under his belt and three currently in the pipeline, Suleiman has also written music for numerous films, theatrical projects and cabaret shows as well as being commissioned by some remarkable projects (not to mention the piece he wrote for Banksy’s autopiano in the ‘Walled Off Hotel’). From the first solo concert in his hometown of Haifa in 2013 to today, where he is performing and selling out shows across some of Europe’s most prominent capitals, Suleiman’s hard work is paying off.
But it didn’t always seem that way.
“My first show was a complete disaster…”
Suleiman’s success did not come overnight, and with the lack of a jazz scene in Haifa, especially back in the 2010s, he faced some challenges. Compared to neighbouring Egypt, Lebanon and other Arab countries, home to a plethora of musical figures, Suleiman acknowledges that he and his peers had to shape a Palestinian jazz scene for themselves. Perhaps it was precisely this vacuum that allowed for Suleiman’s unique sound to flourish.
While many artists recall their first show with enthusiasm, Suleiman describes his debut as a fiasco; one that would hang like a heavy cloud over him for several months, almost causing him to leave music completely. With a wry smile, he tells us that some of his friends and original audience members still will not let him live it down, even all these years later.
So how bad was it?
“I never thought that I would be able to tell this story as a joke”
At the age of 29, Suleiman had decided that it was time to present his work to the public, a conviction that came with justified merit. He had certainly put in the hours: by this stage he had spent almost a decade studying musicology and picking up skills on the piano. Both privately and at his university, Suleimans’s teachers pushed him relentlessly. Between lessons, studying and homework, there was not much time for anything else. In those years, he never felt the need to present his work publicly. He knew it was going to take him many years to see what he really wanted. “I needed to see if I was really composing new things, or if it was bullshit.”
With many of his friends, family, peer musicians and acquaintances eager to hear what the silent genius had been up to for the past decade, he had a full venue of 350 people, a promising crowd for a debut show. But Suleiman was, he acknowledges, extremely unprepared for the spotlight. While his theoretical training was robust, performing live presented a different challenge. Being the first piano concert in Haifa, Suleiman was sure a few dozen in the audience were there merely out of sheer curiosity. The promotion, created by a friend, boasted that ‘Beethoven was coming alive, to play in Haifa’. Couples came dressed in the best clothes, expecting a romantic evening of Richard Clayderman-style serenading. Suleiman walked onto the stage, nervous and sweating, sat down and, without a word, began to play.
“I played badly. I was frozen on the stage. I was scared, I didn’t have any trust for my materials. I was thinking like an academic. They got something really sophisticated – it was a big disappointment. In college they don’t teach you the most important thing, that people should feel good, should be happy and want to be entertained. They are not coming to have a lecture in music. But they don’t teach you that!”
During the two-hour performance, the only time Suleiman paused to speak to the audience was during the climax of his concert, when two restless audience members started to chat. Suleiman stopped playing, turned around and told them to be quiet, after which an uncomfortable silence gripped the room. No one dared to breathe. You could hear a pin drop. When the concert finally ended both Suleiman and the audience let out a sigh of relief. He left the stage but was forced to return by his friends backstage, “…so I went back and said ‘I forgot to say thank you. Thank you.’ And then I left.”
“I was depressed for six months after that. I didn’t want to go out, or answer phone calls. I wanted to quit. After the concert, out of 350 people, not one single person called, not even my mother.”
“Something inside me wanted to get back on stage”
In those months of self-inflicted quarantine, Suleiman couldn’t shake off the overriding feeling of truly wanting to perform more, and better than that – to ‘be on stage all the time’. With time, this feeling overcame every other emotion.
“Now I’m very relaxed. I go on stage and I feel it’s my place. I used to watch my fingers and think to myself ‘when is this going to finish??’. But today, I look at the time and ‘wow f***, it’s already over’. I enjoy performing, and now I know how to make people happy.”
One of the most remarkable things about Suleiman is not only the dedication, discipline and love for his craft but his openness to challenges and experiments. Over the past years he has branched out beyond his solo work to involve himself in theatre projects, collaborations and composing for film. A testament to this energy: he released not one, but two albums the year following his first show in 2013 and released another two in 2017, ‘Once Upon A City’ and ‘My Heart Is A Forest’. The latter is an album of children’s songs, a mesmerising project which he embarked on to overcome the lack of musical works for children in the Palestinian language.
The following year, Suleiman’s work shot into a new international sphere. With Haifa and Palestine’s music scene moving grudgingly forward, Suleiman was eager to find his place.
Stepping onto the international stage
“I always try to understand my level in music. You think that you might be one of the best, but it’s not enough for you to hear it from your friends, who might be saying things just to make you feel good. Since the level here [in Haifa] isn’t the best, or at least the competition and reference is so low, given there are so few pianists around, maybe you’re just good locally”.
In 2018, Suleiman was presented with two major opportunities which would catapult his music to the international stage; performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival and being accepted for a Cité Des Arts residency. The prestigious Paris-based institution is renowned for its artist-in-residence programmes that nurture first rate musicians, encourage cross-cultural dialogue and provide a space to mix with fellow artists, professionals and the public. There, Suleiman was able to connect with a new range of musicians from all over the world, some of whom would eventually join his band. Presented with his own fully-equipped studio for the duration of the residency, he was given free rein to learn, collaborate, and grow.
This recognition and growing self confidence culminated with an event that marked a turning point in Suleiman’s career: an invitation to play at the internationally renowned Montreux Jazz Festival. Suleiman emphasised that playing at the festival was something he had dreamed of, but expected to take at least ten more years on the scene. He had to ask his manager several times to repeat the offer.
With the fire burning in his fingers, Suleiman rehearsed with his group, worked on his stage presence and carefully prepared his shows. The hard work paid off. When the Montreux Jazz Festival asked him to return for a second time this year, Suleiman was over the moon. While the 2020 edition has since been cancelled due to Corona, it was this second invitation that confirmed to him that not only was his 2018 show a success, but that he now had a well-earned place on the international stage.
“Today I kind of dance on the piano – I am very free”
His latest album ‘Second Verse’, released in 2019, marked another milestone in his solo career, which had so far been predominantly instrumental. In 2018, he sang a snippet of “Issa Jay”, a song by his friend Amer Hlehel, as a sort of a joke. The feedback was stellar and had everyone asking the same question ‘Where is the second verse? We want a second verse!”
Even more remarkable is that the album was financed through a crowdfunding campaign. While audiences continuously asked Suleiman to make more music, he at times felt like “it was just something that people say”. But the donations and engagement with the campaign demonstrated genuine desire to hear more of his work. And so the ‘second verse’ turned into a whole album. Although he admits the crowdfunder was a challenging and at times draining project, Suleiman is extremely grateful for the financial and moral support he has received from his fans and audiences.
Stage fright, a second time around
Performing his album ‘ Second Verse’ brought a new challenge: singing live. Just before the first performance, Suleiman experienced a strange feeling in his throat, and worried it could be something very serious. Taking a handful of vocal lessons to prepare for his show, his teacher reassured him that the cause was less dramatic than he feared; it was just nerves. His voice was fine. When he sang his first song on stage in 2017, he warned audiences that he was not a singer, but they sang along with him, showing they knew exactly what to expect. He is still adamant that he is not a singer and never has been, yet is grateful for all the encouragement he has received, apart from his first show, when, perhaps, he needed it the most.
Let the music play
While many of Suleiman’s projects are on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he is able to focus on the release of three upcoming albums, each reflecting Suleiman’s versatility and unique talent and warmly welcomed by his fans. His instrumental album, due to have been recorded in Berlin in August, will feature a tantalising combination of Arabic music traditions, jazz and rock, a continuation of the unique sound he shaped in ‘Once Upon A City’. The second album sees him partnering with Palestinian songwriter Majd Kayyal to create a sequel to ‘Second Verse’, while the third album, released in a few months, will be the second edition of his celebrated children’s songs collection.
Suleiman’s story, told with humour and self-awareness, reveals a resilient approach to musicianship. Performing on stage has become second nature and although he cringes when reliving his first show, he reflects on his musical trajectory with a humble pride and excitement for the future. His career has been a great illustration of the saying ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try try again’… and we’re delighted he did.
A warm thank you to all of those who submitted questions. To respect some privacy requests, we have kept names anonymous.
What is your number one, non-negotiable principle that you live by, if you have one?
You are not gonna like this, but I live believing that “Work first”, the rest comes after.
You’ve revolutionized what it means to be an Arab/Palestinian musician. Who has inspired you to achieve this during the process?
I really can’t think of someone specific as my inspiration for my work. But there are so many stories that we know about musicians who started to play their own music in their small place, they worked hard on developing it and later were proud to take it to the world.
Why have you chosen this genre of music?
I didn’t, it came with my fingers 🙂
What made you decide to sing on your latest album? Will we be hearing more of your voice in any upcoming releases?
The success of my first song, “Issa Jai ” which made a lot of people ask me to sing more. I did it for fun, I did the “second verse” for fun as well, and yes I might do it again.
What inspired you to compose the track ‘Love’?
“Love” is a track from a whole different album called “Love without a Story“. I played it once in Haifa and we had problems recording it so I decided to postpone it. It was a description of a love relationship, the music describes it from the moment it starts to the end of it. When I composed “Second Verse” I was playing “Love” in concerts so I decided to put it on this album.
Will you be collaborating with more rap artists, like you did on ‘Jouwana’ with Bu Kolthoum?
Yes, I’m working on collaborations with two artists that I like. we still can’t figure it out when we will release it.
Where is the Second Verse?
I don’t know, please call me if you see it:)