Mazen Kerbaj, born 1975 in Beirut, is a draftsman and author as well as a musician. He has published drawings, many short stories and several books with a variety of magazines and book publishers. His comics-like drawings and caricatures are reminiscent of Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar, with seemingly Cubist, synchronous viewpoints and sometimes markedly distorted features. Not infrequently, the subject of Mazen Kerbaj’s portrait appears accompanied by words or sharp-tongued commentaries that speak of the conflicts of living in wartime even as they struggle to express the bloodcurdling sounds of these and other events.
In his music, Mazen Kerbaj transforms that which remains in part inaccessible to visual images. When he joins in an improvised duet with the sounds of the 2006 bombing of Beirut, the question of whether he does this out of resignation, resistance or defiance remains open. Starry Night is a minimalist improvisation that demonstrates the variety of sounds that can be developed from his experimental approach to certain instruments. It is therefore no surprise that Mazen Kerbaj is considered one of the pioneers of improvised music in the Near East. He founded various improvisation ensembles and played the first concerts of experimental improvised music in the region with colleagues such as the saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui. Together with the guitarist Sharif Sehnao, he conceived the Irtijal Festival, the first festival for improvised music in Lebanon, in 2000, along with the first label for improvisational music. While he initially developed his experimental sound world by generating differentiated sounds on the saxophone, Kerbaj has increasingly been seeking connections with other instruments.
His radical delight in experimentation manifests itself, for instance, in a »synthesis« of saxophone and trumpet. By combining the saxophone’s mouthpiece with the trumpet’s body, and electronic effects with extended playing techniques, Mazen Kerbaj creats a multilayered, at times meditative, at times energy-charged soundscape. During his Berlin residency, one aim is to translate the potential of the prepared trumpet into compositional concepts. The superimposition of different soundtracks – which arise, for example, from the incessant repetition of a single musical gesture and the continuous flow of sonic »microevents« – opens up a new compositional horizon of harmonically differentiated fields of sound.
This musically innovative approach to playing techniques for the prepared trumpet made Mazen Kerbaj an esteemed musician in the European improvisation scene, for instance in the trumpet trio with Axel Dörner (D) and Franz Hautzinger (A). It is not just the effect that matters to these musicians, but rather uncompromising relentlessness and ultimately inner freedom. Mazen Kerbaj has been traveling back and forth between the Near East, Europe and the USA for more than 15 years as a musician and artist – whether with exhibitions of his paintings and drawings or as a soloist and ensemble member in concerts. Onomatopoetic chains of symbols in Mazen Kerbaj’s work also create connections between the sound of the comics and the sound structures in the music.
Text: Fabian Czolbe
Translation: Andrea Lerner
Photo: Kai Bienert
Camera/editing: Uli Aumüller, Sebastian Rausch