Safar music series led by Mahmoud Chouki blends Eastern and Western music traditions

In conjunction with the exhibition Bodies of Knowledge, musician Mahmoud Chouki has created a series of site-specific performances collectively titled Safar (Arabic for to travel). This series explores how music can speak across cultural divides to create new forms of dialogue between East and West. Chouki’s original compositions incorporate musical influences from across the globe, ranging from European classical, Andalusian from Southern Spain, Levantine music from the Middle East, Maghrebian music from North Africa, Latin American music, and New Orleans jazz. He spoke with Jennifer Williams, Public Programs Manager, in advance of a closing concert on Sunday, October 13, from 6 to 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 for NOMA members | $20 for nonmembers.

The following performers will join Chouki for a collaborative concert: Steve Lands, arranger, on trumpet; Brad Walker, saxophone; Peter Gabriel Gustavson, trombone; Amber Rene Mouton, French horn; Oscar Rossignoli, piano; Noah Young, bass; Michelle Welchon, percussions; Simon Mouchabek, accordion, percussions; and Gerald T. Watkins Jr., drums.


When did you begin playing music?

I started playing music at a very young age. I grew up in the city of Larache in northern Morocco where I was drawn to guitar and music theory. At the age of 14, I was giving performances. I was invited to a conference in the United Arab Emirates and won a prize. I decided early on to be a professional musician. After high school and music school, I traveled around Morocco. I went to school to study music education, and my first job at age 20 was as a high school music teacher.

I feel lucky to be around so many great musicians in the city of New Orleans. There are many musicians here that enjoy creating music together, that’s great because not all musicians are collaborative. There is an affinity for those that you can learn from and exchange ideas and work on with no ego and be open to others’ contributions. We find compromise in making music and a line that we can follow together.

What is most important to you in your practice as a musician and how does cultural interplay impact that?

Meeting and working with different artists makes you more open minded and more accepting of others universally. When you travel to experience other cultures and when you collaborate you become more considerate of each other. I encourage people to travel. One of the artists that influences my music is Paco de Lucía, a master Spanish guitarist, along with other classical guitarists. I’m also influenced by traditional folk music around the world.

I can play many other string instruments from Latin American, Middle Eastern, and North African origins. I speak a variety of languages, including classic Arabic, French, Spanish, English, and, of course, Moroccan. My music is a fusion of North African, Moroccan, and Mediterranean influences.

The Safar series is musical communication among international musicians and New Orleans music. Music is the most important language for translating emotions. Most people don’t remember what you play but they remember the moments, the smiles, and the feeling.

How do you meet and begin working with other musicians?

When I travel I visit many music clubs and I talk with many of the musicians. The first time I came to New Orleans, I was invited by a music studies program to give a talk, do a workshop and perform at Snug Harbor. This was in March 2017 and I moved to New Orleans in September 2017. During that first visit to the US, I went on a road trip from Maine to Austin, visiting Asheville, Nashville, and many other cities and listening to local music. For the past eight years, I have worked with a foundation in Switzerland that invites six musicians from different countries and cultures for a week-long residency at Chateau Mercier in the city of Sierre. Music is often the only language we share. This past summer I joined musicians from Thailand, Algeria, Switzerland, Holland, and Spain.

What was the most impactful experience in New Orleans?

The contact with the people and the city itself. You feel like everyday there is something new. So many festivals with music, Mardi Gras, you feel like everyday in New Orleans is special.

What projects do you have coming up in the near future?

Currently, for the first time, I’m composing the score for a movie. The director asked to utilize works from my past album, Mood. I’m also composing for the story from the script. I feel comfortable with telling stories and taking on the challenge of trying something new.