Ruptures from a Biennial – Amino Belyamani & Dimi Mint Abba
A conversation with Amino Belyamani
By Ziad Nawfal
Moroccan piano player Amino Belyamani will be playing a highly anticipated duet with Mauritanian singer Dimi Mint Abba in Sharjah’s 10th Biennial, on Saturday 19 March.
Tell me about your trajectory as a musician.
I was born in Casablanca. I must have been five or six when I started attending classical piano lessons. I went there once or twice a week, and really hated it. I remember looking for ways to avoid practice, until one day, I think I was twelve years old, I realized I loved the piano, and developed an entirely different attitude towards the instrument. I played hardcore classical music from that moment until I graduated from high school. I participated in many competitions, received prizes and played in master-classes, in France especially. After high school, I decided to focus on music, so I went to Paris and studied with a great French professor. A year later, I started getting frustrated with classical music. I always had this desire to improvise, but didn’t know how to. When I was younger, I used to listen to my dad’s record collection at home, which consisted mostly of jazz, Coltrane… The music was great, but it seemed like magic to me! Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett… Those were the three piano players that I listened to the most while growing up, and they sounded like magicians to me. I eventually realized that one could actually learn to play like that, so during my second year in Paris, I took lessons with this fantastic French piano player, Vincent Bourgeyx. During the very first lesson, he said something that was insulting to me at first, but eventually opened my mind. He said “Well, you can obviously play all of that music, but you can’t even play a blues!” He was obviously right. I decided there and then that France wasn’t the place for me to learn improvised music, especially since jazz is an American art form, so I applied to CalArts, the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. I wanted to learn jazz, and only jazz, at first. But that school is so unique, it has so many gifted professors, such as Charlie Haden and Joe La Barbera, so many genres and approaches, that I immediately saw myself involved in different types of music: electro-acoustic, Persian, Arabic, Javanese and Balinese gamelan, North-South Indian, Ghanian music, free improvised music, contemporary classical, all sorts of crazy stuff. And jazz of course, but jazz was just a small percentage. Once I graduated, I decided that I was going to be this piano player that doesn’t play only jazz or classical, and that I will do EVERYTHING. Sometime later I became interested in my own music, I mean in terms of my own cultural roots, Moroccan and Arabic and African music. This is what led me to where I am today, this kind of “world music” approach to the piano, with unusual piano tunings.
How were you approached to play in this Biennial?
I was contacted by Haig (Aivazian, associate curator of Sharjah Biennial 10), who had heard my music online, and suggested that I play with Dimi. I was humbled. I said to him, “Dimi Mint Abba, are you kidding? She’s one of my favorite singers, of course I would love to play with her!” She’s amazing. The timbre of her voice is so particular, and her pitch precision is unbelievable. From the first email, he said it would be her and her percussion section, with me on piano. Since I was in this whole phase of world music and different tunings, I suggested tuning my piano to her voice and kora. It’s a complicated process, hence me coming here two weeks prior to the performance, in order to make sure the piano is stabilized. Moving the piano, subjecting it to heat and humidity, changes in temperature… These are all factors that we have to consider. The piano of the concert is going to be tuned at least three times before the gig, and probably a fourth time on the day itself. Pianos are not used to this kind of treatment (laughs).
Were you given any specific guidelines in approaching the performance? Were there any restraints that you were made aware of?
No, I was given free rein, and I have to say that I’m really thankful. My desire in my career is to get to the point where, wherever I tour, a piano and a tuner can be made available. I’m really thankful that in the case of the Biennial, this was not even a hindrance. They basically said “You want a tuner? Okay, here’s a tuner. You want a Steinway? Okay here’s a Steinway!” I know this is very unique, and I know not to expect it from other festivals or other organizations. I wish that it would be the case everywhere, but I know that this is a unique situation with the Biennial, they’re offering me everything I need, and it’s really been an amazing experience so far.
What are you working on presently, apart from the Biennial?
My new album, which I just finished mastering, features microtonal piano with ney, oud, bass and drums. It’s a quintet called “Sohha”, with the ney player sometimes playing daf, and the oud player switching at times to bendir. The album is called Ummi, in homage to my grandmother who passed away last year. Most of the songs are heavily rhythmic, heavily polyrhythmic, with that African feel. It’s a project that I’ve been working on for a while, consisting entirely of original compositions. I finished the mastering in January, so it’s kind of a big release right now for me.