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Joseph Tawadros

Thousands of years before the first guitar-shredding rock god ever took to the stage, there was another stringed instrument that was known for mesmerising its audiences. Revered in traditional Arab music, the oud’s melancholy timbre is now being given a contemporary lease on life at the dexterous fingers of 29-year-old musician, Joseph Tawadros. The ARIA Award-winning virtuoso’s latest album, Chameleons of the White Shadow, is a modern fusion of jazz and classical sounds that features some of music’s greats playing right alongside him. 

I immigrated from Egypt to Australia when I was two … and I don’t remember much of it. I feel very much Australian but I’ve discovered more about my Arabic and Egyptian heritage here.

My family always had that thirst … to go back and visit Egypt and I guess I was caught up in that nostalgia. I hadn’t really lived there but the nostalgia came more from all the stories I heard about the family. I think what I do now is very much a way of getting in touch with my culture.

My older brother played guitar … and I always remember listening to him practise. And my grandfather played the oud and violin. My family constantly had music on – my parents always played the classic Arabic music.

I actually wanted to play trumpet … because my uncle was a famous trumpet player in Egypt and he was really a pioneer. But then I saw the oud in a movie about an Egyptian composer – my family are also Arabic movie buffs – and I was really drawn to it. The oud is the instrument of choice in Egypt; it’s kind of like the piano is to the West. There was a scene where the main character sold his father’s gold watch to buy an oud and that really stuck with me.

I love the sound of the oud … because it’s a very earthy sound, like a cello in a way. It’s got that register that’s not intrusive and it’s a very warm instrument. I also love the nature of the music – it’s very melancholy.

I’ve been back to Egypt … now and then and have hung out with my uncle and other musos. I found that to be a really inspiring environment. The culture is crazy and very different, but I was able to connect with my roots again and all the stories I’d been told. It was a real eye opener for me.

I don’t try to play … to a particular genre. I love all sorts of music and I’m in a very privileged position at the moment to be playing with the people I enjoy listening to, who are also my heroes. That’s what this album was about – playing with some of the great jazz players and people I heard as a kid.

My brain … is constantly ticking. I try to record an album a year and one that’s totally different from the previous album, which is a very large undertaking. But it’s about meeting the right musicians and knowing what will work and sound great, rather than just doing it for the hell of it. And it’s also about trying to say something.

I think for any musician … who is really involved with their instrument and music, it kind of becomes a daily tool for relaxation and expression. It’s something very special that’s also our job and we’re very lucky in that manner – especially if we are composing and performing our own music.

The advice I would give anyone pursuing a career in music … is that you have to work very hard, but you also have to love it. It’s about loving your instrument and loving music and doing it for that reason – all the other stuff is
just a bonus. The other thing is to always ask. I wasn’t embarrassed to ask anyone, and that’s why I’ve been able to play with a lot of great musicians. I felt like I had something to offer, so I asked them and they jumped on board.

Music is a really hard journey … because it’s not a very lucrative one. So you really have to have the drive, the passion and the love for what you do, finances aside. You’ve got to have a vision and stick with it. Most of the success I’ve had, I haven’t ventured out to get. It’s come through me doing what I do and doing it because I love it.

The hardest thing to overcome … is people saying no to you. I’ve had classical festivals saying that people won’t enjoy listening to the oud. There are a lot of shut doors in your face, but it gives you the drive to work harder and realise that you do have something and that shut doors aren’t going to stop you from doing it.

I’ve never thought of giving up … because really I’ve been very lucky.  I’m in a very privileged position because I get to perform the music that I write and have great musicians perform it with me.

I’m really proud … of my latest record, because I didn’t think I would get that line-up of musicians – they’re all the best in their field. And I’m also very proud of winning the ARIA last year.

One of my most memorable musical moments … was on a tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and one of the pieces was an arrangement of ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ by Pink Floyd. We did about 12 concerts but I never got bored of it. I remember sitting on stage and just looking around and seeing how the guys played and how beautiful it was. It just heaven and I realised that it was really what music is all about. And how privileged was I to be an audience member on the stage!

I’m really inspired … by poetry. I’ve done three albums based on the poetry of Kahlil Gibran who wrote The Prophet in 1923. I’m also inspired by other music, but I think the greatest things come out of inadequacy. I like going to a show and feeling inadequate and getting that feeling that you still have somewhere to go. That’s what keeps you going – if you don’t feel inadequate then you have no drive to do anything.

I really love Vivaldi … because his music can be fast but also so emotionally charged. There’s that misconception that if you play fast, there’s no soul in the music but I don’t think that’s the case. There can be great emotional depth within speed and it just comes down to how the performer is pushing that across.

Lately I’ve been listening to … a lot of John Abercrombie – revisiting his work. He’s a legendary jazz guitarist and I’ve been listening to his albums at the moment and just loving them. He still continues to be an amazing guitarist even though he’s more than 70 years old. I hope that I still get to play music at that age and I’m still learning. I never want to stop learning. That’s the thing – guys like him are the perfect example of how you want to be as a musician. They’re still keen at that age. I recorded with Howard Johnson and Roy Ayers on the last album and they’re 73 and still excited and loving music and performing. And they don’t take it for granted, which is why I think they’ve had such long careers.

My main goal … is to help move the oud away from being seen as an ethnic instrument or attached to one genre. I’d like to see it become an instrument that stands as strong as the guitar or the piano.

There’s a spirituality in music … that connects us all and it’s not tied down to a particular religion. That’s what I love about it. You should always keep a melody in your heart.