John Kameel Farah: Multi-dimensional storytelling with music

E_p10_farah_1Toronto-based John Kameel Farah will be performing Sept. 25 as part of Western Front’s 88 Tuned Bongos piano concert series, but one can expect more than just piano in his Solo for Four Hands performance. Jazz, classical and improvisational piano are fused with electronic music and Middle Eastern melodies to create a multi-dimensional, multicultural music experience.

The combination of jazz and improvisational piano with electronic music and Middle Eastern modes might sound unorthodox, or even counterintuitive. Indeed at first, for Farah, it was.

“These things came together very gradually,” says Farah, referring to the different styles and “musical lives” he has as a classical pianist, composer and jazz pianist, to name a few.

However, while exploring beat-based electronic music, it all came together at once.

“It was a revelation,” he says. “Because imagine making tracks like this, using synths and samples, but composing them more like ‘classical’ pieces, with a depth of form and structure, rhythmic complexity, counterpoint and narrative.”

As for melodic styles of a distinctly Middle Eastern vibe, that was music that Farah grew up with around the house, alongside classical composers such as Bach.

Fusing classical depth of composition and Middle Eastern modes evocative of grandeur and ancient aesthetic into electronic synth-filled pieces creates a “counterpoint of genres,” often synthesized by his own piece Lake Trasimene’s subtitle: Blade Runner in Babylon.

Antiquity and art

One only needs to read Farah’s latest album’s title, Between Carthage and Rome, to know that influence in his art is also drawn heavily from history. However, Farah tends to go beyond reference and allusion, instead digging deeper, telling nuanced stories, sometimes as seemingly counterintuitive as the musical and stylistic blend he employs. For example, the dancing title track of his latest album can allude to the Punic wars (300–100 BCE), but tells the tale of eyewitness accounts of bitter enemies of the Crusades, the Franks and Saracens, dancing together by the fire.

Pieces such as this tend to tell a story that run contrary to our conception of history, and even the present.

“[Studying history] helps me in trying to understand how things came to be as they are now, to see how Europe and the Middle East were much more part of the same civilization. And even when later on they became more clearly separated, they were like two branches springing from the trunk of the same tree,” he says.

A global artist

Incorporating electronic beats.

Incorporating electronic beats.

As an artist who has drawn influence from many different genres and styles as well as from history and mythology, it seems fitting that Farah has performed across the globe. He has toured in Europe and North and South America as well as in Korea and Jerusalem.

Yet, in a somewhat unexpected fashion, much that has influenced him as an artist stems from his native country of Canada. Farah describes an influential visit to St John’s, Newfoundland, inspiring him to perform Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit a few months later, and notes the stark contrast between Brampton, the “sensory-depravation chamber”-like suburb outside of Toronto in which he grew up, and Toronto itself.

He says that some may argue Brampton “forces you to become more imaginative,” but describes the music scenes of Toronto as “remarkably open-minded.”

“They follow new developments in music, check it out, process and do their own thing. I found this very freeing, to piece the world together in your music as you see fit,” says Farah.


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