Duoud: “The contrast of the two sounds is big.” Interview by Bob Baker Fish


Duoud are a unique combination of the ancient North African stringed instrument the oud, and electronics, creating music where the traditional meets more contemporary styles. A duo of Algerian born Mehdi Haddab (Speed Caravan) and Tunisian born Jean Pierre Smadja, over the last two decades they’ve toured the world (including a previous visit to Australia) and released three LP’s. Their latest EP drops on early next month, during which time they’ll be returning to Australia. We took the opportunity to have a quick chat with Jean Pierre Smadja about what’s been happening since we last saw them a decade or so ago.

Cyclic Defrost: Where did your attraction to playing the oud come from? Was someone in your family playing it?
Jean Pierre Smadja: I started playing guitar, but little by little I started playing the oud instead of the guitar and started to learn it with Mehdi in Algeria. So it was more I was playing guitar I was a professional guitar player before my family offered me an oud when I was 30, so I learnt it myself through compositions but after I met Mehdi he became like my master of the instrument.

Cyclic Defrost: The oud is played in many countries and there are many different traditions in each country, do you feel like you play from a certain tradition or do you borrow styles from everywhere?
Jean Pierre Smadja: For both of us we were always very curious about all the ways all the different schools play the instrument, because like you said it’s very different in Tunisia to Algeria and Yemen, all these different countries have conservatories and schools for oud, and the way the play it in each countries, their technique and the sound and the songs, and the intervals between the notes are different. So we are very curious about all of that with Mehdi, so we try to learn all of that, traditional melodies, classical pieces including all these different styles to be able to repeat them, and to be able to separate them now in our compositions. So we now have lots of different schools of oud.

Cyclic Defrost: You said Mehdi became your master. What does it mean to be a student to a master?
Jean Pierre Smadja: When we met I had two years, and he had more than 15 or twenty years practicing the instrument. To have a master means you have to see him lots of times, spend lots of time with him, each time I was curious about what he was playing I asked him ‘please can you teach me that? Teach me this way to play or his special techniques.’ And that’s why he became like a master to me. Now we don’t have this relationship because I took some other lessons from other countries, so we exchange information about the playing and he doesn’t need to teach me all the time. It’s different now, but he’s still a good source of information. Even now, I sometimes ask him could you teach me this or that when we have time together.

Cyclic Defrost: It’s interesting your relationship has changed over time.
Jean Pierre Smadja: It’s been a long time now. We don’t have this relationship from teacher to student, we have something different. He didn’t know electronic music when we met so much and I was a sound engineer and I was always surrounded by computers and samplers and synthesizers. So it was an exchange. He was my master for oud and I was his master for electronic music. So this didn’t change so much because each time we composed together he had some ideas of electronic but he couldn’t complete them. It’s exactly the same for the instrument.

Cyclic Defrost: So you compliment each other.
Jean Pierre Smadja: Exactly.

Cyclic Defrost: I was planning on asking about mixing the oud and electronics. Can you tell me what made you start doing this and where the ideas came from?
Jean Pierre Smadja: I think the idea was very simple, because at the beginning we wanted to practice oud together. So we decided to use electronic music only to accompany us. It was ‘okay, lets try to practice melody with this rhythm’, and at this time I was really into electronic music so I began to construct beats adapted to the compositions we were playing. So the electronic music is so powerful for that, because you can change the beat in front of the melody any way you want, and you can be very precise. It’s a different world to play with musicians. You can adapt all the songs – what you want to do to – the songs to the instrument. Also I’m very pleased to play electronic music on stage, to share with Medhi sometimes, ‘okay I play the computer you play the oud and it will be dynamic’. This is something strong, using electronic music with oud, because the contrast of the two sounds is big. It could be a traditional song and everybody feels it is old, in front of very modern songs. So this combination, when we first began to do our first concert, all the people were very surprised because they didn’t imagine you could combine both. And we were really happy to see that it worked so well. So we want to keep this for the band and want to go on to find new sounds and adapt to what we want to do.

Cyclic Defost: Oh. I thought it was because you didn’t want to pay a drummer.
Jean Pierre Smadja: (Laughs) Perhaps this is the second reason. When we do albums we have drummers play on our tracks, because we want something special from them. They always keep saying to us, ‘you will be a true band when we play with you on stage.’ (laughs). But we want to stay a duet. A duet is something special. When there are two on stage you’re always listening for your partner and the inspiration is strong. That’s why we never think about doing something with all the musicians on stage. We have some guests sometimes and we love to share a stage with them, but as a band, we want to stay a duet.

Cyclic Defrost: Does that allow you play space for improvisation as well?
Jean Pierre Smadja: It’s easier when there is two on stage to follow the other – to have a very dynamic relationship on stage. It allows us to improvise a lot, that is true.

Cyclic Defrost: You have a new EP coming out?
Jean Pierre Smadja: The 7th of March.

Cyclic Defrost: I saw you posted a live show in Taiwan with your song La Vida. Can you tell me about the new EP.
Jean Pierre Smadja: We decided this time to release two eP’s and the album at the end. We wanted to ask different remixers or producers to help us to finish produce the tracks. So on the next track we have Dr L who we have known for a long time, he produced two songs and we have David Husser, a sound engineer and producer who was working with Mehdi a long time and Sofyann Ben Youssef from Ammar 808. So we have three different producers to help us finish the tracks and we want to do this for also our next EP too. So to produce some of the tracks ourselves and to give some of them to be reworked or reproduced by others, because we have released three albums and we always produce our albums – now we want to share it and have a new feel on the tracks. So on the next EP we only have two songs but perhaps four different versions.

Duoud 2019 Australian tour
8-11 March – Adelaide – Womadelaide
14 March – Sydney – Oxford Arts Centre
16 March – Melbourne – Corner Hotel


About Author

Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.