into africa with ahaddaf


Poolside in the Chams Hotel, waiting to go to our soundcheck. Whilst Amsterdam seems to have resolutely entered summer, the aforementioned chamssun in Arabic – is hiding behind a thick layer of dark grey clouds here in Tetouan, on the north coast of Morocco. The swimming pool would be better suited for windsurfing today. My first trip to Africa, and no sun to be seen – this is Nepal all over again.

mohamed ahaddaf
mohamed ahaddaf
We’re here to play with the Ahaddaf Quartet at the 16th International Oud Festival, sharing the bill with musicians from many countries including Iraq, Greece, and this year’s special guest, Palestine. Mohamed Ahaddaf and I met about a hundred years ago, at a Chaishop show – a series of impromptu musical meetings organised by Ray Namaste, mostly at branches of coffeeshop Rokerij (now closed). The Chaishop was a great initiative: Ray figured there were a lot of great musicians in Amsterdam, from all over the world, who didn’t necessarily get to meet one another. Ray started organising gigs combining us, often in duos, and Mo and I had a lovely evening at one of these. Of course we exchanged numbers but at the time nothing came of it. And then, when his quartet’s regular percussionist Ulas Aksunger wasn’t available for this summer’s Moroccon adventure, we met again.

Mo and co-founding member bassist Stephan Raidl taught the new guys the repertoire – pianist Avishai Darash couldn’t do the Moroccan tour either, so Xavi Torres took the job. Mohamed’s music is very melody-based, adds or takes out beats or parts thereof when needed. Try to count it all out and you go mad; sing with the flow and everything is easy and wonderful. The percussion parts are strong grooves, usually played on cajon, darbuka, floor tom, cymbals, and a few more beatable objects. My set-up is closer to a traditional jazz/rock drum kit – so my job as a drummer is to sound like a percussionist who plays like a drummer. Interesting distinction, drums versus percussion – that’ll be a great topic for another post, so check back soon (or simply subscribe).

xavi torres & stephan raidl
xavi torres & stephan raidl
We played a couple of shows in Amsterdam before leaving for Morocco, including one at the Eye accompanying Kif Tebbi, a silent film from 1928. An unapologetically exotist (and borderline racist) and incredibly long-winded romantic melodrama by Mario Camerini, set against the Ottoman – Italian war in Libya in 1911. The film did impress some people: a review in the New York Times from 1919 praises the atmospheric depictions of “African villages; scraggly lines of camels trooping over the dunes; regiments of fleet-footed Arabian horses galloping down dirt streets, with long-muzzled carbines pointing skyward from the backs of the hooded Arab riders”. For us (with pianist Avishai this time) it was a great way to play around with our material: weaving our separate tunes into an unbroken two-hour piece, forming smaller combinations within the quartet, varying and stretching and reworking our songs and creating new sounds as we went. Fun, inspiring, and helpful to discover different sides of & possibilities with our music.

Finally, last night we arrived in Tetouan at some ungodly hour after a long day of plane food & airport limbo. Today was pleasantly slow – espresso and green tea with mint and lots of sugar, getting lost in the medina, admiring the multi-coloured geometric tiles everywhere. And now it’s time to find us a theatre and some sound to check. Looking forward to play tonight, slightly nervous. Oud enthusiasts of the world, stay tuned for further impressions of the Ahaddaf Quartet’s Moroccan tour.

elephant songs in suleymaniyah


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October 2013 saw another episode of Elephant Songs, my ongoing project in which musicians from different backgrounds meet and create original music together. This time, the backdrop was Suleymaniyah, the economic heart of Iraqi Kurdistan. An anonymous development aid NGO commissioned me to invite musicians from Iran (where I spent a few months on my drumbiker trip in 2012) and bring them together with colleagues in Suleymaniyah. The resulting line-up could be called a worldjazz quintet: Savel Fatih (Suly) on saxophone (consistently called saxyphone by everyone), Kaveh Kamjou (Tehran) on oud, the bass guitar was played by Ari Ali (Suly), percussion by Arash Lotfi (Tehran), and yours truly (from the low lands, Brussels / Amsterdam) played the drums. We spent a week preparing an evening’s worth of music, leading to a concert at Caffe11 on the night of 10 October. Next to rehearsing, Arash and I taught a rhythm workshop to local musicians too. We played one of the pieces we worked on as the opening piece for the final concert.

The group was a great mixture of cultures and backgrounds. Ari lived in Baghdad for most of his adult life and claimed his Arabic might be better than his Kurdish. Meanwhile Kaveh, though living in Tehran since a long time, is an Iranian Kurd and as it turned out, his Kermanshah Kurdish and Iraqi Kurdish were close enough to be mutually understandable. The Iranian language Farsi itself is apparently not too distant from Kurdish and moreover many Kurds speak it, so the week’s communication sounded in at least three languages. From a musical perspective, Savel is equally happy inventing folklorish songs, like the tune Fisherman Culture he contributed, and playing American jazz traditionals – in fact he suggested to play the classic Scott Joplin hit The Entertainer, the only non-original piece of the evening. Arash is at least as proud of his Persian music skills as of his vast knowledge of European classical music, while your humble correspondent has dabbled in a few different traditions himself as well.

Creating new music with a group as diverse as this is obviously not without challenges. “This melody has no good place on my instrument”, someone said when someone else was trying to teach them a new song. How to respect people’s backgrounds & preferences whilst still daring to challenge them? This question was faced by all of us, as we all took turns in leading the creation of a piece.

Savel came up with the afore-mentioned Fisherman Culture, on a groove that Arash was playing around with. Kaveh brought a beautiful tune he called Khazan, Farsi for autumn – the season that was just beginning. Arash and I devised some rhythmical games for the introduction. Arash has been exploring the mouth harp in recent times – as he already showed in last year’s improvised trio gig in Tehran (featuring Kaveh as well) – and wanted to create a piece showcasing five different ones. This resulted in his Lab Chang Concerto – including kadenzen, of course – that we tried out in a few places before the official show, the Shaeb Chaikhana among them. Ari contributed a very danceable reggae version of the traditional Kurdish melody Hewraman that he recently discovered working on another project, and finally my melody Muggosphere got a new treatment, including some fantastic oud work by Kaveh.

I made a short documentary about the process of creating music together, about beginnings of beautiful friendships, showing markets and people, tea houses and coffee bars. And stroopwafels. Enjoy!

elephant song birth, a short documentary about the elephant songs music meeting in suleymaniyah, iraqi kurdistan, in october 2013

The show was filmed by the great San Saravan and his friend Rebin Jaza; many others – including all musicians, cultural network wizard Neil van der Linden and surprise-visitor (and my father) Jan van Hulzen – have pointed cameras at whatever they considered relevant, funny, useful, or otherwise interesting enough to save for posterity.
Elephant Songs in Suleymaniyah was another fantastic project. I’m currently working on new plans involving Tehran and possible Tajikistan, stay tuned for updates. Meanwhile, let’s see the response this doculette will generate. Any thoughts, criticisms, suggestions welcome.



Waiting for Erik Gustafson of EPIC to talk about elephant songs for his Iraq Matters podcast over more than decent espresso at the Rand Gallery, Suleymaniyah. It’s the second day of Eid and the place is swarming with fifteen-year olds, grouped along gender lines and looking their best: skinny jeans, bow ties, pink polyester dresses, and, for the boys, the incomprehensible middle-eastern haircut – clipped close down the sides and back and a big mop on top, often asymmetrically shaped for heightened effect. The girls taller than the boys, who try to compensate with shadowy upper lips and studied-casual smoking around the bathrooms.

I’ve escaped my room – edit central, these days. How does one turn 20 hours of film into a 20-minute documentary? I’ve done a lot of short clips, but this is new. And exciting, obviously, but I need a break.

Although I must admit it’s not the first escapist move today – after cataloguing and reviewing all my material over the last few days, I felt like doing something concrete, and threw together a quick-and-dirty edit of the song Hewraman from our show at Caffe11 last Thursday, based on an idea by Ari Ali. The static camera was operated by Rebin Jaza, the moving images were shot by film maker and bear saviour San Saravan.



sahaloka paqla
After a good chat with Erik, during which we discussed topics ranging from intercultural collaboration to the economic side effects of donor money (to be broadcast in the nearish future), I walked down Salim Street. The Saholaka area (street corner, really) was busy as always, teeming with groups of men and women of all ages and of course lots of families. Happily munching on a portion of paqla, I once again congratulated myself on that moment of clarity, many decades ago, when I figured I should probably be a musician, because that would surely show me a lot of the world.

dinner music


Celebrity chef Herman den Blijker wanted us to stay all night. But we had other places to go, however beautiful (and ambient-music-inspiring) the accoustics in the high-ceilinged entrance of his place were.

What places? Why, restaurants, of course. The latest sensation in dinner music, guitarist Lukas Simonis, Peter van Bergen, and yours truly pack all the energy and most of the notes of your usual digestive-jazz combo’s full night into bursts of maximum 10 minutes, after which we quickly move on to the next place. The aim of all this on Friday 19 April was to give the dinner guests on the fancy Rotterdam Wilhelminapier a taste of what was going on at the Red Ear Festival for experimental jazz and environs.

red ear

live @ lantaren / venster

One, two, three, go! Freestyle. No prior agreements about form, key, mood. Just act, and react. An intense form of working together, especially with people you haven’t played with before – will vocabularies match, will we “feel” each other enough to follow, contrast, complement each other? Do our repertoires of tricks and phrases work with the others’, do we inspire each other enough to find ways together, surprise ourselves, challenge and feed each other, and above all create interesting music?

Whether we succeeded? That I leave to you to decide, dear listener. But I had a fantastic evening.

The Red Ear Restaurant Tour was organised by Hajo Doorn & Worm. Suyin Gisela Ridderstaat took photos.

Hans Wessels made a short film clip about the festival.


elephant songs: pil ahang at darbast


elephant songs at darbast, tehran * poster by amirali ghasemi
When discussing possibilities for playing gigs in Tehran, Amirali (at whose Parkingallery we played on 10 June) put me in touch with Darbast, the concert division of the Mohsen Gallery. After yet another ramble involving more of Tehran’s highways then I really needed at 8 am, I found the place, hidden in a residential area just off Modares Highway – but only reachable through an impossible maze of small streets. Though the problem started already when trying to locate the exit: many streets are known by their old names – while of course only their official, post-revolution names are signposted. I was told to leave the motorway onto Zafar Street, but was close to the Parkway Bridge when it dawned on me I might have missed it. Turned out the street I was looking for is now called Dastgerdi. Of course. But green tea with the lovely Persian sugar subsitute that I forgot the name of (help!) and chocolates made me quickly forget my miseries, and I had a very nice chat with Mohsen boss Ehsan and his people. Oh how I like these people’s sense of time, so much closer to my own: short-term thinking is not frowned upon, but rather the default mode. So we settled on the dates for two shows, and I left with a bag of cds of Mahriz Records, the label that Ehsan recently got involved in, founded by Nader many years ago. Some of the musicians on the albums might be interested in joining, I was told, as might some of the members of Pallett, the band I saw play at Darbast a few days before.

rehearsal with mohammad azmand, soheil peyghambari, daryoush azar, robbert van hulzen, arash lotfi
Over the next few days, I put together two bands for the evening, which both would play a set. A jazz-and-surroundings line-up with Soheil Peyghambari (clarinet), Mohamad Azmand (electric guitar), Daryoush Azar (double bass), Arash Lotfi (percussion), and yours truly (drums) and a more world/folk oriented combination with the musicians of Pallett: Omid Nemati (voice), Rouzbeh Esfandarmaz (clarinet), Kaveh Salehi (acoustic guitar), Behnam Moayerian (oud), Mahyar Tahmasebi (cello), Hessamedin Mohamadianpour (percussion), and the same bass & drums tandem consisting of Daryoush and myself.

rehearsal: rouzbeh esfandarmaz, omid nemati, daryoush azar * photo by shakiba faezipour
rehearsal: hessamedin mohamadian & robbert van hulzen * photo by sanam rahimi

After a week of intense rehearsal, we played two sold out nights (apparently all tickets went in half a day) for very happy audiences.

azmand, peyghambari, van hulzen
mohammad azmand, soheil peyghambari, robbert van hulzen * photo by arash ashoorinia

tahmasebi, moayerian, esfandarmaz
mahyar tahmasebi, behnam moayerian, rouzbeh esfandarmaz * photo by arash ashoorinia

jamming with egor in the broadlands


While I was grumpily attempting to whack the replacement rear subframe into the right spot on my bike so that it would line up with all the appropriate holes in the frame, a short Russian with a razor-straight fringe till just above his eyes started talking to me. The combination of my mood and his complete lack of English kept the conversation fairly superficial, but I did gather he was part of a group or band, which also featured a clarinet and/or saxophone player.
When later that evening I found myself at a birthday party for no one’s birthday in particular, organised by five confident and comfortable girls who in no time fully colonised the top floor terrace of Hotel Broadlands, Egor the saxophonist turned up – with the saxophone he had bought in an antique shop somewhere in Madras.

elephant songs #1 – all star jazzband


ep#1 @ bflat
elephant songs #1 at b-flat; 10 feb, 8:30 pm

The first official episode of Elephant Songs played in Bangalore for two weekends in February. We kicked off at the famous B-Flat in Indiranagar.

elephant songs #1
maarten visser (sax) * keith peters (bass) * robbert van hulzen (drums)


ep#1 @ plantationhouse
elephant songs #1 at plantation house (leela palace); 18 feb, 7 pm
The next weekend, we came back for a show at the beautiful Plantation House and at the Fireflies Music Festival. Musicians were Maarten Visser on saxophones, Keith Peters on electric bass, Robbert van Hulzen on drums, and at Fireflies we were be joined by guitarist Amit Heri.

elephant songs #1 at fireflies; 19 feb, 8 pm

oto.3 these days (and: movie edit!)


After editing the footage of riding through Nepal, included in mountains! please? iMovie was no longer the intimidating dark cloud that had stopped me from putting up clips of the oto.3 concerts in Amsterdam in the early summer. So here it is, enjoy!

And all those who missed those shows, don’t worry because new opportunities are around the corner! To begin with, we played at the wonderful Plantation House in Bangalore last month – dressed in fine shirts provided by designer & maker Shalini. Yesterday, Tuesday 20 December, we performed at the launch of basement21, the newest & hottest artists’ collective in Madras, South India, concluding a two-day programme there. On Monday 19, German / Belgian choreographer Arco Renz showed his work and discussed how his constant travelling all over Europe and Asia affects his work – and how it doesn’t, people being people all over the globe. Tuesday night was opened with short dance films (different from documentations of dance shows) from the Yellow Line Project, presented & discussed by Preethi Athreya, who made one of the films.

For more info on oto.3, including audio recordings and more video, check out the official page.

basement 21, 20 december 2011

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dikeman & van der weide & van hulzen @ fat form, 6 august 2011


Breed begrip: an instant jazz trio on a rainy roof in Amsterdam Bijlmer. Enveloped by the smell of chocolate brownies, the sound of heavy summer (?) rain, and the curious attention of a varied audience, saxophonist John Dikeman, cellist Raoul van der Weide, and I, drummer Robbert van Hulzen, improvised a half-hour long set of high-energy honks, heavy grooves that didn’t quite add up, crackles in honour of Michel Waisvisz, hisses of unknown origin, and gooey drones.

raoul van der weide * cello
john dikeman * sax
robbert van hulzen * drums

breed begripOur performance was part of the almost-weekly events organised by independent artists’ collective fatform: “an art project that challenges the idea of a traditional platform and at the same time uses its basic functionality. Local and international artists meet, exchange, exhibit and perform together during the whole summer at one of the best underground locations in Amsterdam: the rooftop of the Kraaiennest Shopping Centre in Amsterdam-Zuidoost.” The idea is to attract audiences from diverse backgrounds “such as contemporary art, biology, hip hop, new media, philosophy, performance and reggae”, which are “encouraged (or basically forced) to at least have a peek at the other”. Or, in this inescapable case, listen to us. Fortunately, the idea is “to not try to minimize these incompatibilities [originating in the different backgrounds] but rather we would like to propose a form that is FAT enough to contain all radicals.”

those fucking fish, what is it with those fucking fish, man


It’s unbelievable. You look at the sea. You swim in the sea. You stick your feet wash your hands cool your skin get salty make love get sunburnt in the sea. But then that’s not actually in the sea. It’s more on the sea. In-the-sea is another word for outer-space. There is this funny film – this mirror this membrane this giant ear drum if you will that separates the world as I know it from something of incredible, alien beauty.

A snorkelling trip seemed a good idea, after I spent a few days wondering around Gili Air, Indonesia. Got there when looking for a quiet place to get some work done for a few days after running around on Mount Rinjani. Getting very annoyed with Gili Trawangan, I ended up leaving my hotel room there, booking the next boat to any other island and whiling away the waiting hours eating food that was too expensive and very good. Reading my book on developing skills in musical improvisation by Paul Berliner. Amazing. Very insightful, very thoughtful and thought provoking. And very long winded. Please, mister Berliner, say what you want to say and leave it at that. Makes the whole story a lot clearer and, perhaps surprisingly because leaving out so much evidence and illustration, more informative.

I spent my evenings and a lot of the daytime on reading the book. Walking around the island took a few hours and walking was a great way to get places and get lost. Banana plantations, a village that might have been a compound or someone’s garden, beach beach beach. And tourist restaurants. All selling the same stuff and all at least acceptable. No jack fruit curry though, contrary to the menu of a cosy little beach place I sat down in with high hopes. Ended up in a fancy place further up (or down?) the beach, eavesdropping on conversations of diving instructors.

After contemplating booking the snorkelling tour with the same happy player of a broken guitar that I booked my transport to the airport a day after with, I ran into … no idea of his name anymore. Grr. Dutch guy who lived in Australia since years, with an Australian lady and their children. Or was it New Zealand. Huub, I think he was called. Bought five euros worth of rupees from him a while later. (Being able to eat at airports is important.) Huub told me about the amazing snorkelling right off the beach, and added that that was principally where the trips were going. Also another place just like it, and a place where the big turtles live. But: there are turtles here too! He saw one just a while before.
The next day I rented flippers and a diving mask and snorkel from the friendly guy who all of a sudden charged five thousand rupees more than what he quoted before – and not only him, it turned out, and not only to me. Apparently, a step up on the tourism calendar hierarchy that day. Still, he seemed quite happy with my advance of twenty and never mentioned the remainder again.

I walked up the beach to the corner, where the island turns left. One of the curves in the island, just north of the fancy tourist area. (As distinguished from the easy-going, the hippie, and the posh beaches.) Put my costume on, and stuck my head under water. Nice. Sea floor with plants, very shallow but friendly. Reminds me of looking under water in Switzerland when I was little (with the diving mask I had worn to a restaurant dinner the day I had bought it). And then the floor dips down and nothing is similar to anything you’ve seen. To quote Ewan McGregor, I felt like I was in National Geographic, I was National Geographic! Different world. Different light. Kind of hushy dark blue, very clear in a foggy way. It’s not that it’s unclear, but you still can’t see very far. Sunlight filtering in. And reflecting off of everything that lives there… Different breath. Breathing only through your mouth, with a rasp that keeps getting stronger until you realise you have to take the water out of the snorkel. Breathing deeply is difficult, something I always find difficult in water. The reason why I still can’t crawl in the water, and failed miserably at a diving lesson years ago. Just don’t know how to breath out. Panic breath in panic breath in PANIC BREATH IN. Exhaling is not on the menu. With a snorkel it’s a lot easier though, and it’s fantastic to finally relax and let the breathing take over, let it happen on its own without worrying about it.
Different sound under the water surface too. Muffled, and reverby. Or resonant, rather. Tiny pinpricks of bubble sound. The whoosh of flippers, delayed. Different physique. Being horizontal is cool. Being able to keep your neck long, into the back of your head, and have your head looking straight down, is fantastic because you can totally relax and breath and be active at the same time, the relaxation making you stronger.
And while floating and propelling yourself into this deep blue world of sci-fi sound and movement that may be very primal for us (after all, some of us believe our species lived in the sea for a while and their evidence seems credible), you meet Nemo and all his friends. I didn’t have my motorbike licence yet, but I was the Motorcycle Boy. Only I hadn’t known till then that this is in a different category of colour management. Unbelievable combinations of purple blue orange red yellow silver and all kinds of other shades and hues I never knew existed. And all shiny and contrasting and complementing and making that world somehow so coherent and so independent.
I went three times, with a little break after the second time. In which I sold a book (given to me by Tessel thirteen years before, I took a picture of what she wrote in it) and kept the two tens in my pocket while going the third time. My ignoring the slighly hot feeling on the skin of my back led to a very welcomed aloe vera treatment the next day, when my lobster skin didn’t enjoy the backpack. Leaving the island, leaving Lombok and Rinjani, and a few hours later flying away fom the airport of Jakarta with its Starbuck’s, where they take credit cards and provide wifi, and the usual airport bookshop.