Interview: Michael Brook
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
The Grammy and Golden Globe-nominated producer, musician, and composer sat down to speak with us about his career in the field of world music fusion, the value of musicians in different cultures, and a very special gig in Senegal.
“If I am working with somebody whose music is quite different from mine then that affects what we do.”
What do Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan the Emperor of Qawwali, U Srinivas the Mozart of Classical Indian Music, and Djivan Gasparyan the Master of Duduk all have in common? Michael Brook has worked with them all. Though best known nowadays for being the acclaimed composer for such highly regarded films as Into the Wild, The Fighter, and Brooklyn, the Canadian guitarist and producer first rose to prominence in the world music scene of the 1990s, when he worked on a series of collaborations with musicians from across the globe. Starting with the release of Mustt Mustt in 1990, Brook became a musical touchstone in the proliferation of world music, alongside his friend Peter Gabriel, who has had a large influence over Brook’s career progression.
It was Gabriel who suggested Brook for a scoring job on the 1992 short film Fires of Kuwait, which directly led to his emergence in the early to late 2000s as a prominent film composer, a position he continues to this day. When asked about the switch from making albums to creating soundtracks, he said, “quite honestly what I do hasn’t changed that much, I still work in a studio and try and come up with ideas, I am still working with other people, and I am making music that I like, it is just where it ends up is different.” Brook’s hand was forced by the world of music piracy, which made his previous endeavours in pursuit of pioneering collaborative albums with African and Asian superstars “financially non-viable”. Nevertheless, Brook recalls those days very fondly and it informs much of the work he does today.
Just as Gabriel was instrumental in kickstarting Brook’s film composing career, so too was he vital in ensuring that Brook was a pivotal cog in the machinery of Real World Records’ album production of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Brook sums up Gabriel’s reputation as being a guiding light of the world music scene by comparing his output with other musicians who have dabbled in music from around the world. “People like Paul Simon have helped bring a spotlight on music from other cultures, I think Sting had a project, the difference with Peter, not that it is better or worse, [is] that he dedicated a lot of resources, his time, and care into WOMAD and Real World Records, lots of other people worked on it, but without the sort of central power that Peter can bring to that situation, I think the world music scene would probably be quite different.” The myriad ways in which the world music scene would be different were it not for Gabriel probably cannot be calculated, so large is his influence on the genesis of the promotion of world music in the West, yet one potential difference is clear: Michael Brook and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would likely never have collaborated on arguably two of the greatest albums ever recorded.
For the uninitiated, Khan is widely regarded as the greatest exponent of the Sufi musical tradition of qawwali, which is a particular style of Sufi Islamic devotional singing that achieved popularity in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India, aimed at inducing a state of spiritual ecstasy in the listener. Qawwali music achieved worldwide recognition in the 1980s and 1990s due to Khan's performance at WOMAD 1985, and the subsequent albums that were released on the Oriental Star Agency label, and later Real World Records. Surrounding Khan, who sadly passed away in 1997, there exists a lot of myth, mystery, and misconceptions, however we were fortunate enough to speak to the man at the centre of the two projects widely considered Khan's experimental apex which launched him into international superstardom.
Below: Khan and Brook
Brook considered himself a fan before he even met Khan, because he had a penchant for South Asian music, which he honed during his studies at York University in Canada, where he fondly recollected the cultural melting pot that was Toronto at that time. Though he had grown up loving bands like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Beck, his exposure to classical Indian musicians such as Trichy Sankaran led him to the realisation that “it turned out there were a lot more things people could do musically than I was aware of, and also I resonated with it emotionally". This made him the ideal candidate to enter a new sphere in cross-cultural musicianship and production, allowing for traditional rhythms to collide with innovative techniques, creating a new fusion sound for a mainly Western market, who were otherwise unfamiliar with the centuries-old traditions of qawwali.
Khan’s reputation, in some respects, precedes him. Mercurial, exacting, perfectionist, with an extraordinary work ethic, yet at the same time numinous, taciturn, almost other-worldly, a man who spoke in gentle conversational tones, yet possessed a sonorous and thunderous singing voice with a huge range; much has been spoken and written about this venerated and revered music figure. Here we had a chance to find out from first-hand experience what working with Khan was like, without the baggage of being beholden to the cultural importance he commands in Pakistan, and considering Brook lacked a direct understanding of Urdu, he had an idiosyncratic take on Khan. “It’s become a more accepted word, there isn’t a word that quite fits my impression, but in some ways, I think ‘nerd’ is kind of close, in the sense that he was, as far as I could see, he was about singing.” Brook continued, “when he wasn’t singing, to a certain degree he kind of deflated, and became a quite quiet, definitely not a centre-of-attention person, and when he was singing, the magic happened.” Though some have described Khan as intimidating, Brook claims he did not feel that during their working relationship, mainly due to the time pressure of the recording sessions. “After a pretty short time you realised you had to get on with it, and that was what you were focused on,” Brook mused. “It was just ‘let’s get the job done’, and I don’t mean to demean it in that way, just that we had a lot of schedule pressure that was unpleasant in some ways, but also encouraged you to focus on getting stuff done and not worry about the peripheral stuff.”
However, Brook did get to know the kind and compassionate side of Khan during the recording of their first album, in which Brook admits he made a “monumental blunder”. During the editing process, as the tracks were of immense length, Brook found himself cutting sections in a way that he thought was “musically sensible”. What he did not realise was that he had “cut the lyrics so they didn’t make sense anymore”. In the modern world, an error like this would have been discovered immediately as digital files can be sent instantaneously across the world. Three decades ago, however, Brook was reliant on posting cassettes to Pakistan for Khan’s seal of approval, a process which took months. By the time the mistake had become apparent, it was too late to rectify it due to the release schedule of the album. Although Khan received some flak for the “butchered lyrics that did have some kind of religious component to them”, in Brook’s own words, Khan was “very gracious about it”, and the two managed to work together again on Night Song, but this time Brook took extra precautions, “phonetically transcribing all of the vocals”, and always cut in a manner that was “true to [Khan’s] lyrical arrangement”.
Khan’s music is so often considered by Western audiences to be overtly spiritual pieces of work, more so than necessarily religious music, something shared by Brook’s work with Armenian duduk virtuoso, Djivan Gasparyan, on the album Black Rock. The remarkable capacity that Khan and Gasparyan have to make people with an often questionable relationship with a higher power connect with such certainty to a power greater than themselves, is something that has been noted by many. Nevertheless, Brook does not quite feel his music in this way, though he understands people connecting to that side of themselves. “In terms of anything explicitly spiritual or religious, I’ve never really gone there, it’s not really part of my world, it’s overwhelmingly an emotional thing.” Brook does acknowledge the wholly transportive capacity of “good music”, and certainly sees Khan’s music on that level. “The power of people like Gasparyan and Nusrat, and especially with Nusrat in the sense that the vast majority of people in the West who heard him had no idea what he was singing about, and yet some aspect of the spiritual nature of qawwali music was communicated somehow, and I don’t know how.”
As two people who had never heard of qawwali nor the duduk until the summer of 2020, both of us have been immensely impacted by the unique force of those two albums. We can both concur with reports of being moved, both emotionally and spiritually, specifically with Joel’s infatuation with Khan and Brook’s albums, and Danny’s obsession with Gasparyan and Brook’s duduk fusion masterpieces. However, we are both able to appreciate these albums on an intellectual level as well. It is apparent to us that for some people they might not engender the same levels of passion that they have in us, but nonetheless the quality of the albums cannot be denied.
Above: Gasparyan and Brook
Brook’s work with the Armenian duduk maestro came about through ambient music legend Brian Eno, who had travelled to Russia and had heard some of Gasparyan’s music on the Russian label Melodia. Eno invited Gasparyan to the UK to record some traditional music on his Opel Records label, which is where Brook first encountered the elder statesman of Armenian folk music. The two men ended up playing at a music festival in Lanzarote, where they begun recording music, which they eventually continued at Real World. Brook disclosed to us that his work with Gasparyan helped him achieve “a conceptual breakthrough” in informing his view of how other cultures view music with respect to how Western culture views it. “Our culture is notably flexible... we have a really big spectrum of music.” He elaborated by telling us about when he started working with Gasparyan, Brook would say to him “‘how about we do something like this?’… it turns out with Hukwe [Zawose], U Srinivas, and Nusrat, they usually kind of do a similar thing to what they normally do. At first I was like ‘why don’t they react to what we are doing more?’ Then I realised that Djivan spent 50 years perfecting this thing that he does, and he is interested in doing it in different situations [only] to an extent.” Therefore, while fusion music is valuable to them, ultimately the craft they have spent years perfecting is what they hold most dear.
Brook has many strings to his bow; not only is he a world-beating guitarist, he also has proved himself to be adept at handling some of the biggest names in music from across the planet, acting as a producer for such global icons as the writers of the greatest Christmas song of all time, The Pogues, Mexican rockers, Maldita Vecindad, and the King of Raï himself, Khaled. This has given Brook a unique insight into how not only Western culture differs from the rest of the world, but also Western musicians’ behaviour and process is often vastly dissimilar to those of African and Asian backgrounds. “I think in a lot of other non-Western cultures, the role of musicians is quite different. In pop and rock music, there has always been an element of the social misfit or the rebel, which just isn’t happening with other cultures in terms of music.” Brook notes that the encouragement and support given to traditional musicians from non-Western countries is perhaps akin to “the way in the West that classical musicians are looked at, where they’re doing something that is part of culture,” and Brook observed that in the West, there is a larger distinction between high and low culture. He made these comments as part of a wider discussion of The Pogues’ self-destructive behaviour and emotional struggles, and how that compared with working to more tranquil artists from other cultures, but he also acknowledged that personalities in bands always vary regardless of cultural context, citing the fact that stereotypically singers and bass players are almost uniformly contrasting in personality.
One such musician who at least appears calm and collected is the mbalax maestro Youssou N’Dour, whom Brook worked with on pre-production for an album. Brook fondly regaled us with the story of one of his favourite gigs, celebrating the 10th anniversary of N’Dour’s band in Dakar. Brook set the scene. “You’re at the airport, you go straight to the concert hall, sit down, 90 seconds later they start playing… that was pretty magic, and then after the concert I was outside talking with Youssou’s manager, and then this truck, like a big pick-up truck with all their equipment and the crew on the truck drove out of the concert hall and I said ‘oh, where are they all going?’ He said ‘well, now they’re gonna go play at the club.’ So, Youssou has a nightclub, so we have dinner and then we go to the nightclub, I don’t know, two hours later, and then they play for another four hours! Just people dancing and it was amazing.”
It would be remiss of us as a world music album review site to not ask Brook his thoughts on the ongoing debate about the term ‘world music’ itself, with some people such as David Byrne and Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo finding it to be reductive and inaccurate. Others, like WOMAD co-founder Thomas Brooman, see it as a necessary evil, with it doing its job of categorising music, albeit in a rough and ready manner. Whilst Brook empathises with the somewhat problematic nature of the term, he seems to share a similar opinion to Brooman, noting that it was initially a record store categorisation issue which persists in the digital age, and that the possible alternatives could be worse. “I don’t like it but I don’t know a better way to do it. …What is the meta–word you are going to use? You could say ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’ but this is from a very European/American-centred point of view, but those are the people using those terms.”
Considering Brook’s immense impact on music in general, and particularly in the world music fusion genres, it is hard to sum up his storied and idiosyncratic career, and as such, we were curious to know how does the man himself view his music and style? The answer we received was typically unassuming and understated, and one that befits a man whose music has changed throughout the years. “On a personal level I don’t think I think about a musical culture of my own, I have musical preferences, and also a history of what I have been exposed to and reacted to.” This has carried on into his film career, and though he references the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone, he doesn’t see himself as part of a tradition of film scoring, he simply, as he always has done, made music that he likes. When asked about what music he listens to now and if that influences him, he quipped “I listen to my music because I do that for 12 hours, because I have to, it’s my job. People are surprised in the days long ago when we had dinner parties, they would come to our house and we wouldn’t play music, we want to talk to people!”
Above: Brook with Dr. Hukwe Zawose and his nephew Charles Zawose
Below: Brook with his Infinite Guitar