Joseph Tawadros is one of the world’s most celebrated Oud players and easily one of the youngest. The Egyptian Australian recounts his story.
Although the landscapes planted outside his childhood windows were those bearing Sydney’s internationally recognised skylines, the soundscape to Joseph Tawadros’ life has always been rooted back home in Egypt.
Born and brought up on Australia’s East Coast, he was immersed in the world of Egyptian culture through old movies and the music of Sayed Darwish played constantly by his parents at home. The mystical melodies of the Oud infiltrated his being and, by the time he was 10 years old and a family friend introduced him to the instrument, he says there was an inner calling pushing him to play.
‘I was really drawn to the instrument,’ he tells us. ‘The Oud has a sound like nothing else in the world.’
His skills also seemed to come to him naturally (his uncle was a trumpet player and his grandfather, a violinist) and his success followed suit. Eighteen years later, Tawadros is one of the most celebrated Oud players in the world. He plays regularly with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) at the Sydney Opera House, has recorded nine albums and has toured the world. Perhaps one of his proudest moments was when he stood on stage at the Cairo Opera House in 2003. ‘As much as I am Australian, I am Egyptian too. I always had a dream to go back to Egypt and the Oud was the link that took me there. The instrument deserves a huge amount of respect.’
Tawadros, who has recently returned from a European tour, usually performs with his younger brother James, a percussionist. Now aged 28 and 25 respectively, the pair are still some of the youngest amongst their peers and they admit that they have deepened their musical knowledge by being surrounded by musical greats.
‘But I never felt any kind of competition,’ Tawadros laughs when recounting a story of a recent studio session with Jack DeJohnette (American jazz musician). ‘Of course being surrounded by people with amazing talent brings me inspiration but all my work is based on passion and addiction; I never planned or imagined myself to attract a global audience. I am secretly living the dream, but publically I hold my own.’
Maybe due to his age and his ability to create fusion music – something he attributes to his mixed identity as an Australian Arab – Tawadros has a large appeal for the younger generation. He has spent much of his career mixing different genres and collaborating with other artists.
‘I work on more exciting styles,’ he says. ‘I’m a rocker at heart who just happens to be working with the Oud.’ He has performed with the Tinariwen, the Tuareg-Berber band from the Sahara area of Mali, made music with the American jazz guitarist John Abercrombie and fused East with East alongside Zakir Hussain and Sultan Khan, Indian tabla and sarangi masters respectively.
‘The oud has a very Middle Eastern voice; the sound takes your straight to that region but I don’t actually associate it with any ethnic background. I travel with it and I am happy to have taken it to places it has never been.’
As well as travelling to Vietnam, Laos, Bangladesh and Sarajevo, Tawadros has recently completed an orchestral album with the ACO and is working on a blues sound with some of the ‘big names’ in the industry.
One of his most popular albums was inspired by the writings of Khalil Gibran where he wrote music relating to the six topics of love, pain, work, reason and passion, children and friendship. After reading the book Tawadros says the compositions seemed to ‘flow naturally’ to him and that he learnt about himself as a musician and human.
For his efforts he has received seven nominations at the Australian Recording Industry Association Music Awards (ARIA) and won a number of national accolades. In December, the Sydney Morning Herald’s weekly magazine placed him at number 20 in their list of the top 100 most influential people.
‘I’m not sure what I’ve done exactly to get on that list but I’ll take it,’ he says. ‘Thanks Sydney!’
Photographer: Vanja Cerimagic