Maneli Jamal is a prodigious young fingerstylist, currently residing in Toronto, Canada. He works in the contemporary, highly physical two-hand style (lots of fretboard tapping with the picking hand) popular with a lot of young players these days, but there are several things that set Jamal apart from the multitudes of Andy McKee hopefuls who play the virtual YouTube circuit.
To say that Jamal’s technique is advanced would be a huge understatement. There aren’t many players in this style that have Jamal’s balance of power and sensitivity, nor his breadth of ideas. His rhythmic concepts can be alternately short and dense, or explored carefully through several movements, as in the four part suite from which The Ziur Movement album takes its name. Jamal has absorbed a number of musical styles, and he is able to seamlessly incorporate jazz, flamenco, classical and Persian ideas into his original compositions. The resulting pieces are very impressive, both technically and musically, and his CD is one of my favorites in the contemporary style.
I recently conducted this email interview with Jamal.
W&W : Let’s talk about the evolution of your fretting hand. You played in punk and metal bands when you were younger… would you say that that’s where you built up your strength and dexterity? Talk about your beginnings in guitar, and some of the early inroads you made toward your current (high) level of technique. Which players put you on the path to your current hybrid style?
When I started to play guitar I had already played violin for a few years learning from my father, a master Persian violinist. That definitely made learning the technical side of the guitar easier at first, especially the coordination between the hands. The great thing about punk and metal playing is that it’s fast and fun as hell to play for anyone starting the guitar.
Because I was self taught I used to be the kind of player that didn’t worry too much about accuracy but rather speed and what sounds cool, which was what punk music to me was all about. Unfortunately, I didn’t teach myself the discipline of accuracy and slow practice until years later. The guitarists of Thrice and Iron Maiden really influenced me in the punk / metal genre. I felt like I had reached a plateau after 3 years of playing that genre in my right hand picking. I thought the guitar pick was the best and most efficient way of playing the guitar… little did I know. I got into the likes of Al Dimeola and that opened up a whole new world for me.
It wasn’t until I was forced to move to Canada in 2003 that I experimented with using a fingerstyle / classical right hand approach that made things sounds different and unique. I always had the mentality of learning many styles and gathering all the techniques to create a technique bucket in which I could just grab any technique that would fit for the appropriate genre I was playing. After this I started getting really into classical and flamenco playing which made me see the potential of having all your right hand fingers free. Paco de Lucia was a huge influence in this stage of my life. It wasn’t until I saw some of Justin King’s videos that are filled with tapping on the acoustic which really made me feel differently than anything I had heard on the guitar before. Not only did it sound cool but it looked cool too! I knew that I had to relearn the guitar to get to his technical level, and that is what I did. Having YouTube under my fingertips I checked out Don Ross frequently who’s use of the thumbpick I have adopted in my own playing now. I was always open to trying out new things on the guitar and taking the time to explore the guitar’s potential in all technical aspects.
W&W : Please talk about the series of “Ziur Movements” from your debut album… how did you go about constructing these pieces? Were the four separate movements composed in the order that they appear on the CD? Did you have any specific inspirations for the rhythmic arc of the piece (the percussive effects are busier and more pronounced as the movement cycle develops)? Have you ever performed the entire cycle live, and if so, do you play the full versions or something edited down for time?
The Ziur Movement was inspired by my fiancé. It took a couple of years to write them as I play them today. They have gone through countless revisions to get them perfect to my feelings (the versions on the CD are even a bit different than the way I play them now). It was such a trip to write these, as they are all in a different guitar tuning that took me some exploring to find but I am very happy that I did. I never thought much of concept pieces until I wrote this movement series and tried to use different rhythmic motifs for each piece so it would all sound a bit different, but in the realm of the same guitar tuning. Whenever I play live I always play this series in order and don’t cut them down. But I do rest between the movements to give the audience some air. One thing I don’t play is the 4th and last movement. That was something that was unfinished when I recorded it and almost didn’t put it on the CD, either. I really need to go back and relearn it though, as its one of my most energetic songs.
W&W : You say that “Southern Magnolia” was written to have a classical feel. I find it stunning that this piece was composed in 2004, you couldn’t have been more than 18 or 19 years old, right?! I agree that the opening and closing of this song have a classical vibe, but the center of the song has a very contemporary-fingerstyle feel. Having absorbed so many styles and techniques, where do you think one ends and another begins?
I had just arrived in Canada and was 19 when I wrote it. I had played the guitar for 3 years at this point. The reason I say it’s supposed to have a classical feel is because I had adopted the use of some classical / flamenco guitar training to this piece, especially for the bridge of the song. Nowadays I just call it “progressive” to be on the safe side. It’s hard to say when one should leave a genre to pursue another to gain more techniques and knowledge. For me personally it was when I felt like I had reached a plateau from as much as I could teach myself. I knew that if I wanted to I could devote my whole life to a specific genre, but I know that’s not who I am or will fulfill me. I need to learn a bit of everything and create my own voice with the guitar. That is something my parents who are both artists have always taught me musically, to find my own unique voice.
W&W : “Behazen Memorial”, your ode to your grandfather, is played on the setar (an Iranian lute) and is the first overtly “Eastern” piece on the album. The other is your compelling improvisation, “2 A.M.”, which you say employs Persian modes. To my ear, it sounds like you’ve internalized these sounds, like you’ve known them all your life.
Indirectly, I have known these Persian modes my whole life, from hearing my dad always playing his violin. Hearing him play was something that I thought everyone was hearing when I was growing up in Germany. I had no clue until I came to the States that I had an advantage, to have had parents that constantly played Persian music in the house. When I first started playing the guitar I was totally against anything sounding Middle Eastern, as I was still a teenager that could only relate to rebellious music. It wasn’t until I came to Canada that I approached my dad for some tricks and applied them to the guitar. I still have much to learn from these modes and how to apply them to the guitar in a progressive way. In this regard I can happily say I will never get bored of the guitar, as all I have to do to get something fresh flowing in me is to sit down and jam with my dad!
As you may or may not know, the current guitar scene is overflowing with a kind of casual fascination for the musics of the Middle East and India, and many players touch on these in a “touristy” kind of way, approximating raga forms and noodling in exotic scales… I guess what I’d like to know is, as someone of Persian heritage, how do you feel about this trend, and what advice would you give to guitarists who are trying to better understand this music to incorporate it into their own?
The thing I gathered from how to properly play Persian music is that it’s not in just playing the scales. It is the ornaments and grace notes that give it that flavour. Most importantly it is the phrasing that will make it sound Persian. As soon as someone plays Middle Eastern scales on the guitar people often times think flamenco, as they have adopted these scales from the Middle East. With flamenco music, they say you have to be immersed in that culture for years to really understand how to play it. It’s the same with Persian music. My advice is to seek out the details of playing the scales in a colourful way. It is difficult to teach yourself and fully master, but being exposed to this music constantly will enable you to hear things you may not hear in the western musical world.
W&W : Talk about the guitar(s) you play, and what your recording setup was for The Ziur Movement.
Nowadays I mostly play on my Cole Clark Fat Lady 2 AC for live performances and some recordings as well. Their guitars sound as real as playing it acoustically when plugged in, and wouldn’t want it any other way! The Ziur Movement was recorded with my Taylor 814ce LE 2006 at my friend’s studio. I used a Rode NT4 [mic] as well as an Audio Technica 3035 to capture the room.
W&W : YouTube seems to have been very good to you, in that you have many fans and subscribers, over half a million views of your videos… please talk about the virtual guitar scene on YouTube, what it has done for your career, how you interact with your fans, etc.
YouTube has given me a huge opportunity to share my videos around the world. There are lots of great undiscovered talents on there, and all it really takes is one unique video to go viral for people all over to start hearing about you. It has definitely taught me a great deal about marketing and promoting as well. I enjoy talking to all my fans on YouTube or Facebook and try to respond to most of the comments to keep interacting with them. I think that’s a very important and good quality to have, when the artist speaks directly and cares about the people that listen to their music. I will never forget what all the fans have done to help support me so far. It is really inspiring to hear some of the things they say, about how my music has touched them in a way no music has… I wouldn’t be posting videos online if it wasn’t for them. GO FANS GO!
W&W : You are on the mend from a bout with tendonitis. Please talk about your condition, how it came about, and how you’re currently feeling.
Tendinitis has put my music on halt for the time being. It is frustrating to want to play the guitar, but know you can’t because as soon as you play there will be a pain in your forearm. I was diagnosed with tendinitis during the fall of 2010 but I know I’ve had it longer (my hesitation to see the doctors about my worst fear of an injury was to blame for that). It was really a combination of things that caused it. It had a lot to do with my shoulders and stiff neck from never stretching before or after a playing session. The other thing had to do with playing for 3 hours straight sometimes and no breaks. I mistakenly took it for granted and got dealt a nasty card. It just recently came back and am seeing a physiotherapist about it. Still, I’m not playing very much guitar these days until it gets back to normal. The good thing is I’ve been writing a lot more because of it and almost have my next CD finished.
W&W : What can we expect from the next Maneli Jamal album? Do you plan on doing any touring in the United States?
I owe it to myself to have my next album still be all solo acoustic guitar, much the same as what you would hear in a live performance. The name of the album is The Lamaj Movement. The next movement series dedicated to my family’s journey around the world. I used to write a lot for guitar trio, and there might be one of those [pieces] on this album as well. Regarding touring in the States, that will still be a problem, as when I lived in Texas the Bush administration gave my family a deportation letter to go back to Germany (where we were before we came to America). We had 30 days to leave the country and ultimately claimed refuge here in Canada in 2003. On top of that they gave us a 10 year bar from entering so I’ll see you in 2013!
W&W : Talk about the guitar scene in Toronto… who are the players that you feel deserve a mention?
I honestly don’t know of any other fingerstyle guitarists here in Toronto except Ewan Dobson who is on the CandyRat label.