DOUBLE-BASSIST FRANÇOIS RABBATH
TRIPLE AAA… FOR A DOUBLE-BASS
by Jean-Pierre Jumez
At the age of 12, in Aleppo (Syria), his brother gave him an unexpected gift: a “huge violin”. At 90*, his double bass has conquered all the great concert halls of the world. His revolutionary “crab” technique is now taught in almost all international conservatories. And for his birthday, at least 1,500 American bassists are preparing for its celebration at a huge “jamboree” in Lincoln, Nebraska.
*Music preserves: many nonagenarian musicians or artists are or were active at the age of 90: Andrès Segovia, Pablo Casals, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rubinstein, Ivry Gitlis, Line Renaud, Leopold Stokowski (at 80, after his nth divorce, he decided to have only temporary affairs), Chuck Berry, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte….
Jean-Pierre Jumez : How was your childhood?
François Rabbath : I was born in Aleppo in 1931 into a Christian family. My father was a banker, but my four brothers got into music. One was a pianist, the other a drummer, another a violinist and the fourth a clarinetist.
It is only my sister, a pianist, who did not pursue a career because a woman, in the Middle East, was not well perceived. We must not forget that under the French protectorate, the French army sent shipments of “comfort women,” who were issued artists… passports! Since then, a woman artist is rather poorly perceived in this part of the world..…
JPJ : Were you a musician too?
I was about 12 years old when my older brother told me he had a surprise for me in my room. I was amazed to discover a huge violin! My brother then said to me: “The instrument is yours if you play it.” I was immediately fascinated, and started playing loud and rather anarchic pizzicatos. Anyway, I loved the double bass so much that I slept with it!
Luckily, I came across the Nanny method, a famous French double bassist, which allowed me to take my first steps..
Since my brother understood my fascination, he made me participate in a few rehearsals in Aleppo, in this once joyful Syria, full of energy and life.
He then took me to Beirut because he had formed an orchestra and signed a contract with the famous cabaret La Coupole..
Debut in Beirut with my brothers: Elis (conductor), Victor (drums) Pierre (piano),
Henri (violin). The H.F. orchestra is that of tap dancer Harry Fleming.
JPJ : Yet you were a novice?
Much less than a novice! And when I was projected onto the stage of La Coupole within the orchestra, I only gave rhythm to the pieces by playing random notes, as if I was hitting a bass drum. But every once in a while I would hit the right note. My brothers will then turn to me shouting hurrah!
And then, all of a sudden, I understood what was behind their gift to Aleppo: they did not have a double bassist!
JPJ : Is that when you became a professional?
Yes. In Beirut, I went from session to session. The funny thing is that when I started, I didn’t read music at all. I made tablatures and otherwise, I invented, I improvised. I worked during the day and practised at night.
What I earned went to our large family (we were ten of us) because my father had been ruined by an unscrupulous partner. Fortunately, after going through a lean period, he made a spectacular bounce back. After creating the Safra bank and its many branches around the world, he became very rich again. I even had a carriage at my disposal! He had always told me that honesty pays off in the end. In any case, I was finally able to enjoy my proceeds!
JPJ : What about France?
We had a certain reputation, especially since we were performing at the Hotel Normandie in Beirut. We hesitated between the United States and France to get started.
I had Professor Nanny in mind. And besides, I spoke French, like many Syrians at the time.
So it was in 1955 that I and two of my brothers arrived Paris. I went directly to the conservatory and asked to see Professor Nanny. A little astonished, the concierge called the director who asked me what I wanted to see him for. “To show him some improvements in fingering on his method, and also to tell him about my new technique.”
Ironically, the director replied, “It’s too late to ‘share it’ with him because he died a long time ago. And that’s better because for sure he would have sent you off! ”
Very quickly, we took to cabarets and clubs in Paris, meeting a multitude of talented artists, whether famous or not.
That’s how I found myself one evening accompanying Charles Aznavour to the Olympia. After the concert, a little woman came to greet him and asked me in passing if I could accompany her. I did not know this woman and gave her an evasive answer. On leaving, Charles gave me two orchestra tickets for the next day. I sat in the front row and quickly recognized the incredible voice… of Edith Piaf!
I accompanied Edith for a month and then continued with Aznavour. And it was thanks to this official tour that I obtained a work permit, which was not an easy thing to achieve. My two brothers joined us and we formed the Rabbath trio, performing on multiple stages for seven years and accompanying a host of artists.
Often, I had five studio recording sessions during the day before spending the whole night in cabarets. I had become what we call a “studio shark” and a stage musician.
Record followed record, including a Turkish saz recording.
JPJ : The Turkish saz! But why?
The saz was a coincidence.
We had to play alongside the Turkish singer Toulaï, each playing between the poems declaimed by the actress Ève Griliquez in Avignon.
At the rehearsal, she was desperate because her saz player had let her down. But her instrument was there! I took it. The sound of this half-guitar, half-lute instrument immediately captivated me. Neither one nor two, I said I would accompany her. A few days were enough for me to get off my feet! The show was a big success. The producer Ariane Segal was passing by and immediately asked me to make a record of it. I recorded it twice: the singer and I on live saz and then an accompaniment added to the double bass.
Saz improvisation to accompany Toulaï
JPJ : When it comes to recording, you are quite inventive!
Yes, everything inspires me. For example, in some records, I added lascivious whimpers that you can’t distinguish, but which bring a particular warmth. I’ve obviously played in all kinds of combinations, including with… guitar!
A funny duo at Wigmore Hall in London (Rabbath & Jumez)
JPJ : What about the opera?
I wanted to join the Paris Opera to stabilize my situation. I will spare you the unfair peer comments in connection with a self-taught individual– belonging to the variety area, moreover — claiming to be a soloist at the Paris Opera! But I passed the competition without any problem.
François Rabbath triumphs in the concerto dedicated to him by Frank Proto
JPJ : Why Bach at the level of the cello?
I had listened to the Suites played by Pablo Casals and I was fascinated. I asked for the score from a fellow cellist who offered me a transcription for double bass. I tried but noticed no enrichment compared to the cello. The solution was quite simple: move everything up an octave to stay in the cello register, but with much greater depth.
JPJ : Uh… technically, is it possible?
It is my famous “crab” progression method, the one from my beginnings in Syria, that helped me to do it. This method is now studied and followed all over the world.
Five volumes for a revolutionary method
JPJ : So, like your dad, you have always been honest with yourself!
Absolutely! I play to convey my love to the audience and not to make a “performance.”
JPJ : Many artists applauded you!
Yes, Aznavour and Piaf made me heard everywhere. But for me, only music and the audience matter. I am not sensitive to other criteria..
In Vallauris, Aznavour took me to a painter’s workshop. I said hello to the gardener, who, seeing the attention I paid to the exhibited works (which I found crooked), offered me a piece of pottery. I kindly told him that I found it ugly. He answered “you’re right” and shattered it on the ground! Aznavour nevertheless pointed out to me that this gentleman was called… Pablo Picasso.
Twenty years later, when I had totally forgotten the pottery episode, the same Picasso gave me an unexpected phone call inviting me to attend the big party organized for his 90th birthday, and asked me to write a composition for his fresco “War and Peace.” A plane was chartered with a procession of artists on board.
But in Vallauris, Picasso had the chapel evacuated because he wanted to listen to my composition alone. While I was playing, he was contemplating his work using a candle (because the chapel was not electrified). In tears, he confessed to me that he has never forgotten the sense of honesty that resided in me during the pottery episode. It seems obvious that he had never met anyone who dared to criticize his work…
La Guerre et la Paix, illustrated by Pablo Picasso and… François Rabbath
JPJ : What about confinement?
You have to find the audience where they are. Every morning, I played a little serenade on my balcony. No police raids to fear!
In particular I have in mind those who don’t have a job. I auctioned a dozen of my watercolours on the lnternational Society of Bassists The 38,000 dollars proceeds were shared to unemployed bassists who received 500 dollars each.
JPJ : Online concerts?
On February 20th, I will give a virtual concert that will be watched all over the world. Emotions will obviously not be the same. We can say that virtual concerts are a complement to live performances which remain irreplaceable.
Live performances remain irreplaceable
That said, freed from all the equipment worries associated with touring, the artist has more time to work and concentrate.
JPJ : At 90, is the technique declining?
The technique does not decline with age, once you have been trained to achieve maximum effects with minimum effort.
JPJ : In short, this is your advice: follow my method,…you will not get old!
A 900-page book on the life of the Maestro is currently in press in the United States.
DISCOGRAPHY OF FRANÇOIS RABBATH
The Sound of a Bass (Philips, 1963)
Bass Ball (Philips-Mercury, 1963)
François Rabbath N° 2 (Philips, 1965)Athis, Helios, dans « Dansez le sirtaki » (Polydor, s.d.)
Le Bateau sur l’herbe (EMI-Pathé, 1970 ?)
Omer Pacha (Disc AZ, 1971)Collection « La Pensée universelle »
N° 2 : Jesus Christ Amour – Révolte (Productions et Éditions Sonores Paris, 1971)
François Rabbath au Palais des Sports de Paris (Emen, 1972)
La Guerre et la paix (Emen, 1972)
Multibasse (Emen, 1974)
Les Contes d’autrefois (paroles de Pierre Laforêt), dans Les Couac-couac (Carabine, 1976)
Multi-Bass (QCA/Red Mark, 1978)
Sazmorphosis (Emen, 1978)Diba diba (paroles de Boby Lapointe), dans Intégrale des enregistrements de Boby Lapointe 1960-1969 (Philips)
Live in Paris (QCA/Red Mark, 1980)
Rabbath Plays Bach (QCA Red Mark/Liben, 1982)
Rabbath Plays Proto (Red Mark/Liben, 1986)70 (Emen, 1990)
Dialogues and Meditations (Emen, 1990)
Live Around the World (Emen, 1990)
Live Around the World (Red Mark, 1992)
Multi Bass ’70 (Red Mark, 1992)
Carmen! (Red Mark, 1992)
Proto: Works for Double Bass and Orchestra (Red Mark, 1994)Bach, Vivaldi, Bizet, Rabbath (Emen, 1995)
François Rabbath en concert : contrebasse & orchestre (Emen, 1996)
In A Sentimental Mood (King Productions, 2004)
Six Suites de Bach (Solstice)