Interview with Nazir Latouf
Interviewer's note: Long before I started to dance professionally, I had the pleasure of watching Nazir Latouf perform in assorted venues around the City. A respected figure in the Middle Eastern musical community, Nazir Latouf strikes the casual observer as an aloof and imminently self-assured man. In person, however, he was congenial, candid, and surprisingly humble as he discussed his long and revered career in the arts. He lives in a flat in the Sunset District of San Francisco with his wife, two children, four computers, and numerous musical instruments. During the hours I spent talking with him and his family, I learned that there is far more to this renowned musician than his reputation as being supportive of the dancers in our community.
Even very early in my childhood, I very much wanted to play the accordion. I always developed goosebumps when I heard the sound of accordion music. But, I couldn't afford one. A couple could get married with the same money it took to buy one - 300 Syrian pounds! My dad earned 40 pounds per month, and with that salary he fed our family of seven.
The accordion was an important instrument for bands. Even then, in Egypt, musicians commonly rented an accordion! We heard about this when we talked to musicians. They would rent them for a specific event. Of course, this would only happen until you got a reputation as a musician who was in demand; then you would buy your own.
A MUSICAL FAMILY
My grandfather couldn't stand to be around kids, because they distracted him from his music. He used to own a textile shop. All of the shops have private back rooms in which to rest and play music or stay late. He often played his kanoun in the back room and smoked. One night, Grandfather was relaxed and he was not being careful. While he was playing, his cigarette started a fire, and he died. Therefore, my grandmother never let my father play after that tragic event, even though my father had a wonderful voice and he played the oud. After that terrible incident she refused to let him continue as a musician and singer.
My father knew music, and also his uncle played music too. Our family had a long history with music! My father had a soft spot in his heart and allowed me to play. When I played the music, he said, "Don't let your grandmother know! She will make a big deal out of it!" However, my father also advised me not to make music my career. "Musicians are always poor," he said.
In the '60s, each district had a television set and people went to watch the television on the street. They were "district" television sets and were able to receive one channel. It was at that time that people began to "view" their music. Not everyone could afford to go to the nightclub! People could listen to music on the radio but the television made a big difference. Television gave the young people more role models, and that had impact!
THE BEGINNING OF HIS CAREER
If you have a background in music, you can adapt to almost any other instrument. You often learn on another instrument first, before you pick your specialty. I started in music by playing the oud and took some rhythm lessons. It was the cheapest way to learn. When I attended the Arabic institute in Damascus I had to buy an instrument, so I bought an oud for 30 Syrian pounds. Generally a young music student's family cannot afford to buy an instrument. Music wasn't very acceptable as a career because music was most often related to the nightlife.
I started private lessons on the oud at age eleven, and on the tabla even earlier. You have to be at least fourteen years old to go to the music institute. I had to do a lot of work, cleaning at the school, to get lower rates. After a couple years of study, but still before the Arab-Israeli war, we all taught the younger music students. The program is the same: standardized books, etc., so after a couple years, you know what is going on. You don't really teach, you guide, as a tutor would guide. Students who taught and learned the theory became assistant instructors. The master teachers left the least able students for assistants to give extra help, the teachers themselves didn't teach each student privately. When I was in the school, the teacher liked me; that is how I got the opportunity to learn music even though I couldn't afford it.
BUYING HIS ACCORDION
After Ramadan, a religious holiday, at the end of the fasting time, relatives give the children of the family money. The holiday is called "El Asarer." Then, three months later comes the holiday called "El Kabier," a bigger holiday with more money! That is the source of the money you save for whatever you want or need as a child. We used to love this time! I had to save for nearly four years to purchase an accordion.At around age 16 or 17, I bought my first accordion. I bought it from someone who needed the money. Someone had brought it for him from Germany as a gift. My mom yelled at me for spending all my money on it. "You could have gotten married!" she yelled. At that age, we played mostly for schools and weddings. We played music at school, no nightclubs yet, and no playing for dancers at all. We did play for our traditional dances, yes, like Debke, etc. or background music for a theatrical play.
THE "SIX DAY" WAR AND THEREAFTER
I was in the music institute when the Arab/Israeli War broke out in 1967. Our government shut off everything related to entertainment. The government wanted everyone to focus on the war. All of our eligible males were in training. If you were sixteen years old, that was it. All of us were put into basic training, but we still managed to play music! Nobody could stop the music inside a music lover's head! Oh, we still played for weddings and all.
When we went back to the same institute after the war, I was part of the band. At first, I played oud, and then I transferred to the accordion. Very few music schools had an accordion. So I would go to all the schools to demonstrate the accordion for all the music classes. It was more fun when they took me to the girl's schools. I said to myself, "Okay!"
It was rare to have female teachers in music, religion, or any of the arts. I estimate that ninety percent of art students were male. So that is why my teacher was allowed to go to all these girl's schools. He played the oud while I played the accordion.
Later we played for bigger bands, city bands. We played for the number one non-government band that was not sponsored by the ministry or the radio station. It was a music club, a private club, not government controlled or supported. Back then broadcasting, both in radio and television, belonged to the government. Any musician or artist not hired by the government was considered unprofessional. Also, any song not approved by the committee of musicians, which was called Nakatbet el Fananine, was not recorded.
You had to past a test or an audition to be a member of the professional grade, like in a union. Then the committee gave you a status level. Recording music had to be approved by the committee in order to be broadcasted. That's why, when you read the history of music in the Middle East, there will be only ten to fifteen famous singers - because they are the ones that were approved. It wasn't like here, where anyone can make a tape!
Today, in Syria, there is no control
when it comes to recording music. The music all sounds very similar.
This was all in Damascus. I worked in the theatre as a day job. We started at 11 a.m. and the last movie was at 9 p.m. This work was considered low class, because we had music and singers, a dancer, and comedians who performed before the movie was screened.
The theater was where I met the other musicians and singers and dancers from other countries. So the famous entertainers would play in these theaters in the day, and the play in the cabaret in the evening. This was part of their contract and they made more money this way. One had to be part of the union or get a special permit to do this work and get a contract.
I had the necessary permit. We didn't take the authorities all that seriously. We really didn't care. We always received our permits. Especially with the accordion, which was rare. They had to give you the permit because they didn't have enough players. There were only three accordion players in all of Damascus at that time!
When I went into the military, I played my music on the weekends. There was a military music band, and I joined them for a while until 1973, until that war. The music band was dissolved and each man was sent back to his original unit. After the war, I got out of the military. Next, I traveled to Jordan and played in festivals with famous singers such as Mohammed Kapari, Mofuq Bahjet, dancer Kahraman, and other well known entertainers from Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. In Iraq, I played my accordion at the nightclubs in Baghdad and Basra. Then I traveled on to Kuwait, where I lived for four years. I played at a restaurant called Lulut Marzook. We played for Sabah, as well as Mahmoud Hamdi and Asmat Rashid. One of Faza Ahmed's many husbands who was a comedian worked with us in the theatre. We also traveled to Libya and Lebanon to play.
In Kuwait I had to dress like the band in traditional Kuwaiti clothes so that no one could tell I wasn't Kuwaiti. I wore the gatra, the white headdress and dishdashy, the white toub. The Kuwaiti band, I played in, was sponsored by the government, so we got paid to play music for the recreation program in each district's beautiful parks.
A CHANGE IN CLIMATE
They used to serve
mixed drinks in the clubs. When the Amir of Kuwait died, the government
became more restrictive about drinking alcohol. They checked people's
drinks and made people so nervous that the club business went way down!
That is one of the reasons I decided to come to the U.S.; I wanted more
freedom. Also, I had a disagreement with my family about running
the family business, so I said "Please let me travel."