Artist Diary with … JOHN MOUKARZEL - Jul 20, 2011
“Without telling me, my girlfriend passed on her favourite track of mine to Indonesia’s biggest radio station. Amazingly it became an immediate hit!”
With his gold shoes, Mohawk hair, colourful Ghanaian/Syrian/British background and innate gifts as a performer and musician, you would have been forgiven for mistaking our Artist Diarist, the singer-songwriter John Moukarzel, for a born pop star, but as his diary attests, music grudgingly took a back seat to a career in fashion design until finally winning out following a No.1 hit in Indonesia.
On the eve of the release of his debut single ‘Put Your Hand In Mine, HitQuarters’ Artist of the Week Moukarzel recounts how passing school exams, a chance meeting with an EMI A&R, a scheming girlfriend and even Ricky Martin all played significant roles in helping music take centre stage in his life …
by John Moukarzel
When Head of A&R at EMI Lebanon, Pascal Gaillot, invited me to his office it was to make me a potentially career changing offer concerning my music.
Impressed by both my interesting musical “twist” as a result of my worldly background and a flamboyant image defined by my “gold shoes and Mohawk”, he wanted to re-record a song of mine titled ‘Heart of the World’ ready for inclusion on one of the renowned French DJ Claude Challe’s ‘Buddha Bar’ compilations released by EMI France.
Although an exciting prospect, I was nevertheless disappointed. I had expected something more than a one-track involvement. But I now see it was a mistake to think like that. I shouldn’t let my strong ambitions allow me to overlook any opportunities, however small they may first seem. Exposure is key after all; it may have been one track on a compilation but as an album with global distribution the song would have the potential to reach new audiences and lead to new horizons that I hadn’t even been aware of.
In the end I turned down the offer down, not because it didn’t meet my expectations, but rather my limited stay in Lebanon meant I would not be available for recording and promotional duties following the compilation’s release.
It was a setback. But it did at least make me realise that I had to make sure I was free from all obligations if I was to achieve my objectives.
THE LIGHT BULB SPARK
When I first got interested in music and the arts I was originally more taken with performance and dance than actually making music. At six I had started dancing around in my bedroom using a carrot as a pretend mic, and later when started my first band at high school it was concerned less with making music than with breakdancing!
It was only when during music class my teacher asked me to try singing a song that I discovered I was able to sing as well as perform. The flowering of that realisation came when I then became the high school’s solo male singer for all their events and graduation ceremonies. So at only 15, I was singing to well over a thousand students and parents at the Citadel of Aleppo while graduates descended the aisles. That was the point where the light bulb sparked!
My ever-growing passion for music led me towards developing my musical skills. Firstly I received classical instruction on the piano and later, at the age of 16, I was awarded my first Roland Workstation for passing my IGCSEs. From there I started writing, arranging ideas, and finally recording layered tracks of instruments. Passing my exams played a significant role in my development as I was given my first Spanish guitar when I later passed my IB exams.
MUSICAL MELTING POT
My interesting musical “twist” that would later impress Pascal Gaillot came as a result of my rather cosmopolitan background. Born in Ghana to a Syrio-British mother and a Lebanese father, during my early years in the African nation I was first influenced by the reggae and groove-based music that dominated the music scene there. When I later moved to Syria my melting pot of musical inspiration became even deeper and richer. I was taken by the traditional Arabic music such as Abd Al-Wahab, Om Kalthoum and also by the more modern Feirouz, and was also influenced by the flashes of Armenian and Turkish music that I heard in taxis and in venues where I hung out.
Underpinning all this was the western pop influences that I was exposed to as a result of my British background and English language high school. When I formed Euphoria, my first successful band in Syria, it was named after a song by the German synthpop group Alphaville and we played covers from artists like Sting, Marian Gold, Seal, Erasure, George Michael and Elvis Presley.
This western music influence has meant that the music I make now is pop enough to be catchy and radio friendly, and yet still has those ethnic scales, rhythms and instruments to give the songs a more unusual and striking colour.
FASHION DESIGN CAREER
Despite the success I had started to find in Syria with various bands, music was forced to take a back seat in my life when I decided to pursue my talents in fashion design. After graduating from ESMOD with a major degree in the subject I then moved to France to earn a teaching certificate from ESMOD Paris. But as it would come to do again and again, my musical calling would keep intervening, as if reminding me that this is what I should be doing.
For instance, on my graduation day, I had decided to write, sing, record and produce my own music for my runway show. With so many different ideas and sounds in my head that could not be realised within a single background track, I was encouraged to create increasingly ambitious recordings, including my first original vocal recording. With this music complementing the fashion show, it proved a big success and major boost to my musical confidence.
When I later accepted an offer to relocate all the way to Jakarta, Indonesia to be a fashion design teacher at ESMOD Jakarta even that didn’t manage to suppress my musical calling. In fact, quite the opposite happened, as it was in Asia that I found the great success in music that convinced me to finally devote myself to the art.
With the money I earned as a teacher in Jakarta I was able to buy new gear and even set up my first real studio to further my musical experiments. This helped to encourage my rich flow of new ideas. I’d started creating songs heavy with break-beats, live analogue electronic arpeggios such as ‘saw’, ‘pulse’, ‘rhodes’, and, influenced by my Arabic universe, I introduced the Kanoun, darbuka and oud. I was also now influenced by local music. I created an EP of eight songs incorporating the Indonesian bamboo flute ‘suling’, an Indonesian percussion played with hands and feet called ‘kembang’, and ‘kendi’, an Indonesian water jug.
But, despite this creative blossoming, I wasn’t really attempting to give my music a wider audience, and it was left to fate to intervene. Without telling me, my girlfriend at the time passed on her favourite track, ‘Dance With Me’, to Indonesia’s biggest radio station, Prambors FM. Amazingly it became an immediate hit! It was No.1 on the charts for a week and stayed in the charts for ten weeks.
This was a significant career breakthrough. It led to a lot of contact from various industry professionals, including a major local label, some independents, and a major offer from one of Indonesia’s main distribution channels. But I wasn’t going to grab at any lucrative offer that came my way. I was not after money but rather a home where I could feel well represented and supported. The only offer I had a good gut feeling about was from Dominic Clarisse, who became my official agent in Asia.
A professional French photographer who moved to Indonesia 15 years ago and started his own record label, Supreme Records, Dominic has worked with many big contacts in France such Sony BMG France and was responsible for signing the successful French band Astonvilla.
With these breakthroughs, I felt that my music career ready for take off and at the end of my fourth year teaching I decided to end my involvement in fashion and devote myself entirely to music. As I said earlier, I needed to free from all obligations if I was to be able to achieve my objectives.
SELLING MY BABY TO RICKY MARTIN
It was through Dominic that I was introduced to an exciting new record label that was finding success in the Indonesian market with a local pop star but was actually based in Los Angeles. The label 88-music Records was run by brothers Soenaryo ‘Wiwi’ Limin and Sumantri Limin.
It was through one of their contacts in L.A. that I was offered the chance to potentially sell my single ‘Gone Away’ to Ricky Martin for his then upcoming album. The catch was that as part of the deal I would have to give up the rights to the track, meaning that I would not be able to perform this song again without prior permission. Of course I would be compensated for this with a very lucrative offer, but I was not solely interested in money, and turned it down.
I said earlier that I shouldn’t pass up any opportunities for gaining greater exposure, but that doesn’t mean you should accept anything. You have to look beyond the offer and weigh up the potential effects. If Ricky Martin had heard the track, and agreed to record it (this was still a fledgling proposal yet to be discussed with Ricky Martin himself) then I would have got massive exposure and recognition as a songwriter, but at the same time the song was my “baby” and I didn’t want to give it away. What’s more I believed that the song could open doors for me and so wanted to be able to perform it myself.
MAKE IT IN LONDON
I decided to move once again. This time though, it was to be a music-career based decision rather than a fashion one. In that meeting with the head of A&R at EMI Lebanon, Pascal Gaillot had advised me that London offered the best chance for my career breakthrough. And so it was to the UK that I headed next and where I am now.
The signs are promising. Since the move I now have my first single ready to go and have new management looking after me.
When I was offered a new deal from Dominic Clarisse which has enabled me to fund the recording and video production of my new single ‘Put Your Hand In Mine’, which will be my first ever official release and first single to be released worldwide! The music video will air on MTV Asia later this summer.
While filming the music video, I met up with one of the scriptwriters, the actor Raphael Peart, who expressed immediate interest in my music and future plans. Raphael has now become my manager as part of his new organisation DD-Management.
There is no lucrative deal as part of this. But as I’ve said, it’s not about the money you have, it’s about being surrounded with people that believe in what you do and let you be who you really are.
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