Joseph Tawadros has been a charismatic figure on the Australian music scene for almost two decades now. Since Storyteller in 2004, he has collected seven ARIA Awards – six for best world music album – and continued the promise of that debut record’s title, becoming a celebrated chronicler of modern Australia’s social and historical milieu.

Connor Whyte. Photo: Naomi Jellicoe

Opening for Tawadros at this show was Connor Whyte, an Elder Conservatorium of Music student  and winner of last year’s Adelaide International Classical Guitar Competition. Part of his prize was an invitation to perform at the Guitar Festival this year, and his accomplished technical prowess provided a welcome, mutually informing point of context for the exploration of an older instrumental lineage to follow.

Tawadros plays a total of 52 instruments, although the oud – the contemporary guitar’s historical forbear – is his great love and primary focus. While no words appear in his instrumental arrangements, he infuses lyrical sensibility and narrative throughout.

From an early age, Tawadros was inspired by the rich poetic songs of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, and in 2009 he released The Prophet, a collection of music inspired by the poems of Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran. It was there that his second piece performed in this concert, the poignant “Work is Love Made Visible”, first appeared, but all his albums are filled with expansively evocative track titles and rich conceptual concerns.

Aside from his musical virtuosity, Tawadros is also known as an engaging raconteur. This was certainly on show as he inhabited a conversational solo mode, regaling his audience with anecdotes or observations that deftly straddle the tragi-comic divide on everything from Australian racism and his own “off-white privilege”, to a preference for “macro-aggressing” in response to conflict, or being trolled by traditional Arab oud players online for being too contemporary and occasionally playing the instrument while hanging upside down. “When you play the oud,” they told him, “you should be seated upright.”

Tawadros embraces the best aspects of what “world music” means, while pushing back against the label’s more limiting or exoticised implications. The sheer range of influences and technical skill he displays produces a particularly vibrant, category-defying mix of musical styles.

Across the eight pieces showcased on this night, there were introductory segments drawn from the Arabic improvisational form of taqasim, through contemporary oud compositions such s “Constellations”, to the energetic fusion of a blues scale with the depth of Middle Eastern quarter tones in “Bluegrass Nikriz” – which gave Tawadros the opening for his standout pun of the night regarding all he had learned from an Arab blues guitarist named Habibi King.

He has also collaborated diversely, from live and recorded performances alongside the Sydney Symphony and Australian Chamber orchestras, to his 2022 project History has a Heartbeat with Australian yidaki master William Barton – a bringing together of, and reflection, on the continuing relevance of ancient cultural traditions, on which the beautiful “Luli” (meaning “pearl” in Arabic) appears.

While Tawadros quipped at one point that after 20 albums, his performances start to feel a bit like retrospectives, it seems more likely the vibrancy of his musical palette – and the curiosity of his artistic mind – will be generating new and invigorating work, or communicating old stories in revitalised ways, for quite a while yet.

Joseph Tawadros and special guest Connor Whyte performed at the Dunstan Playhouse on Friday night as part of the Adelaide Guitar Festival, which continues until July 16.

Read more Guitar Festival reviews here.

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