Ronnie Malley began his musical journey in a family band, and now is composing, performing and collaborating on world music full time. The Palestinian-American musician recently composed music for a performance of The Arabian Nights at Washington's Arena Stage.
Ronnie first started playing music as a child. His father and brother were both musicians, and he says once he saw players in his native Chicago, he knew that was what he wanted to do. Ronnie started playing rock n’ roll, but then his father introduced him to Middle Eastern music.
“Then one day, he just said, he popped in this CD of Abdel Halim Hafez, a famous Egyptian guy, and it had guitar in it and whatnot,” said Malley. “And he said ‘see this has guitar in it, maybe you should start playing some of this music.’ And so, it began.”
Ronnie was disappointed to find that there was nowhere to learn the music he heard. The family band played weddings, parties, festivals, and in clubs until he was in his early twenties. During this time his father switched Ronnie from guitar to keyboards, but the young musician felt something was missing.
“But it was about the age of 16 that I felt that ‘there’s so much electronic stuff, I need something that’s very kindred to my soul, something that’s more authentic,’” he said. “So I happened to see the oud and it was the most sensible choice. And that’s when I discovered Simon Shaheen from New York, and I thought ‘wow, this is the music I have been looking for, the real classical element of Middle Eastern music’ as opposed to the pop classical.”
Ronnie taught himself the oud, the 11-string fretless instrument from which the lute, the guitar and other instruments descended. But he also had to get what his parents called “a real job” so he worked in business, in banking, and as a real estate appraiser. But his love for music did not diminish and he played on weekends.
Ronnie came to a crisis point shortly after the Gulf War started in 2003. The musician said that even though he was born in the United States, he couldn’t support the war in Iraq, and so he moved to Paris.
“And I think it was the war in Iraq, funny enough, that kind of jolted me for a moment and made me think ‘why am I paying taxes, this much in taxes, right now to this country to be sending my money to war,” he said. “I needed a change of perspective. So I went over to France. I decided to move to France for two years and just see what I could do with the arts.”
Ronnie put up a sign in a Paris music store and soon had 15 oud students. He was also composing music for theater and films in France. He realized that if he could make a living as an artist in the French capital, he could do the same in the United States, so he moved back to Chicago. Soon after his return, Ronnie got a call from the music director of play called Mirror of the Invisible World.
“And what he was looking for was on-stage musicians to play incidental music but with authenticity,” said the musician. “So that particular show we experimented with all kinds of things, I brought a harmonium, there was a tabor daoul, oud of course, sitar, it was just an array of different instruments,” he added. “And that was … I had been doing theater for a little bit but that was like the first really professional gig like that that I had gotten.”
The play’s director was Mary Zimmerman, a Tony Award winner who has also directed at the Metropolitan Opera and the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Zimmerman brought her version of Arabian Nights to Washington’s Arena Stage recently in which Ronnie Malley played a poor man and a musician.
When he is not on stage, Ronnie teaches at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and performs with the Duzan Ensemble, his fusion band Lamajamal - a name derived from the Arabic word for ‘beauty’ - and with the punk circus marching band called Mucca Pazza.
Ronnie says that being born of a Palestinian family in the United States made maintaining his entire musical heritage difficult. But he said the music was what helped him to learn about his heritage, to learn Arabic and to retain his culture.