UTG INTERVIEW: The Great Game Discuss Their Huge Lineup and Newest Album


The Great Game is spread across Europe–primarily from Spain to Scotland–but that doesn’t stop its several members, both permanent and the occasional contributor, from creating some of the most unique music you’ve heard, from any genre, in some time.

We had the chance to have a lengthy conversation with composer and guitarist Mounzer Sarraf, and we discussed the band’s large cast of players, how they all came together, and their newest album they created–a lengthy, 13-track effort that melds far too many styles and genres to list here.

UTG: Firstly, can you introduce yourself to our readers and what your role is within The Great Game?

MS: Yes I can. I am Mounzer Sarraf, I founded the band and for our first album I have been the main composer of the songs and the writer for the lyrics. I also play guitar in the band.

You’ve got a whole slew of talented people involved with this most recent record. Were you all friends and colleagues before this album started being created?

Well, I knew many of the musicians. I think Bruno is the first one I met years ago when we played a concert of improvised music together. Since then we always said we would stay in touch and when the time would come make an album.

I met Martin when I was living in Scotland. He owns a famous tea house in the west end of Glasgow and I used to frequent it a lot when I was writing a book on music. After jamming one night at my place we started busking on the streets of Glasgow. We’ve been good friends since then.

When I first moved to Lanjaron in Spain I met a mechanic who told me there was a great bass player living in town. I couldn’t believe my luck when I finally met Manuel and he wanted to join after hearing a rough sketch of the music.

One day I was visiting my mother in the town I grew up in and there was David, busking in the center of town. When I cycled passed he had just finished a song but his voice intrigued me. So I put a coin in his hat and asked him if he could sing another one and I knew immediately I wanted to work with him. We stayed in touch et voila…

One day I was on a local market and my daughter was playing with Medina’s kids, we started talking about music and she told me how she loved to sing Latin-American songs. When I heard her sing I promptly asked her if she would be up to singing some songs and she chose “Poetry in Motion.”

Inbal has always been singing; ask anyone who knows her. When I asked her she was immediately interested and she was particularly fond of “Television.” Later on I made a new song (for her) and she ended up singing in it. She became a wonderful friend and partner and in a week we are getting married.

Cesar was picked up on the eve of the recording after Martin had had a night out in Granada.

Jimi was a friend of the technical team at KBYO studios. He was supposed to come and record the trumpets on “Poetry in Motion” but he got really into it and decided to stay. I was very pleased with his way of playing. He has this “Spanish” feel to his playing; just amazing.

Paul was our last addition; I found him online. I felt very lucky because I needed an accordionist who could pull off something amazing.

On our bonus track (“The Great Game”) you can hear James Steele, who will be joining the band in June.

And who all is part of the actual core group that are considered to generally be in the band?

The official core consists of Manuel, Bruno and me and then there’s Martin and David. We have a very fluid way of working and wish to be able to perform under any circumstance. If we can manage we would like to perform with a ten-piece band but we understand that this will not always be the case.

I could sit here and try to pick out influences all day, but I’d rather just ask who some key inspirations are for your creations. Any specific artists for any of you who have really played a role in the way you’ve developed as musicians?

As I am sitting here on my own I can only speak for myself. My foremost inspiration is the John Coltrane quartet. The song called “Resolution” was the most important piece of art in my quest for musical understanding. As a young boy I was a big fan of The Dire Straits but later in life King Crimson became my favorite band. Up to this day their performance in Dour (a big festival in Belgium) has been the best live show I’ve ever been to. I’m also a huge fan of Kroke, Gogol Bordello and System of a Down.

I love the artwork for the album; it’s very minimalist but very eye-catching as well. Where did that image come from and how would you say it relates to the material on the album?

As with most of my songs, I woke up one day and I knew what the album should look like, only I am not a visual artist at all. Luckily, my good friend Simon is. I told him I wanted a bee with a gas mask in a style that reminds me of these official signs you see in traffic and the next day it was done. I think that the purpose of artists is to point out things that are happening in the world, to give people a nudge. Although not all the songs are related to important topics, most of them have a message I hope will not fall on deaf ears, and the artwork might be the most vital one.

the great game cover

It’s one of the most expansive and versatile albums I’ve heard in a long time. For the sake of brevity, have you guys ever consolidated your sound down to one single genre title for when you have to describe it? I’ve seen ‘new world music’ thrown around but that’s definitely restricting in this case.

Before using the term ‘new world Mmusic’ I thought long and hard about the dilemma that was “our style.” It was never my intention to create songs such as the ones you hear on the album. Most of the time I wake up with an idea and in no time the rough sketch is made and the direction of the composition is taken. After putting the album together I noticed how all the songs were like a roller coaster of styles. Then I started thinking that world music has restricted itself over the last decades and I truly believe it is time to reconsider which styles fall under its names. Consider Scandinavian countries. With great bands such as Opeth and Enslaved, shouldn’t black metal be added to world music as it is Ethnic or at least with Ethnic roots?

On the other hand, if you were to take the distortion out of many songs from Metallica, you might be surprised to hear a crazy up-tempo kind of country music. What I found out is that you can blend any style as long as you know how to groove and that in the end musical styles are not that different from each other. This is why I decided on the term ‘new world music.’ It is not so much a style as it is a way of making music that does not limit itself to any style.

Do you feel there are any limitations in fully reaching listeners with having such a lengthy album in today’s music scene?

Yes I do. I think that our album alone will be a hard sell at first. I like each song on it but it is not the kind of album to put on the background while relaxing after a days work. Our live performance however is a whole other matter. I think that what The Great Game has to offer is an evening to be remembered. If someone decides to come to a performance after hearing a song or maybe the album, the performance itself will be an experience that reveals the true potential of the band and uncovers the gem that is our music. I believe we have what it takes to be one of those bands that never ceases to amaze you on stage.

Why have you decided to offer the album for free download? What’s the importance of that to you?

First of all, I believe in the strength of our performance and to be able to perform we need people to want us to come and perform. I believe that a recording is a momentary glimpse of what a band can really do. I see the recording as a calling card. Why ask money for it? If we can stay independent, our second album will also be free of charge.

I would imagine that most or all of you are involved with other bands and projects. I could of course be wrong, but can you tell me some other things musically connected to The Great Game?

Bruno plays in a lot of projects and bands. He is also famous; a masterclass teacher and endorser for Mapex, Sabian and Vic Firth. Martin plays in and composes for Martyazz and plays in different bands. Manuel has a few successful bands such as the Babacar Kamara project in Spain. David plays in and composes for Walking Horizon, another emerging band. Paul is a well known and accomplished contemporary accordionist in the UK and Europe.

So the album’s been out for a bit now. Have you already been working on your next material at all? Any details on that?

I am well into the next album and I shared the idea of the cover with Simon.

Do you think a lot of the same players will be involved with the next bit of output or will there be a vastly different, rotating cast so to speak?

That will depend on the availability of the musicians when we record. I have some ideas as regards to the line-up but for now getting together and performing is paramount.

And beyond that, what does The Great Game have in store for the rest of the year? Any big plans or goals on the horizon?

Well, I am in contact with a manager. Hopefully we can find a way to work together as I would really like to find someone to take over the management of the band. We will be performing Spain in June and we would like to start performing in Northern Europe in the fall.

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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