|Dhafer Youssef at the Viva Musica! Festival Bratislava in 2011.
Photo: © Oles Cheresko, by kind permission of Dhafer Youssef’s management
Oud-player and singer DHAFER YOUSEF was born in a Tunisian fishing village to a ‘modest family’. In this interview he talks about: making his first oud; how learning to sing in a Turkish bath created his sound; working in Europe with Gilad Atzmon, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Nguyên Lê, Paolo Fresu and other jazz influences, his new jazz CD(*) with a top New York band, and his birthday gig at the Barbican. Alison Bentley interviewed him:
London Jazz News: Can you tell me about how you made your first oud?
Dhafer Youssef: I needed to do something, to play the notes I was hearing, so I had no other option than to try to make my own instrument. It was like a primitive oud, with wood and a can of tomatoes, and bicycle cables. I don’t even remember how it sounded, but it was like, ‘Okay, this is my first instrument!’ I was trying to bring out the notes that I heard on the radio, or that I sang.
LJN: What first attracted you to the sound of the oud?
DY: It’s because I’m Tunisian. I always say, if I’d been born somewhere else in Africa, I’d maybe be a djembe-player or an ngoni or kora-player. If I’d been born in New York, maybe I’d be a double bass or saxophone-player. Maybe I’m lucky to be Tunisian because I love the sound of the oud. Every day when I wake up, I pick it up, even for a few minutes- sometimes it lasts for maybe an hour. Even for five minutes, it’s as if that’s really my breakfast!
LJN: How does the oud get its distinctive sound?
DY: What I love in the oud is the sound. I use, for example, Pyramid strings for Baroque lute, which could also be for guitar. The difference is that there are double strings, and that makes the special sound of the oud. I always have the feeling when I’m tuning the instrument that I’m trying to make two people sound the same, which are never the same. Because two strings, even if they are made by the same machine or the same hand- in the end they’re different. I do it myself, and in the end it sounds a little bit- not out of tune- but in the region of the right tuning. And that makes the speciality of the sound. That’s why I love the oud, actually. It’s different from the guitar- I love the guitar. I love all string instruments- banjo a little bit less! My respect to all banjo players! [laughs]
LJN: When you first started playing you practised on a toy guitar?
DY: Yes, the story is that I was so thirsty to play an instrument, because I didn’t play oud at that time. I was looking to have something just to play, to make noise, notes, sound. My neighbour at that time- he travelled abroad and came back with a toy guitar for his nephew and an acoustic guitar for himself. He knew that I was really into music and I wanted to learn, so he gave me the toy to practise a bit. So I was practising on that plastic toy every day. And then every month for a few days he gave me his acoustic guitar so I had to take care of it. It was almost like having a Rolls Royce after having the toy guitar. I have a funny story about this person. I was walking with him back to our neighbourhood, about 35 years ago. I told him, ‘Look, I want to travel the world to play my music. I’m thirsty to tell people my story.’ He was laughing. He thought, ‘He can’t even control the instrument, and he thinks he has a story to tell people all over the world?’ Four or five years ago, I met him and he told me, ‘Dhafer, I have to say that you are one of my idols, because you were so sure you wanted to say something.’
I believe that in music it’s this: it’s not the instrument you play, or the compositions you write; it’s much more what you have inside. So you have to have confidence, and you have to believe you have a story to tell. And I think from that point I understood that the instrument is just a means to tell this story, whether the voice or the oud, violin, composition, orchestra. In the end I believe we have a destiny- we are born to be something, and you have to fight for that.
LJN: Were you encouraged by your family to sing?
DY: At the beginning it was hard because they wanted me to study to be a doctor or an architect and have a normal job. Then they saw that I was really into it, so they understood that they would not change my mind. So now they are really proud. It wasn’t easy, but I think your personality always makes your decisions. They love it: ‘Okay, everyone has to be himself, to go where he wants to be.’
LJN: You practised your singing in the hammam? [Turkish bath]
DY: In the foyer of the hammam. When you enter there is a resonance. Some people say to me, ‘You use a lot of effects and delay.’ This is also an instrument for me. This instrument was not the oud, but these effects. Today when I sing I use this as an instrument, as a possibility to go somewhere else. When I began with that, I was not thinking about using this later on. But it became like a flavour, or maybe one of the most important techniques in my singing- this delay and echo. It’s not easy- you have to get used to it, the way some guitarists use pedals and effects. It’s another instrument, another way of thinking. I was lucky to have this hammam foyer. I believe a lot of things are destined. Sometimes things happen and you have no idea why, but they have to happen, because you have a way or path to go on- Mother Nature, God, or something else, helps you to do that. Just open your eyes and your mind, and you can take it.
LJN: When you started singing, you sang the call to prayer. Did that affect your style of singing later?
DY: Of course. You can’t learn something without it becoming essential to you in your life. What is important to me in that is the mystical part, not the religious part. Today I’m enjoying life, free from judgement. Keep your mind free like a bird. I sing about that!
LJN: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Alim Qasimov, qawwali singers- are you influenced by the ornamentation?
DY: I’m like a sponge- I absorb everything on my way. And then what comes after- of course I have a lot of things. I feel like a mosaic of everything. All those things are a part of my body and soul.
LJN: You have a beautiful high tone to your voice- I wondered if you were influenced by rock singers?
DY: I love to listen to rock, and when I was young too. For me, it’s very important, this wild emotion. You can really like whispering, but to give whispering a value you also have to scream. You have to let it out from your body. Of course, you have to learn how to do it. This is really important for me. Music is like life- you go outside sometimes and it sounds too loud, and you get used to that. But finally you want to be quiet.
LJN: What do you feel when you’re singing in that high powerful way?
DY: I feel like I’m just an instrument. I don’t know, there’s something playing on me, and sometimes it’s like a vibration between the musicians on the stage; and also the public, and the acoustic of the hall. There are some moments when I don’t feel my body any more. My body is like a resonance, like the body of a double bass or oud or piano. And then I’m really tired!
LJN: How did you get interested in jazz and which jazz musicians and singers have inspired you?
DY: I would not be able to be a musician if I wasn’t interested in jazz. For me, jazz is the best way to do music. Of course, I love classical music, traditional music, electronic music. I love all kinds of music which can touch me, if it’s done with love and originality. But jazz- it reminds me of when I was young with Arabic music. In a lot of traditional music, there is improvisation. For that you travel between [Arabic] maqams, between the moods- that’s why I love it. Then of course, with jazz on the stage you can have anybody, different people, any perspective of life. They can be Afro-American, European, Norwegian, Brazilian, Indian, African, but they try to build the same language. On stage everybody is trying to talk a common language, always looking for other textures for this language. And this is what I love in it: all of them understand that we are there to be surprised.
If I’m talking about who changed my life, I have to say Miles Davis- one of the most important musicians who really made me dream. Because in his career he did a lot- he was always doing new stuff, new ideas. And as a leader he was a big inspiration- the way he brings people together. This is my goal – to be able to have musicians around me who really share my story. Whenever I have a new project, I always think about Miles as a leader. He had no limits. I think he changed the scene. Today, all the great musicians played with him. People talk about him like a prophet; not in a religious sense, but as a creator. And of course, singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan- they changed my life. I’m not going to sing like them but they teach me without teaching me.
LJN: You’ve worked with so many people- to name a few: Gilad Atzmon, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Nguyên Lê, Paolo Fresu, and travelled to different places. Have these musicians influenced the way you play?
DY: Of course- these musicians are my bank account! [laughs] From them I have ideas. When I need ideas I play with them. Of course, I hope they are getting some back from me. I have to say, without them I would not be where I am today, or where I want to go. All these encounters are really important, much more important than eating caviar or drinking champagne.
LJN: Each of your CDs has a different sound, and your new CD is with your first all-American band?
DY: I always wanted to do a record with New York musicians. It began in 1999 when I recorded Electric Sufi, and finally I was divided between European and American musicians, like Markus Stockhausen, Dieter Ilg, Wolfgang Muthspiel. The American side was Doug Wimbish, Will Calhoun, Mino Cinelu. Then on Abu Nawas Rhapsody I tried to get all musicians from New York. In the end, Tigran Hamasyan was on board and just one American, Mark Guiliana, who’s also playing on the latest record. Finally, I believe that the project decides for me- I’m not the one who decides. After fifteen or sixteen years I’ve got 100% New York musicians in the band. Of course, I play with them because they are important as musicians, as human beings. If Aaron Parks lived in London, he would be in the band! I believe that the project itself, its personality, decides for me. Just before this project, I recorded two or three songs with [percussionist] Zakir Hussain, but I decided to make this much more jazzy.
LJN: Can you tell me something about the tracks on the new album? You have some very complex time signatures- does that come from Arabic music?
DY: I played with a tabla player from India, Jatinder Thakur. I’m lucky that I met him at that time in Vienna when I was living there. My first band was with him. Every day he was explaining things to me, and I fell in love with those odd metres. The title of this new record is Diwan of Beauty and Odd. A diwan is like a collection of poems written by a single poet. Normally they’re short, to be set to music, for example. The idea that I had for the whole record was: the ‘odd’ refers to the odd metres. The melodies, the bass lines, the piano-playing, the oud, the singing and everything- makes the ‘odd’ into beauty. I believe without opposites there’s nothing. In nature, it’s like beauty is only good because there is ugliness. It’s the same with music- it’s like the idea of having odd metres and then flying with them.
LJN: So you have “Fly Shadow Fly” and “17th Flyways”?
DY: The idea was to sing texts by a writer from Syria. This is a baby that needs to grow. I’m really excited to be playing this music in London at the Barbican, on Nov. 19th, my birthday! So ask everybody to be there!
(*) CD: Diwan of Beauty and Odd, with Aaron Parks- piano; Ben Williams- bass; Mark Guiliana- drums; Ambrose Akinmusire- trumpet, on Okeh label in Sept.)