Dhafer Youssef with Ballaké Sissoko, Eivind Aarset and Adriano Dos Santos: Digital Africa – plus Zoe Rahman Trio
(Barbican Hall, 19 November 2022. Live review by Alison Bentley)
It was Dhafer Youssef’s birthday. “Don’t remind me,” smiled the Tunisian oud-player and vocalist, with winsome humour- he didn’t want to “celebrate his oldness.” But the audience showed their devotion to him with Happy Birthday anyway, and Youssef responded with youthful energy. Each of Youssef’s projects has a distinctive flavour, and his new Digital Africa theme brought together musicians from Africa, (with Ballaké Sissoko from Mali on kora), Europe (Eivind Aarset from Norway on guitar) and Brazil (Adriano Dos Santos on drums and percussion.)
The pieces ran together, mostly without spoken introduction. Youssef circled the stage, drawing in the other musicians with ostinato riffs; the kora rippled over percussive shakers. The mood was happy as the oud encircled the gentle melody with the aura of the double strings and bluesy notes; the guitar elongated chords into washes and cries like distant pedal steel. Oud and kora swapped tumbling phrases, smiling at each other, daring each other to play ever more complex phrases, facing each other like rock guitarists. The drums came in with double time, picking up the complex rhythms and heightening them, both mystical and rocky.
Throughout the mesmerising set, the intensity increased sometimes through volume, sometimes through complexity and sometimes through quietness and focus. When Youssef started to sing the audience was rapt. He began with deep reverb and wavering quarter tones, then high powerful sounds. Youssef started singing as a child in Tunisia in the foyer of the hammam (Turkish bath); he recreated the transcendent sound here with swooping delay on the microphone, waving his hands gently to affect the airflow, and inviting us into the sound. The kora played fluttering cross rhythms in a subtle rush of percussion. An intricate tambourine solo recalled Airto Moreira, while the guitar played a bass role. Hands blurred with speed and the beat seemed to move around like an aural illusion; sounds blurred together to create overtones.
“One of my biggest inspirations is Milton Nascimento,” Youssef told us to introduce Milton Five. His high, pure falsetto harmonised with swathes of guitar, calming everything down after the swirling heat. Guitar stabs like horn lines were stippled with Kora notes. Another piece, from his 2018 Sounds of Mirrors album, swept from a delicate vocal opening and slow dreamy guitar to a groove in 7 of impossible intensity.
“I feel like I’m just an instrument,” Youssef has said in an interview. “…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…” After two standing ovations, the enthralled audience was reluctant to let the band go.
Support was from pianist Zoe Rahman’s excellent UK trio, playing her compositions from her forthcoming album with bassist Alec Dankworth and drummer Gene Calderazzo. We weren’t given the names of most tunes, but the Afro Latin Go With the Flow recalled McCoy Tyner with its big left hand crashes and dark modes; bass and drums picked out key points in the groove. Dankworth’s agile bass solo had a pleasantly buttery tone
A minor groove had tightly-controlled dynamics, giving way to a Chick Corea-esque Latin vibe. In another piece, slow rock cadences were interspersed with up swing and very delicate cymbal work; in another, whispering cymbals gave way to Satie-like piano arcs and Indian-style trills in the right hand. The arrangements throughout the set were wonderfully detailed, keeping us involved to the last note.
Categories: Live review