With the release of his new album, Street of Minarets, the Tunisian oud maestro and vocalist searches deep to find new means of expression for his music.
In a journey of self-discovery, Youssef brings together contemporary jazz fused with the traditional music of Tunisia he learned as a child.
Sharing this journey with him are some of the of the foremost jazz musicians from the US and beyond in a line up that includes Herbie Hancock, bassists Dave Holland and Marcus Miller alongside guitarist Nguyên Lê and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.
In a creative process that took many unexpected twists and turns along the way, Youssef has undoubtably recorded his most satisfying and personal statement to date, and it was a pleasure to be able to talk to Dhafer about his music.
Can you tell us a bit about your new album Street of Minarets and how did you prepare for the recording? Did you write the music first and then choose the musicians that you wanted, or did you select the musicians first and then write the music with them in mind?
This album took me 5 years since the recording, to the release, it was a long process, since it was also a different way of working for me where usually I compose the music and then do my casting, for this album it was the way opposite, I had the line up then I had to work out the music. I learned a lot through this experience.
That is quite a group of musicians that you have assembled for Street of Minarets. Once the musicians were confirmed as available for the recording, how did you feel when composing the music?
It was a moment of joy, I love creating, that’s my element and creating music for musician i admire was a real blessing., I wanted them to sound differently to bring them to other places, unknown places, and them feeling comfortable and knocking together the door of the unknown.
There is multi-faceted and international feel to the music, and the way it was recorded and edited. The overriding subject of the album is travel, and the sense of the journey undertaken to bring the music to life. How did this concept evolve as the album progressed?
For me each album, or concert is a journey. As I am a traveller who spends years travelling the world with an Oud and backpack, looking for roots and inspiration.
Traveling, connecting people and bringing different culture together is always in my music, because also my music reflects me and my journey.
The music and resulting album has taken quite some time to come together with the first sessions for the record beginning in 2017. Did the music and arrangements change from the time of the first sessions to the final mixes, or was your conception for the album fully conceived from the outset?
You know, since the album Electric Sufi I went more to acoustic music and albums with almost no post-production, and when I started the Street of Minarets recording, I thought is gonna be recording, mixing and the album is ready.But it wasn’t the case, and I went through a long post production with Nguyên Lê, Steve Argüelles and myself.
The arrangement changed. And I brought Adriano dos Santos and Rakech Chaurasia to Paris last winter to record, created new songs and sacrificed some stuff that was recorded in LA. I had to give the album the soul!
The way you use voice on Street of Minarets is also quite different, and the integration of new sounds, and never far away is the spiritually that is a constant in your music. What drives and influences the way you use voice and the particularly inspired use of the oud?
The moment! When I sing I don’t think! I let myself go, knock the door of the UNKNOWN! .
Street of Minarets is your ninth album with a steady stream of releases over the last two decades documenting your progress. The music is quite different from your previous albums, and yet retains a continuity of purpose and concept. How do you approach each new project as both a composer and improvising musician?
CREATIVITY. I love to surprise and being surprised. For me every new album is a new chapter, I need to discover new territories, I love to take risks and hate the comfortable zone.
Your introduction to music is inextricably linked to your upbringing in Tunisia. Can you tell us about your early musical experiences and how you came to learn to play the oud?
I am an autodidact, I didn’t learn the oud in the school, I learned by myself by listening, playing and practising. I love the Oud sound!
When I was young my contact with music started at the age of 6 years old in the coranic school by reciting the Coran and learning maqam and then signing with the sufi troupe in the village.
After I went to the capital, Tunis and I wanted to study the Oud, but in the conservatory, they didn’t accept this and they thought that I should do singing instead. That’s where I knew that I have to leave the country, I had bigger dreams.
It is interesting that you chose to further your musical studies in Europe and became interested in jazz. Who would you say have been influences on your music?
When I arrived in Vienne, I wanted to study classical music, which wasn’t possible. I had to learn the language. The first time I saw a real piano was in Vienne and I had also to learn how to write the music. And also, I think that my mind set doesn’t fit the academic system much. I quit the university and started to do small jobs to survive and there I met Jatinder Thakur (a table player) who opened his house and heart for me.
He introduced me to Indian music, and I remember me listening to the duo Zakir Hussain with his Father Allah Rakha was A MOMENT that I can’t forget, then I discovered jazz, and for me it was easy to fall in love with it! With the freedom in it.
The oud is still quite an unusual instrument to hear in a jazz context. You have managed to develop a vocabulary for, what is primarily an acoustic instrument, into an electronic sound world. What has inspired you as oud player, and how do you approach and adapt your playing to bring this traditional instrument to be such a vibrant voice in contemporary music?
There have been so many experiences with the Oud from Mounir Bachir to Abdul Malik and more… The first is an Iraqi Oud master who made an important research work with the oud.
The second Abdul Malik in 1961 and even before him some European music searchers tried to bring the oud to new sounds. All these experiences were important and opened doors for me and others.
With the oud, I am not trying to show or convince that Oud has a place in this “genre of music”. For me it has to be creative, no cliché no orientalism, the most I hate, when musicians fall into the trap of orientalism and exoticism.
And future plans? Will there be the opportunity to tour the music on the new album?
The tour starts in February in Berlin Philharmonie, then Munich, Paris, Turkey, Armenia, Netherland, France, Marocco…
And I am excited to share this music LIVE!
For more information visit Dhafer’s website here.
You can read our review of Street of Minarets here.