INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY MARIE-CHRISTINE TAYAH
WHO IS HE?
Dhafer Youssef is a Tunisian Oud player, vocalist and composer. He’s a descendent of a family from a Center-eastern fishing village and comes from a long line of muezzins. For him mastering vocal performances is a heritage. After joining local Liturgical singing troupe as a vocalist and then exercising on playing Oud at the youth center in Teboulba, he discovered the electric bass.
HOW DID HE GET STARTED?
Willing to explore new horizons, Dhafer Youssef left his home village for the capital. In Tunis, he joined the musical conservatory at Nahj Zarkoun and then left Tunisia for Austria with the ambition to complete his musical training. Along with an Austrian percussionist, he formed his first band “Zeryab.” In 1996, his multiple discoveries and experiences in Vienne gave birth to his first album “Musafer.”
Along with the European jazz melodic structures, the Mediterranean groove takes a particular form. This marks the beginning of an authentic musical identity which is impregnated with the artist origins without getting into typical Orientalism.
A result of his interest for his vocal undulations and the resonances of sounds, the jazz music in “Electric Sufi” was an opportunity for Dhafer Youssef to experiment new things with his voice and to use it as an instrument. The musical alloy has strengthened during a second inspiring tour.
Back in the studios, Dhafer Youssef recorded “Digital Prophecy” in 2003. He was nominated too times in 2003 and 2006 for the BBC awards for world music.
Dhafer Youssef set himself a new challenge which consisted in introducing more string instruments to his creative universe. This surrealist equation resolved with the release of “Divine Shadows” in 2005. He released “Abu Nawas Rhapsody” in 2010.
1• WHAT IS YOUR LIFE MOTTO?
I love life, meeting interesting people, discovering new sounds, new books, and different places. So if I had a rule of conduct that would probably be to live things intensely and with passion. For the anecdote, André Manoukian used this maxim that I particularly like which says: “Never ask your way to someone who already knows it, because you might never get lost”
2• WHO/WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE INSPIRATION?
Music is my ultimate inspiration. I do not limit myself to a particular musical genre. I listen to everything from rock, Jazz, electro and other traditional musical forms. I absorb all those sounds and turn them into sonorities of my own. However, inspiration doesn’t stop at music. I can be inspired by encounters I make, books and poets I read, places I visit as I can be moved by a situation or a particular atmosphere.
3• WHY OUD?
For several reasons, playing Oud was almost evidence to me. I remember when I started realizing the potential of my voice, its echos, it was a complete new world full of different possibilities that was opening itself to me but I quickly felt the urge to play an instrument and to hear the notes. Besides, the Oud was a common instrument there, as it represented our cultural identity. So, I decided to learn how to play it in a local youth club. As strange as it may seem, this was not an easy task. I remember many of them discouraging me saying that knowing how to sing should be enough. But it was without counting my thirst to learn.
4• BEING AN OUD PLAYER, A VOCALIST, AND A COMPOSER, WHERE DO YOU FIND YOURSELF THE MOST?
I am the three of them. These different aspects of me as a musicians complete themselves. I’ve always considered my voice as an extension of the oud. Both of them helped me explore different sonorities and try new things. Singing was
exhilarating but it wasn’t enough for me. I needed to hear the notes. Composing, on the other hand, is another area of my music which can’t be possible without mastering or at least playing an instrument.
5• WHAT DO YOU STILL CHERISH FROM THE CHILD YOU ONCE WERE, WHO USED TO DISCOVER HIS VOICE ECHOES IN THE HAMMAM?
Somewhere, I am still that child who was fascinated the first time he heard his voices echoes in the mosque eager to learn and absorbing every sound without distinction whether it was Jazz, rock, Abd el wahab or Bach. This child is now more mature, he experienced different things, met interesting people but is still impregnated with this atmosphere in his mother’s kitchen while listening to the radio and with this joy of living.
6• A MIX OF DIFFERENT STYLES, AVANT-GARDE, NEW AGE, INDIAN, NORDIC, SUFI, ETC… IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU RELATE TO EACH OF THIS MOSAIC ENTITY THAT YOU BUILT THROUGHOUT YOUR LIFE?
These different experiences come in a direct line of my search for sonorities which has always been at the core of my music. Through the time and in my different albums, my music evolved from Mediterranean and European Jazz influences, electro experiences as a result of my interest in the resonances of sound and the possibilities of the voice, a symbiosis between the Oud and electronic sonorities during collaborations with artists from the Scandinavian electro-jazz scene before introducing more string instruments to my musical universe. The idea is to keep pushing these experiments each time to a new level.
7• HOW COME YOUR SUFI AND QAWWALI ROOTS STILL RESOUND IN THE DEPTH OF YOUR EUROPEAN LIFESTYLE?
My family comes from a Sufi tradition and it is true that my music contains some elements of it. However, these are not the only influences that run through my music as there are also elements of Jazz, rock, classical music, etc. And even though I am interested in this philosophy and the texts of philosophers such as Al Hallaj which leads me to think and question things, I wouldn’t want to be billed as Sufi.
8• HOW DO YOU CONCRETIZE YOUR EMOTIONS THROUGH MUSIC TECHNIQUES? WOULD YOU LIMIT THEM TO MEET PROFESSIONALISM?
Emotions are about inspiration and influences. Music techniques; on the other hand, help me materialize these emotions into notes and sonorities. Thus meeting professionalism doesn’t specially require the limitation of the emotions but rather mastering these techniques through a lot of work and practice.
9• BEYOND MUSICAL NOTES, YOU FLY YOUR AUDIENCE TO A TRANSCENDED FRAME OF MIND. COULD YOU SHARE WITH US YOUR KEYS TO CLOUDLAND?
I don’t know if there are keys or a secret to access such a state of mind. As far as I am concerned, it is crucial to be passionate and sincerely taking out what’s brewing inside me. This idea is more important to me as I firmly believe that the audience is an integral part in the fulfillment of the musical piece or album.
10• WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE TO LIFESTYLE READERS?…
August 26th, I will be presenting for the first time in Beirut my new album “Birds requiem”. It will be a great night and I am thrilled to perform there so I hope to see all of you there.
11• THROUGH YOUR MUSIC, WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE TO THE WORLD?
My music is about sharing. Just like painting, the message is abstract. It is contained in the music and it’s to the public to feel it and interpret it on its own.