REVIEW: Dhafer Youssef plus Ambrose Akinmusire at the Barbican (2016 EFG LJF)

Dhafer Yousef in 2011. Photo credit Photo: © Oles Cheresko

Dhafer Youssef plus Ambrose Akinmusire 
(Barbican Hall. 20th November 2016. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Zosia Jagodzinska)

Introduced passionately by Jumoke Fashola as a musician who ‘bridges the gap between the sacred and the profane’, Tunisian born singer, composer and oud player Dhafer Youssef and his skilled band members took us on a whirlwind journey through many countries and cultures, embodying, musically and physically, a deep, searching spirituality and joyful playfulness that left us feeling exhilarated, inspired, and wanting more.

Youssef cut a trendy and mischievous figure, wiggling his hips and dancing around the stage with his beloved oud. His sheer delight in playing and moving was infectious, and looking around the Barbican hall I saw that I was not the only one dancing in my seat, uncontrollably tapping my feet and fingers. The opening tune Fly Shadow Fly had a medieval feel to it, alternating between major and minor strummed chords on the oud, accompanied by the liquid legato introspection and poignant phrasing of Aaron Parks' piano playing; taking the audience back in time and creating a sacred space for Youssef’s remarkably moving voice to enter. Influenced by Sufi and Quawwali singers, Youssef has a very focussed, pure and soulful voice that ranges from dark and richly textured lows to beautifully resonant falsetto highs, touching on operatic and rock vocal qualities. On Of Beauty and Odd, he duetted with gifted guest trumpeter and support act, Ambrose Akinmusire, using intense nasality to create an unusual, spine tingling metallic sound; the tangling of Youssef’s high pitched wails with those of Akinmusire’s trumpet, microtonally and timbrally coiling around each other before unifying in tone quality, created a powerful tension and release. Youssef loves the oud for the special quality of its “double strings”, “I always have the feeling…that I’m trying to make two people sound the same, which are never the same.” Here he explored the ‘double strings’ of his own voice and the trumpet to stunning effect.

He has described singing as an ‘out of body experience’, the body becoming ‘a resonating instrument, like a bass or oud’. On stage he played around with spacing, time and delay, retreating from the microphone as he rose into the falsetto register, creating a distant, disembodied sound, enhanced with lots of reverb. As he reached the climax of his vocal phrases he rose to stand on his stool, raising his arms as if summoning the heavens, then jumped down, slinging on his oud and dancing sensually, transporting us to a smoky dance floor or jazz club. The band’s controlled emotional and dynamic build ups were suddenly broken off at the top of Youssef’s vocal phrases to drop into thrilling grooves, expertly executed by drummer Justin Faulkner. Individually each player demonstrated impressive instrumental skill and originality; Ben Williams’ warmly resonant and virtuosic bass solo towards the end of the set was particularly memorable.

The crowd’s shifting moods and reactions alternated between stunned silence, spontaneous loud whoops, cheers and applause at Youssef’s top notes and the big drops, and laughter at his cheeky persona and humorous chat. Despite this being a large concert hall, Youssef maintained an intimate camaraderie between audience, band and crew. He has said: “I feel like a mosaic of everything.” Widely travelled, he celebrated people’s heritage, mentioning each of the countries his crew originated from.

Musically, oud ornamentation and melodies, of Arabic and Tunisian origins were ‘clothed’ differently by the the constantly changing grooves, ranging from tango, Spanish flamenco and jazz to Afro latin, drum and Bass, hip hop and heavy rock. Communication was strong between all band members, but Youssef was intensely focussed on drummer Faulkner, demonstrating the central importance of rhythm and groove in this intricate fusion music. Not only were there lots of complex metric changes- including Indian Tabla influenced 13/8’s and 11/4’s, Jazzy 5/4’s, lilting 9/8’s and Rock 4/4’s- but within these meters, the feel was changed with accent displacement of strong and weak beats, playing with the listeners’ expectations.

When he sings he is an old soul, when he plays the oud he is a cheeky young thing. There was a strong sense of the mystic who is too playful and restless to remain profound for too long, yet so in touch with spirituality that he couldn’t be dancing and riffing around for too long either. This fascinating dialogue between the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ was visually demarcated in the gig by Youssef’s physical rising and falling. At the end of the show he brought us to our feet, exclaiming “We’re going to dance. Make them near God!’, to which a ballsy audience member replied ‘No pressure then?!’ and everyone laughed. He and the band had taken us near to God and back to the dance floor, with effortless, charismatic ease. True artists can do that.

LINK: Interview with Dhafer Youssef

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