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Dhafer Youssef: Birds Requiem

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Dhafer Youssef

Dhafer Youssef - Birds RequiemIt is rare indeed for the oud player—the player of that Middle Eastern and Mediterranean lute—to venture out of the traditional context. Players like Rabih Abou-Khalil have done so, somewhat marginally, while Gordon Grdina, the Canadian player was bold and masterful. But there is no player quite like Dhafer Youssef, a Tunisian-born, Europe-based master musician, who is not only traditional, but also forward looking; who, moreover, combines his wonderful voice with its absolutely magical range, all to make spectral and absolutely mystical music. His hypnotic album, a suite called Birds Requiem is a true masterpiece. The music for the album was conceived as a soundtrack for an imaginary film. As it turns out the visuals of the film play out in the majestic music that traces the separation of the body and the soul as it follows the wanderings—at times melancholic and at times ecstatic—of both entities. Whichever part of the being is being shadowed and celebrated, the music is always visceral, fascinating and utterly original, and which can never be listened to only one. Such is the mesmerism of Mr. Youssef’s voice, his playing and the playing of the ensemble that makes the music with Mr. Youssef.

The group is so in tune with the music that it is almost possible to mistake them for a band of wandering North Africans; a part of an invisible caravanserai wending its way through the harsh topography of the Sahara. But these are musician as far removed as Turkey is from Northern Europe. Firstly there are two voices: the one sung by Dhafer Youssef, accompanied of course by the oud. The other voice is that of the clarinet, voiced by the Turk, Hüsnü Senlendirici. These two players voice the wandering body and the spirit-leaden soul. There is no telling which one is which entity, but it becomes clear from the music that Mr. Youssef’s is the voice of the soul and the deeper, more woody one of the clarinet is that of the body. Their conversations are riveting and can be heard on most of the four parts of the suite, but a listen to “Ascetic Mood” will be enough to be captivated. This chart is one of the six pieces of incidental music that links the four movements of the Birds Requiem Suite.

Other musicians who play invaluable roles in the Suite are Nils Petter-Molvaer, whose haunting open-belled trumpet chases the shadow of the clarinet as it wanders like a medieval apothecary ministering to the soul every time it returns to touch base with the body. Eivind Aarset, an electric guitarist of considerable repute is another musician who captures the imagination both by his sensitive guitar-playing as well as his handling of the gorgeously manipulated electronics. Bassist Phil Donkin is superb, especially on “Fuga Hirundinum ‘Birds Requiem’ Suite” as are pianist Kristjan Randulu, kanun-player Ayteç Dogan, whose instrument resembles a zither and the drummer, Chander Sardjoe. But ultimately the proverbial spotlight is on Dhafer Youssef, who manipulates his voice to range from a depth-defying baritone to the giddying heights of a falsetto; all the while he is pitch-perfect even as he negotiates the ever- minutest quarter-tones. He paints as he sings and plays from an enchanted palette so that the listener never knows where the musical colours, shades and hues will come from next.

This is one of those absolutely exquisite albums that will astound critics and listeners who are bold enough to move well out of a comfort-zone. It blurs the artificial boundaries created by marketers into a realm so beautiful and rarefied, that a listener might never want to come back from where the music goes.

Track List: Birds Canticum ‘Birds Requiem’ Suite; Sweet Blasphemy; Blending Souls & Shades (to Shiraz); Ascetic Mood; Fuga Hirundinum ‘Birds Requiem’ Suite; Khira ‘Indicium Divinum’ Elegy for My Mother; 39th Gülay (to Istanbul); Archaic Feathers ‘Birds Requiem’ Suite; Sevdah (to Jon Hassell); Ascetic Journey; Whirling Birds Ceremony ‘Birds Requiem’ Suite.

Personnel: Dhafer Youssef: oud, vocals; Hüsnü Senlendirici: clarinet; Nils Petter-Molvaer: trumpet; Ayteç Dogan: kanun; Eivind Aarset: electric guitar, electronics; Kristjan Randulu: piano; Phil Donkin: double bass; Chander Sardjoe: drums.

Label: OKeh Records | Release date: February 2014

Website: dhaferyoussef | Buy music on: amazon

About Dhafer Youssef

A small seaside town in Tunisia in the 1970s. A boy walks along a deserted shoreline picking up the odds and ends he finds lying around: A broken fishing net; a few discarded sardine cans; spokes from an old bicycle. His heart and mind are full of music and he wants to play. It’s as much as his father can do to put food on the table for Dhafer and his seven brothers and sisters. There certainly isn’t spare money for music lessons, let alone for an instrument. So Dhafer makes his own oud, the traditional middle-Eastern lute, using whatever he can find. You’ve only got to listen to the achingly beautiful first minute or so of Dhafer Youssef’s last album Digital Prophecy to hear how the passion for music, born in that small Tunisian town, still lives on.

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