Dhafer Youssef: the electric Sufi

Chitra Kalyani
5 Min Read

The guards at the Azhar Park advise you not to waste another LE 5 if you don’t already have a ticket to the Geneina Theater concert inside – it’s sold out, they tell you. Outside the open-air Geneina venue, people are scouting locations to catch a glimpse of the Dhafer Youssef performance. Inside, the theater is filled to the brim, some people sitting on stairs, or standing closer to the stage.

The oud (oriental lute) player and vocalist Youssef is accompanied onstage by pianist Tigran Hamasyan, bassist Chris Jennings, and percussionist Mark Guiliana. Onstage, Youssef shares a special chemistry with Hamasyan; the oud and piano play the same notes, linked in harmony.

The attentive delight with which Youssef plays alongside the piano also makes him a keen listener. Thus, even though the music is set, it appears improvised.

While it was in a language all their own, it was clear that the players onstage communicated with each other well. Transitions between the slower numbers on oud stringing out classical tunes swung sharply and clearly to the fast-paced tempo of rock and jazz as soon Youssef nodded his head.

Born in Teboulba in Tunisia, Youssef was trained as a muezzin, schooled in the Quranic tradition. “You can’t create something without having roots, the self-taught musician tells Daily News Egypt.

In some of his songs, Youssef chants muezzin-style, producing a high-pitched nasal sound by covering one side of his nose. At other moments, he releases his breath simply, in a long unbroken lungful of sound. His hand goes up with the sound, and as it comes down the drums crash, and the piano strums loud and fast.

“I’m trying to produce complicated music, but it sounds easy, says Youssef of his mix of oriental sounds with electronic jazz.

In Tunisia, the radio was his “window to the world that introduced him to a realm that would become a vocation. Youssef moved to Vienna at the age of 19, and has since led a nomadic life – traveling in Europe, but also in the US and Senegal. His music relects the breadth of his travels.

“I listen to music without filter, says Youssef of his influences, “I listen to everything without difference, be it classical, rock, jazz. He quotes a variety of names from the classical Johann Sebastian Bach to the contemporary Indian flutist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.

The most definitive phase in his musical career, Youssef says, is when he was given a carte blanche by Porgy and Bess Jazz Club. In that year, he collaborated with various artists in duos. He notes his collaboration with Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresnu as enjoyable. Among his own albums, Youssef debuted with Malak (1999), following up with Electric Sufi (2002) and has produced six albums to date.

It was only in 2008 that Youssef decided to work in an ensemble with a classic piano, double bass and drums setup, out of which came the current performance.

“Khamriyyat Abu Nawas – the wine song of Abu Nawas, comes out of Youssef’s latest album, “Abu Nawas Rhapsody, released in the UK this Monday. Citing Sufism, Youssef says that he loves God, but he loves life more. The singer says that he was not sure how the audience would react to a song on wine, but wanted to be true to the words of the great classical Arabic poet. The audience was wildly receptive.

The pianist Hamasyan is an evidently talented accompaniment who in his moments of excitement, sits up from his chair to play. In his percussion solo, Mark Guiliana seemed to start off shaky, but soon dominated the set and the stage.

The night ended all too early, with a little over an hour of performance. Seasoned fans complained of certain numbers not being featured. While the performance never failed to deliver, it seemed there was a lot more fanfare and adulation in the air than called for by the night.

For more information on the artist visit http://www.dhaferyoussef.com/..

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