“It’s music that tethers Third World beats to First World technology, a thin cross-cultural membrane connecting the ancient with the modern, the sacred with the profane,” wrote the magazine Mojo. That’s a perfect description of his music. But it’s also who he is. Youssef, who speaks five languages, says, “I’m from Tunisia, I eat Japanese sushi, I wear pants from Pakistan, my T-shirt is from the Internet, my shoes are from Adidas -- this is me and I’m everyone!” And a little bit of everyone is in his music, too.
When he gets together with his global musical crew, as one of the two festival grand finales on July 19 at the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Art’s (İKSV) 19th İstanbul International Jazz Festival, the chemistry is guaranteed to cause combustion. The program, subtitled “Encounters With the Masters,” teams up Youssef with Estonian pianist Kristjan Randalu, Turkish clarinetist Hüsnü Şenlendirici, Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset, American percussionist Marilyn Mazur, British bassist Phil Donkin and Turkish kanunist Aytaç Doğan in the courtyard of the İstanbul Archaeological Museum.
Born into a family of seven brothers and sisters in a small village on the Tunisian shores in 1967, Youssef used to collect pieces of wood and odd scraps in order to craft a small oud for himself. Trained in a Quranic school to sing, he was already adept at vocalizing. He heard other music, however, on the radio, the only source of entertainment in the village. “I didn’t know what it was,’’ he says, “classical, jazz and so on ... it was just music.” That unspecified mélange became his artistic centrifuge from which later inspiration poured.
After receiving classical music training in Vienna, where he also played in a club that was donated to local musicians every week, Youssef is still, decades later, mixing up diverse elements in his music without worrying about what label to give it. Employing both traditional regional folk instruments with modern ones and often with electronics, Youssef invents his own jazz language -- one that uses his exceptionally wide-ranged singing voice as an instrument to improvise incredible musical journeys that have the same intensity as the call to prayer from the mosque. This will be one concert where the local imam’s voice will fit right in with his.
Dhafer, you are one of the two grand finales for the İstanbul Jazz Festival on July 19. For this you’ll be playing with musicians from several different countries. Will this be the first time together for all of you?
And what a grand pleasure it will be! I will be with grand musicians, so I know everything will be truly grand! Yes, this will be the first time, the world premiere of this particular ensemble, although some of us did play together last year in Germany. Even though it will be a mix of old and new, this will be slightly different. The title is “The Dance of the Invisible Dervishes.” We won’t see the dervishes, but you can imagine them. I’m not involved in the Sufi culture and tradition per se, but when we were talking about this project I saw them very clearly.
And do you travel with your own sound engineer? At your concert here two years ago, you had him take a bow with the musicians.
It’s a must, and he even comes before my wife! He’s very holy to me. For musicians, he’s indispensable. His name is Christian Ulbrich, and he’s critical for making all the conditions perfect for us. He’s just as important as I am. His knowledge and experience are invaluable. He’s been with us for 10 years. When musicians go on the road, we depend totally on him. It’s all about love and respect. We’re never without him.
As a singer and teacher of singing, I’m particularly fascinated with your voice. You have the kind of voice that everyone wants -- it’s a very wide range, with no breaks. And you don’t seem to need any breath! How do you do it?
As a child I learned to sing in Quranic school, the Islamic songs of course. I remember going to the mosque to sing and loving the reverberations inside it. First thing in the morning I play the oud, which I suppose steals time from the voice. Because I’m an oudist and composer, I think my voice is the color of the oud. I actually never had lessons. When I was young I was always trying think differently than others. I don’t want to sound like other people; I want to sound more like an instrument. The sound is important to me. I’m still discovering!
Do you have any technical tips?
I really don’t have much of a regular routine, but I do a few things to release tension and try to be a body of resonance. Of course it depends on the situation -- indoors, outdoors, who I’m singing with, etc. After 25 years, though, I don’t have to prove anything. There’s no such thing as wrong. I don’t see barriers. When I get to that certain age [when the voice shows signs of aging], I’ll knock on wood and sing less. But I think some day I’ll have to wake up and think about how it all works. I’m very lazy.
With your crazy touring schedule, how do you keep yourself fresh for all the performing you do?
I try to get lots of sleep and never drink alcohol, especially on tour. And I never smoke cigarettes. I’m begging my father to stop his smoking. I want him to live! But he just goes outside to do it. I’m his nightmare -- but in a good way. Back to your question, I think one of the most important things is a certain mindset: I’m not afraid of making errors.
Where is home base for you now, and how many languages do you speak?
Arabic, French, German, Italian and English. Twenty-four years ago, I moved from Tunis to Paris. Now, I’m spending more time in Tunis. It’s a luxury to go back. This is because of my family and because Tunisia is changing. It’s a small country, but it’s opening up and becoming more like a mix of the occident and the orient. The young people there are eager to learn -- it’s the most important thing. Speaking for myself, a lot of things still bother me there but a lot of other things have definitely improved. I have only one thing to say: tolerance. Respect, for everyone, regardless of religion, is critical. My personal paradise is a many-cultured kaleidoscope.
Is that how you feel about İstanbul?
İstanbul is becoming a lot like Paris. It’s the heart of Buddha on the Haliç. The secret is knowing how to open yourself to it. When I work with Hüsnü, who sings through his instruments with the voice of Allah, it’s ecstasy. Our concert on the 19th will be a declaration of my love, my “aşk” to İstanbul.