Maghreb Voices – Birds Requiem

A Thousand Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Ground

Album: Birds Requiem

Artist: Dhafer Youssef

?Today, like every day, we wake up empty and frightened. don’t go to the door of the study and read a book. Instead, take down the dulcimer; let the beauty of what you love be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground, there are a thousand ways to go home again.?
– Rumi

Here we have one of the most remarkable recording achievements of 2013. This decade’s masters of world-classical-jazz musical syncretism have been amazing (Ludocivo Einaudi, Dinuk Wijeratne, and Kinan Azmeh, to name a few), but Dhafer Youssef is near the top of the heap.

Oud maestro Youssef comes from a humble family of muezzins (men who make the calls to prayer) in a small Tunisian fishing village. His amazing voice (I’m guessing a five-octave range) was first tested by Quranic recitations and gained proficiency when he became fascinated with listening to the resonance of his own singing in his mother’s kitchen and in the marketplace.

When he was old enough Dhafer himself gave the call to prayer, showing himself to be every bit as vocally proficient as his ancestors. He soon started studying the oud (a pear-shaped, stringed instrument), joining a number of musical groups and attending music school in the capital, Tunis. Eventually he felt compelled to continue his musical education in Europe.

Vienna provided the multicultural stimulation his peculiar musical creativity required. He left academic studies behind, as the clubs and bars provided him with the more intensive musical training he was looking for. The connections he made among superlative musicians from across Europe and the Maghreb enabled him to produce a series of meticulous, elegant, impassioned recordings, the most recent of which is, in this listener’s opinion, the fairest of them all.

The tracks all manifest an advanced musical knowledge, with elements of different folk cultures and jazz all impeccably arranged but communicating an unspeakable poignancy. The Arab aspects of Youssef’s compositions and performances are the epitome of all that is distinctively beautiful about Arab music; the maqams, the rhythms, the soaring crescendos and decrescendos, and the poetic titles and lyrics all showcase the rich, complex heritage of Arab music.

Many of Youssef’s compositions are inspired by Persian mystical poets like Rumi and El-hallaj. The affinity of Youssef’s music with those words is profound; spiritual tranquility and ecstatic passion are difficult to marry together in art and their union requires a highly developed artistic sensibility.

The musicians are all phenomenal and deliciously in sync, and apparently this is owed to Youssef’s demeanor; they all report his special gift for making them feel important, loved even, while they’re playing with him.

Kristjan Randalu plays a heavenly jazz piano, ripe with invention, skill, and pure swing. He’s probably the jazziest player in the crew, and gets more points for the way he seamlessly blends European jazz with Arab, Indian, and European folk traditions. There is a heady mix of jazz and not-jazz, sometimes squaring off, sometimes waltzing together like Fred and Ginger.

The title track, Birds Canticum “Birds Requiem” Suite, is a gorgeous rhapsody in which you don’t know where Nils-Petter Molvaer’s ravishing clarinet ends in Dhafer Youssef’s ecstatic, soaring voice begins. Youssef says he came up with the name of the album because he felt the intertwining of his voice with Molvaer’s was like two birds flying in tandem. This sense of imagery emerges from the poetic mindset typical of many Tunisians, whose language tends to be peppered with similes and metaphors.

In the videos on his website Youssef’s demeanor suggests an old soul shining with a gentle beneficence. I’ve met people like this in Tunisia?people who despite personal suffering manage to retain and communicate a deeply affirming love. Youssef’s unique achievement is how he manages to communicate this to us in his music.

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