Thursday, February 15, 2007
Life is a dream for Tunisian oud player and vocalist Dhafer Youssef and it is a view that might well be shared by those lucky enough to catch what is promised to be an enthralling acoustic concert in Perth next week.
While his mastery of the fretless 11-stringed Arabic lute alone is enough to entrance an audience, Youssef is also blessed with an amazing voice that ranges from a low husky rumble to a perfectly pitched operatic upper register.
These two unique instruments working together can be heard best on his fourth solo album Divine Shadows, which has been described as “astonishing” and “thrilling” by world music critics [album pictured: Electric Sufi].
The North African oud player’s music is rooted in the Islamic Sufi tradition, but he draws from different influences including jazz, Indian, electronics and rock.
Youssef sees his music as a bridge between cultures.
“I am hungry for everything — for art, for life, for every second in life,” he says on the phone from Austria, where he now lives after leaving Tunisia as a 19-year-old.
“I love this life because for me it is getting (further and further along), closer to discovering myself. The future of the world is all cultures coming together. For me there is only one culture. There is no Islamic culture and no Occidental culture. It is all the same.”
He will be accompanied on his first visit to Australia by long-time collaborator and tabla player Jatinder Thakur and the Divine Shadows string quartet.
“I am looking to play my own musical world. I want to share this music with Australian audiences. What inspires me is my dreams and I’m living my dreams now,” he says.
Born in 1967 and raised in a big family of seven brothers and sisters in the small seaside town of Teboulba, Tunisia, at an early age he was entranced by the music he heard on the radio. He recently told the BBC: “It was just music. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know what was classical, what was jazz, and so on.”
There was no spare money for music lessons, so Youssef made his own oud out of scavenged wood and metal.
He taught himself to play by ear. He later borrowed a toy electric guitar that a friend had brought back on his travels and became seriously obsessed with the instrument: “There were days when I didn’t sleep, time was too precious. I just played.”
At the age of 19 he went to Vienna to study music and quickly developed his poetic approach on the oud. He formed his own ensembles and recorded two CDs in 1993 and 1996.
“This instrument is what is played in Tunisia and it is my roots,” he says. “The sound of the oud is to me the most beautiful sound I can imagine.”
Indian tabla master Jatinder Thakur played on Youssef’s first two solo discs, 1999’s Malak and 2001’s Electric Sufi, and comes from the lineage of tabla players associated with great sarod player Ali Akbar Khan’s college of music.
“He is my brother, my father, my neighbour — everything that makes the basement of my life,” Youssef says. “He introduced me to Indian music, which for me is a big love. My music gets a lot of inspiration from the experience of knowing and playing with him.”