Album review: Dhafer Youssef – Birds Requiem

Album review: Dhafer Youssef – Birds Requiem
Sometimes real truth can only be seen from the outside looking in.

Genre: Chamber jazz/world fusion/contemporary classical
Country: Tunisia/Norway
Release date: October 28, 2013
Label: Okeh (reissued on vinyl by Music on Vinyl)
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: MOVLP1790
Dhafer Youssef – oud, vocals
Hüsnü Şenlendirici – clarinet
Phil Donkin – bass
Chandler Sardjoe – drums
Eivind Aarset – guitar, electronics
Aytaç Doğan – kanun
Kristjan Randalu – piano
Nils Petter Molvær – trumpet


Birds Canticum – “Birds Requiem” Suite



Sweet Blasphemy



Blending Souls and Shades (to Shiraz)



Ascetic Mood



Fuga Hirundimum – “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


Total running time:


The popular ideas, images, and stories we have of “the Middle East” (itself a complete consruction) tell us far more about the people who believe in and spread them than the people they’re allegedly about. The hatred of difference and the fixation on purity, the brutality of alienated young men, the conquering religion, the destruction or fossilization of art, music, and culture—how can these not be a reflection of what we wish to deny. What, if not “terrorism”, is the endless parade of public police executions and nihilistic massacres? The “blind all-seeing eye”, as Elizabeth Sandifer put it, of imperialism only ever sees itself—a closed, timelike curve of just-sos and “well, actually” and bald assertions and slimy insinuations. The fear of “jihad” surrounding the global refugee crisis (a crisis of our own creation) is really a fantasy that the people we have dispossessed and exploited and brutalized will “rise up” the divinely ordained ladder of power (instead of hacking it down from beneath and chopping it into firewood) and do to us what we have done to them.

One of the core tenets of this Orientalist fantasy is, of course, “the Muslim’s” supposed hatred of music, as told to us through endless horror stories about the Taliban or ISIS and cherry-picked hadith quotes, which obscures the reality that the western half of the Muslim world has been a site of musical exchange and intermixing for the entire Muslim period and a survey of the traditional musics of the regions around the Mediterranean show a rich tapestry of styles, techniques, and forms that is continuous and continuously diverse from Spain to Egypt to Arabia to southern Russia and all points in between, Muslim-majority or otherwise. Instead, it is the Germanic world—northern Europe, white Australia, New Zealand, and North America—who live in a musical bubble left sterile and void from centuries of arrogant gatekeeping, and it is artists like Tunisian-born Dhafer Youssef, who took his classical Qu’ranic singing technique from his motherland with him to Austria to meld it with European chamber jazz and classical music, who have the power to give it life again.

The fundamental musical substance of most of this album is chamber jazz in the vein of ECM Records’ catalogue, but with a much richer and lusher sound, not only due to the presence of a much larger ensemble than usual for the style, but also the electronic effects of sound man Eivind Aarset to make delicate instruments like the oud and clarinet sound huge. Clarinetist Hüsnü Şenlendirici applies a distinctly different style of playing to the European concert clarinet using sinuous microtonal melodies and copious ornamentation that, when combined with the electronic amplification and equalization, provides an all-enveloping atmosphere that would be the envy of a modern keyboardist, but with a sensitivity and fluidity no collection of sample ROMs and DSP chips can match. Instead of “the guitar tone” or “the drum sound”, each instrument’s volume and timbre is varied to the specific needs of the arrangements at any given moment—more gain, less gain, certain frequencies brought forward or diminished. The result still sounds like a mostly acoustic ensemble (the only exception being Aarset’s electric guitar) but with a vastly expanded dynamic range. The mix is beautifully clear even during the busiest passages, and the excellent vinyl pressing by Music on Vinyl makes it sound even better.

At the heart of these arrangements is of course Dhafer Youssef himself, on oud (an Arabic lute with courses of two strings and no frets, played with the fingers) and vocals. On oud he is mostly a supporting player, solid but not a virtuoso like Rahim AlHaj or Rabih Abou-Khalil, and doesn’t take any flashy solos. He does, however, have a great sense of musical empathy and locks in with other performers with seemingly effortless ease, and his ever-reliable performance does much to keep this large eight-piece band from feeling cumbersome. His voice, on the other hand, is a tremendously powerful and wide-ranging tenor reminiscent of power metal high-note singers like Daniel Heiman, Ray Alder, Rob Halford, and especially King Diamond. His voice is strong and rich all the way through, but breathier at the very bottom and increasingly loud and strident near the top, crystallizing into a steely, penetrating head voice with no falsetto as the pitch climbs above middle C (and he’s still got at least an octave and a half of range left!), and he backs this up with an immense fortitude and stamina—even in live concerts, his voice remains consistent and doesn’t crack or become loose with the pitch. His tone can be a bit nasal, but considering the extreme air demands of this sort of singing, that’s inevitable—there’s no other way to keep it up without running out of breath. It’s clear in many songs that he’s singing words in a language (Arabic?) but there are no lyrics printed and the singing style would make them unintelligible to even a native Tunisian Arabic speaker. The emphasis is clearly on the quality and sound of his voice as a musical instrument rather than as a vehicle for delivering poetry.

Pick? I don’t need no sissy pick!

Unlike metal screamers, however, Youssef also has phenomenal dynamics and flexibility. His messa di voce is seamless, allowing him to swell or shrink his voice at will with no “catch” as he goes from soft to loud or loud to soft. This opens up a whole world of emotional expression denied to most rock and pop singers, and Youssef’s subtle and incredibly precise manipulation of volume, pitch, and intonation are the primary factor that help sell the desolate melancholy of this album. His singing is shot through with loss and longing, even grief, especially on “Khira – ‘Indicium Divinum’ (Elegy for My Mother)” where he sounds as if he’s on the razor’s edge of breaking down in tears several times, only to pull back at the last moment. His vocal performance, even without a real lyrical component, is absolutely essential for this music and none of it would work without him.

The other musicians are major names in European jazz and while they’re all very skilled with their instruments, their playing mostly leaves me cold, with this gray Nordic dreariness that reminds me of turn-of-the-century Opeth—even some of the packaging art looks like it could have been in the liner notes of Morningrise or Blackwater Park. They seem to consciously avoid playing too hard, as if to make the music seem even more solemn than it actually is. While Youssef tears his heart out for the audience, the band just hang their heads and sigh. I’ve seen live shows from the time when this album came out where the band play with twice the energy at least; it’s a shame that energy couldn’t have followed them into the studio. The most egregious offender is Kristjan Randalu, an absolutely humorless pianist whose minimalist chord voicings and overdone rubato where he hesitates before hitting the keys comes across as an enormous put-on that diminishes the emotional effect of his performance even further. Meanwhile, Nils Petter Molvær on trumpet comes off as the best and most affecting player of the Westerners, and his powers are not diminished but enhanced by the occasional use of electronic effects to manipulate the sound of his trumpet, a trademark of his playing.

This is not a song-based album; while each track has its own melodies and musical ideas, they do not draw attention to themselves like rock riffs or classical overtures and there are certainly no pieces one might call catchy. This music prizes mood and tone color above all else, and pieces flow into each other as a succession of moods, textures, and atmospheres. For this reason, the album is best listened to in its entirety from start to finish; the full effect of each track isn’t achieved outside of the context of the album as a whole. This gets to be a problem with the length of the album; like many in the post-vinyl era, it goes on for over an hour despite its musical material being more suited to a single LP. Towards the middle this album starts to drag a bit, especially “Ascetic Mood”, a rhythm-free wash of atmospheric drones and slow licks that has no thematic or dynamic development and just meanders ever so slowly for almost six minutes before petering out.

The anchor of the entire album is the four-part Birds Requiem Suite, which is mostly composed on variations on a couple of principal themes to reorient the listener every so often and give the album a better sense of progression. The four parts don’t really flow as a true suite, as they’re all based on the same musical material and get repetitive when played back to back, but they work very well to keep the listener engaged, the same way an oral storyteller might have a framing device recur several times while telling a traditional story. Şenlendirici’s clarinet is truly exquisite on the first and fourth movements, its melodies icy and wending like a Sibelius violin concerto and full of turnarounds, trills, and microtonal pitch bends, sometimes soft and airy, sometimes hard and strident—this sort of demonstrative playing with harsh timbres and extended techniques is something classical instruments are quite good at but is usually ignored by classical composers and soloists, but Şenlendirici really makes the clarinet, an instrument that can often sound sugary and bland in the orchestra, wail and cry like a human voice. At times it sounds almost sax-like, but more supple and graceful in fast runs and ornaments. The production helps a lot too, making the softer playing sound like it’s coming from a clarinet sized for a god at times.

I find it interesting to contrast this music against the raft of “Oriental poems” produced by Russian romantic composers from the middle 19th century until the collapse of the Russian and Ottoman empires during World War I. With perhaps the singular exception of Scheherazade (which is probably only saved by invoking the Islamic world in its program only, with the musical material being sounding entirely and distinctly Russian), most of these pieces were dreadfully boring noodlefests. The composers heard the winding, twisty melodies of Arabic and Turkish music, but never knew how that music was put together, and because it was believed Western learning had all the answers to everything they never thought of learning it properly, from the traditions own masters and their own systems of pedagogy, so they’d just write meandering lines that went absolutely nowhere because it superficially “sounded like” Islamic music. This is the colonial gaze, the “blind all-seeing eye”—they were too arrogant and self-centered to understand what they were emulating or even understand that they didn’t understand and made a mockery of it. This is what “cultural appropriation” means, and this blind spot holds white art back compared to the rest of the world.

Dhafer Youssef, raised in Arabic and Maghreb music, went to Europe and learned European music from Europeans, giving him a proper understanding of both forms of music. The two different forms of music meld and interweave seamlessly with one another, instead of having one tradition “do” the other by borrowing surface aesthetics. It is this deep, structural understanding of the two styles of music that makes this an effective and why fusions of European classical music with other traditions on non-Western terms as shown here and in some of the music of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road ensemble help give classical music a new life and energy. Birds Requiem is not quite a masterpiece, but it is filled with a life, warmth, and emotional power that European “serious music” hasn’t had in one hundred years, and it is also an exquisite recording that sounds incredible on vinyl with a high-fidelity audio system. Highly recommended.

Rating: 90%

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