Holy Shit

by Yazz Ahmed

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve written anything.

I’ve been consumed with writing music for my Jazzlines Fellowship concert, recording in my little studio – yes, still working on the album - and playing with lots of inspiring people, and that includes some of my students, who have flourished on their instruments.

I’m home from my travels and am enjoying the view out of my window overlooking the garden. It’s a jungle of bamboo, roses and wild flowers, rosemary and lavender, towered over by a mighty ash tree.

It’s good to be home and to have time to reflect and absorb.

A few weeks ago my quartet and I flew off to the Ukraine to perform at this year’s Alfa Jazz Festival in Lviv. It was a wonderful surprise to have been asked to play, especially as last year’s festival was cancelled due to political unrest in the country following the Russian invasion.

Actually, Martin was booked to play last year with Ian Ballamy, but they were sent home just before getting on stage, the organisers thought it was just too dangerous.

However, this year, they bravely decided that they had to go ahead as they thought the people needed to hear some music and to have a little joy in their lives. The message of the festival for this year was to bring peace through music, which is something I truly believe in.

After a long and grueling journey from Gatwick to Kiev, we finally arrived at the hotel in Lviv, close to the border with Poland, just in time for a delicious three-course meal.

The next morning we went to the Rynok Square stage to sound check. We had to check the equipment that had been hired in and set up all our electronics before having a much-needed rehearsal. It was great that we had this time to get comfortable with the sound and get used to the impressive dimensions of the outdoor venue.

All done, the boys went back to the hotel and I was escorted to the media centre to take part in a ‘press conference’. I had no idea what it was going to be like or what sort of questions I’d be asked, however, I knew that my friend, Arun Ghosh would be joining me, so I figured everything would be fine because he’s not usually short of something to say.

As I entered the enormous, brightly lit marque with its glaring white ceilings and even more eye wateringly bright white sofas, I was feeling a little disorientated. I noticed there were little folded name cards on the tables in front of each seat. Mine was the first one on the end.

Before I got comfy, I decided to have a look at the other cards to find out who else will be joining in the conversation. Amongst a couple of unfamiliar Ukrainian names, I notice Arun’s, and then I spot two cards that read ‘Wayne Shorter’ and ‘Herbie Hancock’. “Holy shit” I thought.

All of a sudden, I started to feel very nervous. Thankfully Arun arrived before I got the chance to freak out and run away.

As we got settled into our seats, Wayne and Herbie strolled in. Arun and I were totally star struck. It was a very surreal moment meeting these great legends – these guys are two of my heroes. How the hell did I come to be sitting next to them in a blindly bright marque in the Ukraine with a throng of eager journalists and photographers piled up in front of us, presumably expecting me to be able to say something sensible?

I decided I had to break the ice and do something. I got up from my white leather chair and introduced myself. They were both really friendly and charming. I had a brief chat with Herbie about Sean Corby’s Human Revolution Orchestra and our recent gig with Robin Eubanks on International Jazz Day, which is Herbie Hancock’s creation.

As the conference began I was trying to appear relaxed and prayed I wouldn’t be asked any complicated questions, all went well. Most of the questions were aimed at the stars, so I was pretty relieved. Thank god I didn’t say anything stupid!

However, on my way to the gig, immediately after the event, my mind began to fill with doubt – why am I here? I shouldn’t be here. I’m nobody. I’m not worthy of being interviewed next to these greats. I’m a joke.

In my head I started to quietly freak out and very quickly became depressed and worried. My inner saboteur was having a great time feeding me beautifully crafted negative thoughts. It was weird. I even struggled to make eye contact with people!

I tried my best to put these feelings aside when it was time to get up on stage, and committed myself to being as professional as possible. I seem to be smiling in all the photos – that must be my stage face.

The effort of suppressing these negative thoughts, of fighting my inner demon, made it really difficult for me to concentrate my energy into my improvisations. I felt stuck and restricted by these feelings. Oh well. I did my best and my band sounded fantastic as always and the audience seemed to love it.

My inner turmoil aside, it was a real pleasure to play in front of such a warm and friendly crowd of around two thousand people! I’ve played to much larger audiences before but not with my own band, so I felt extremely grateful to the Alfa Jazz team and the British Council of Ukraine who gave us this spectacular opportunity. Thank you.

One lovely woman I met backstage said that our gig was like a fairy tale. (Maybe it was the Bahraini dress I was wearing?), but I’ll take that! I’m glad we brought something to her in our music that gave her a sense of magic during that evening.

Later that night, we all went to see Herbie’s gig on the headline stage.

As we waited for the gig to start, we desperately tried to look cool with the stars backstage. It was going pretty well until Lewis managed to get stuck in Herbie's toilet. He even broke his Musician’s Union card trying to get out!

After a bit of trial and error, Dave released Lewis just in time for the gig.

Sorry Herbie for trashing your trailer. It wasn’t our intension!

The gig was fantastic – I was in awe. The highlight for me was when Wayne joined Herbie on stage and played a short improvised duet together – it was enchanting and one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

After such an emotionally draining day, I slept peacefully, finally realising what a special and successful day we all had.

I woke up early the next morning feeling like I was in some strange dream, had breakfast then huddled into a van with Arun’s band to the Potocki Palace Square stage.

I felt so much more relaxed on this gig – all I had to do was play and get carried along on with the infectious grooves, just like the audience, who went absolutely bananas for Arun’s beautiful music and personality.

That night I got to see Wayne Shorter perform with his quartet – Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade. Lewis and I acted like little schoolgirls off to see their heartthrob boy band in a concert of a lifetime.

It was an incredible gig - so much energy, freedom, and colours. I was entranced and inspired.

Arriving home the next day, it took me a long time to sort out my conflicting thoughts and to understand my emotions. As a result of this I’ve captured my inner saboteur in a box and this is what she sounds like:

https://www.facebook.com/yazzahmedmusic/videos

As I settled back down I started to realise what a truly special trip it was. Everything ran smoothly, no one missed their flights or got arrested, and we were all treated incredibly well. The people in Lviv and all that came to the festival were so friendly and welcoming.

Unfortunately I don’t have any video footage to share with you expect for this very distorted clip of my quartet playing for a few seconds - the microphone on the camera couldn’t deal with the volume of our set. We’re on at 3 minutes 08 seconds:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9UhiXZ0Jhw&feature=youtu.be&t=3m8s

There’s also a short but lovely 11-second video here:

http://websta.me/p/1015987687082867280_2008849013

More recently, my Hafla band played at this year’s Ealing Jazz Festival. It was such a chilled out festival and a lot of fun.

Something I really must commend the programmers for was that on the evening we played, two other women bandleaders were featured on the same day – the Sarah Tandy Trio and the Camilla George Quartet. Sarah and Camilla are both brilliant musicians. I’m so happy that they both played in the Nu Civilisation Orchestra with me for the premiere of my Polyhymnia suite earlier this year.

The next Ahmed Family Hafla date is on 16th of August, playing at the Canary Wharf Jazz Festival:

http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/breaking-news/13651-neil-cowleytrio-and-sons-of-kemet-head-up-canary-wharf-jazz-fest

The Canary Wharf gig will feature Shabaka Hutchings, Alcyona Mick, Lewis Wright, Dudley Phillips and Martin France.

I’m also proud to announce that the new Samuel Hallkvist album is to be released on August the 28th featuring myself, the marvellous Denys Baptiste and many others.

The album is called Variety Of Live:

An alchemical blend of live band recordings and studio overdubs from a variety of guests, the new album brings eerie wordless vocals, sizzling electronica, waves of surf guitar, driving funk-driven beats and a sense of restless experimentation that moves beyond the usual boundaries of rock, jazz and prog.

And, much to my delighted confusion, I’m also featured in a book… Giving Birth To Sound: Women in Creative Music. It's an inspiring collection of interviews with 47 other women musicians and composers celebrating female creativity.

It’s a fantastic book and I feel incredibly honoured to have been included. You can check it out here:

http://www.buddysknife.de/our-titles/

Well, I think that’s all for now. Back to driving myself mad trying to finish my suite for October!