Travelogue

by Yazz Ahmed

Travelogue

As I sit and write this I am being eyed by Valerie, Funky Junk’s mannequin mascot, cloaked in a royal robe, her plastic fox’s mask, tilted to one side, looking inquisitively at me.

 

I hear the distant sounds of a flute floating through the air, as I wait to record with the ‘Stealth Horns’ for a lovely lady called Nerina Pallot.

 

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything and a lot has been going on….

 

Let me begin with my quartet’s trip to Algeria last May. 

 

This was a performance at the 17th EU Festival held in Algiers which consists of a series of cultural events hosted by each European embassy in the city.

 

Having never been to North African I was of course very excited. The booking, from the British Council, came in at very short notice but I was still able to assemble a great band.

 

I flew over with Alcyona Mick, Dave Manington and Martin France and as well as presenting a set of my own music we were given the opportunity to collaborate with Algerian vocalist, Amel Zen. This was a pretty challenging experience as we had only a few hours to rehearse with her on the same day of the gig!

 

Before leaving the UK, she and I communicated via email, exchanging ideas and instructions back and forth before meeting in the flesh. 

 

Amel sent me a short recording of her practicing one of the songs I had asked her to learn, which was a lovely surprise! Her voice has such a beautiful and strong timbre, wonderful intonation and very expressive. After hearing Amel sing my song, Siduri, I couldn’t wait to start our little collaboration. 

 

Our Algerian hosts were warm and welcoming and we had a large, noisy and wonderfully appreciative audience. It was also a delight to meet the people who had come to see us play after the gig. One audience member gave us each a collection of beautiful shells as a thank you present. Mine are proudly displayed on my mantel piece at home, next to my Russian matryoshka doll and some other little shells from the Netherlands.

 

The following month, I premiered my LSO Soundhub piece. Composed for quarter-tone flugelhorn, bass clarinet, violin, marimba and percussion, this piece was inspired by the field recordings I made on a visit to LSO St Luke’s in December 2015.

 

I manipulated these recordings to create loops and soundscapes, composing in response to the captured sounds and to the feelings and thoughts that immersion in this sound world provoked.

 

The work is an exploration of the space, mirroring my experience on the day I made the recordings. I was feeling my way around following the sounds that interested me. I had begun this process with expectations that I would find calm, peace and serenity but I was constantly surprised by unexpected noise and commotion. St Luke’s, once a peaceful sanctuary, was left derelict for many years, but is now resonating with vibrancy and life.

 

My quarter-tone flugelhorn was created and crafted by genius instrument maker, Leigh McKinney of Eclipse Trumpets. 

 

Inspired by the playing of Ibrahim Maalouf, Samy El Bably and others, I had wanted an instrument that would enable me to play truly centred quarter tones so that I could immerse myself more completely in exploring the expressive nuances of Arabic modes. 

 

After a lot of trial and error, accompanied by mumbling swearing, Leigh had made a truly beautiful instrument and it plays like a dream! The only problem was that I didn’t actually know how to play it to it’s full potential.

 

Luckily, I had some time to have lessons with violin maestros, Emile Bassili and Samy Bishay, who helped me unlock the gateway to these magnificent spiritual sounds. However, I have so much more to learn - after all my research I am still very much a novice.  

 

Here’s a video of the premiere - it’s not perfect but I’m very proud to have been given this great and unforgettable opportunity: 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhBY-ZF4rhM

 

Continuing my travels, my lovely musicians and I went to Bahrain and Berlin for a couple of very special gigs.

 

For many years one of my dreams was to perform my music in Bahrain, my first home. Thanks to Ahmed Al Ghanem, the British Council and the Authority of Culture in Bahrain, my dream finally came true. However, this was a bit more special as we were to perform my suite, Alhaan Al Siduri, first premiered in Birmingham 2015.

 

I was so thrilled when I received the news and honoured to take my Hafla band plus vocalists Brigitte Beraha and Alya Al-Sultani, as well as sound engineer, Jeremy Farnell, to Bahrain with me.

 

The creative process for Alhaan Al Siduri also began with field recordings, this time made on a research trip to Bahrain. I attended a private performance of the pearl divers singing their traditional work songs and chants at their club, and took these recordings home with me to begin the long process of writing. I had some help from Jason Singh, who showed me how I could manipulate these recordings to make loops, textures and new sounds which I incorporated into the final composition. 

 

Our performance was part of the Bahrain International Music Festival featuring artists such as Anoushka Shankar and Musicians Without Borders. It was also the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Bahrain and the UK, so an extremely important time for everyone!

 

My sense of anticipation gradually turned to one of anxiety during the months building up to the gig, becoming quite intense as the date drew nearer. Perhaps this was due in part to the sheer scale of the publicity. I gave press interviews via email and Skype, television adverts using footage from the British Council documentary were running in Bahrain, I even made the Gulf Air flight magazine, which I only realised while on the plane. My family were proudly texting me pictures of giant billboards bearing my photo along with each newspaper clipping they discovered and all of this only added to the pressure I was feeling.

 

Keeping my chin up, I managed to get through a live-to-air telephone interview for Radio Bahrain’s breakfast show. This was at 6:00 in the morning and took place in our car, parked at Heathrow Airport, just before setting off to Bahrain.

 

I know so much good publicity might sound fantastic, however, I found the attention very difficult to accept, as what was going on in my head was, “they’ll be disappointed when they hear me play -  I’m nothing special - they’ll hate me, and my music - I’ll be a laughing stock”. My inner saboteur was running riot and in danger of spoiling the experience for me.

 

The stress dissolved instantly when I met up with my band at the check-in desk - I actually felt extremely excited and truly grateful. I couldn’t wait to show everyone where I grew up and for them to experience just how hospitable and friendly Bahrainis are.

 

I experienced a moment of discomfort and confusion when we arrived in Bahrain. We were greeted by a lovely man from the Authority of Culture who took us out to the vehicles for transfer to the Hotel. I felt really awkward when I realised that they had laid on a separate car for me and a mini-bus for the band. I was trying to explain that this wasn’t necessary but Alya wisely suggested that I really ought to use the special vehicle as it might appear rude to my hosts. In the event it was actually good to have a quiet time talking with the representative from the ministry and I gently requested that for the rest of the trip we should all travel together. I suppose big festivals are used to dealing with ‘artists’ who are seen as removed from their ‘backing bands’ but the jazz world doesn’t really work this way and besides this, my band are my family.

 

We stayed in a beautiful hotel with a pool, a sports bar, and an endless array of delicious food at the buffet style restaurant, with chefs standing by to meet your every demand.

 

The following day I had two more interviews, missing out on the speed sun tanning session round the pool organised by certain members of the band. Then we had our rehearsal at the stunning National Theatre followed by dinner that evening as guests of the British Council.

 

The next day, in the morning, we went to the souq in Manama: rows of little shops in bustling narrow streets, selling all sorts of treasures, from precious spices, gold jewellery, aromatic perfumes, embroidered jellabiyas and fake Manchester United shirts with plentiful choices of food stalls, fresh juice bars and traditional sweet shops.

 

That same evening was the concert at the Cultural Hall. During the soundcheck in the afternoon I felt a little tense and apprehensive. This was my Bahraini premiere. It was going to be the very first time my father would hear me play live. 

 

To calm me down, I escaped several times through the stage door, to walk along the shore of the tranquil blue sea which lay behind the building and to gather my thoughts and let my rushing breath subside.

 

Fighting my fear, I did the best job I could on stage. There were some really special moments in the gig and I felt so proud of my band. They gave an outstanding and passionate performance of my music under very intense circumstances. The audience would not have heard anything like this before. They may have been expecting more mainstream jazz flavours or perhaps even traditional Arabic music, but this was a new blend of sounds and structures. The suite is also quite long with extended improvised passages but by the end they did really show their appreciation with loud cheering and applause.

 

After the gig I felt unsure about my own playing. I actually felt quite down - the emotional release of all the excitement and anxiety leaving me suddenly grabbed hold of me and tugged me down to a state of numbness. I was unable to communicate my feelings to my band. I felt exhausted, spiritually and physically.

 

I was so nervous about meeting with my family after the gig, but as I walked back on stage to pack up, they climbed up onto the platform to congratulate me with hugs and love. My dad, someone very difficult to impress, commented that “the performance was very professional - I am very proud of you”, which is a huge compliment from him. 

 

It touched me because it’s been very difficult over the years to explain to him what it is that I actually do. There is not a tradition of professional musicians in Bahrain and I think he feared I was just wasting my time with some kind of hobby.

 

A few days later I found this five star review in Gulf Weekly which, after many days of uncertainty, made me realise that it had all gone pretty well:

 

http://www.gulfweekly.com/Articles/36271/REVIEW-Yazz-Ahmed--The-Ahmed-Fami

 

The next stop on our ‘world tour’ was Berlin. I love Berlin and have many happy memories of visiting the city with These New Puritans in 2013, however, this time it was with my Halfa Band and we had a gig at the Berlin Jazz Festival. 

 

This is a really cool festival and the promoters aren’t afraid of challenging audiences’ perceptions of jazz by featuring some really far out musicians! They also had a very forward looking policy this year and ensured that the programme included 50/50 male and female band leaders, which is practically unheard of in the music industry. 

 

It was a real triumph for equality and great to see so much support for the many female voices that audiences rarely get the chance to hear. Seeing so many women as I flicked through the festival programme didn’t look odd to me - it seemed natural, normal, how it should be, and very empowering. Well done Berlin and Richard Williams, the festival’s English curator.

 

Compared with the concert in Bahrain, this time I felt nowhere near as much pressure. The gig was completely sold out and a great deal of fun. We were playing pieces which we’ve performed many times over the last couple of years and we had a terrific response from the audience - cheers from the start and an encore, which made me very happy. Again I am ever so grateful to Richard Williams for booking us, being incredibly supportive, encouraging, and for having faith that I would deliver a good show.

 

Here is a review of the festival with a very short but nice mention of our gig:

 

http://www.jazzjournal.co.uk/jazz-latest-news/1140/

 

In between these overseas adventures I have been working tirelessly with Noel on my second release, La Saboteuse, which has been a real labour of love. Three years in the making and five years since my first release, I am bursting with excitement to share the music with you.

 

Some people probably wonder how an album can take so long to make. One reason is that the music has been through many transitions and transformations since I composed it. The music has been shaped and refined by being performed live and my original concepts have been informed by the many musical experiences I’ve had during this time. Thanks to meeting and collaborating with new people, being introduced to fresh compositional concepts and recording techniques, my imagination has been stirred, my tastes have developed and I’ve now reached a point with this project where I feel I have discovered a very personal new sound.

 

The music on the album is a continuation of my exploration of the music of my Middle Eastern heritage fused with jazz harmony and improvisation. But it also reflects the influence of the musical discoveries I have made in my recent collaborations with creative musicians from the field of rock, ambient music and sound design. These include the incorporation of live electronics (I use a Kaoss Pad and a tape delay on some of the tracks), manipulation of found sounds (the kind of work that would have been done by cutting and splicing tape loops in the past but is now done using software) and creating textures in the studio by overdubbing additional instruments such as Dave Manington's ‘sponge bass’, Samuel Hällkvist's guitar loops, and layers of extra percussion from Corrina Silvester - including the bucket she played in the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics! 

 

On a spiritual level the music explores the relationship between my conscious self and my inner saboteur, the voice of my self-destructive inclinations, and the demons that I’m sure we all have experienced in our lives. The music has been described as, ‘Psychedelic Arabic-jazz, sonically outstanding, and evocative’.

 

Finally this album is a document of the gradual development of my various live bands over the last 5 years - into what has become my musical family.

 

I hope you will feel that it’s been worth the wait and I’m particularly happy to announce that I have signed with Naim Records who will be releasing this new album.

 

La Saboteuse will initially be rolled out in four streaming chapters, with a full physical release, on CD, download and double vinyl album in May 2017. 

 

Here’s a little sampler of the first chapter, The Space Between The Fish & The Moon (La Saboteuse, Chapter 1), to tickle your ears:

 

https://soundcloud.com/naimrecs/preview-yazz-ahmed-the-space-between-the-fish-the-moon-la-saboteuse-chapter-one

 

Each chapter features a different work of art created by the highly talented Sophie Bass:

 

https://www.facebook.com/sophiebassillustration/

 

Here’s a bit more info from Naim Audio if you’re interested:

 

https://www.naimaudio.com/connection-magazine/23473/yazz-ahmed-signs-to-naim-records

 

Well, that’s all for now and I leave you with this video of myself playing (and the bear) with ABC in front of 40,000 people for the 2016 Proms In The Park:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwKNtPpy5zU&feature=youtu.be

 

Wishing you all a very happy new year!