Interview: Dhafer Youssef

We talk a little with spellbinding oud master and vocalist Dhafer Youssef, who tells us about his latest album Birds Requiem and what to expect from its UK orchestral premiere with Kristjan Järvi and the LSO on Thursday 24 April.

There’s an interesting quote about the Birds Requiem album on your website: ‘I am waiting impatiently for the live performances so I can share these emotions and see this album, like the ones to come, evolve and take shape with the audience.’ In what direction might this Barbican concert with the LSO evolve?

I firmly believe that music solicits the senses, one needs to listen to it and feel it. Live performances are the final steps in the life of an album; the audience responds directly giving shape to the album. Of course every venue has its particularities. At the Barbican, I will be playing with my quintet along with the London Symphony Orchestra, which will bring another dimension to my music. I am really enthusiastic about it.

Regarding the Birds Requiem album, these are evocative pieces but why a Requiem in particular? Why birds?

Birds Requiem is structured around the Birds Requiem suite (‘Birds Canticum,’ ‘Fuga Hirundinum,’ ‘Archaic Feathers’ and ‘Whirling Birds Ceremony’). The title of the album came to me after I finished recording. When I listen to it, I imagine two entities that intermingle represented by the voice and the clarinet. Furthermore, this album, which happens to be the most personal of all, is a requiem for someone who is dear to me and who has passed away.

You mention the 'movie' element of Birds Requiem. What does this involve?

I perceive the album as a score for an imagined movie, a movie about two entities: myself and my permanent search of a wandering soul. It symbolizes the idea of the disappearance of the body and the wandering of the soul reflected in the image of the birds.

Some of the works being performed on Thursday have fascinating titles. Could you explain what a 'Gulay' is? And ‘Sevdah’ - why the dedication to [American trumpeter and composer] Jon Hassell?

‘Gulay’ is a name with Turkish origins. It is also the title of one of the Birds Requiem pieces in which I pay tribute to Istanbul. ‘Sevdah’ means ‘the lover’ in Turkish language. I already had the chance to work with Jon Hassell who by the way inspired me for this specific song. It is a kind of tribute to him.

The first half of the concert is Arvo Pärt's Fratres and Symphony No 3. There's an obvious link with spirituality but are you inspired by Pärt's music at all? Who or what are your inspirations?

I have different sources of inspiration and it’s unquestionable that Arvo Pärt is one of them. I admire his work and appreciate his music.

You've collaborated with Kristjan Järvi before. How does it work?

Yes, I already had the opportunity to work with Kristjan Järvi’s Absolute Ensemble in 2007 and in 2008 with the Tonkünstler Orchestra of Lower Austria conducted by Kristjan Järvi.

There has been much documentation on your extraordinary voice. I notice you have said you think your voice is 'the colour of the oud', but it actually it seems to be very chameleonic, sounding like any instrument you perform with. This is particularly noticeable in ‘Birds Canticum’. Would you agree?

I couldn’t agree more! My voice is an instrument through which I sing and discover new sounds. The oud is an extension of my voice and vice versa. I am convinced that the capacity of the voice is limitless; you need to work it as with any other instrument.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I can’t wait to be on stage!

We can’t wait either! Tomorrow's performance promises to be truly dazzling. Don't miss!


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