When it comes to music, Dhafer Youssef is not one to make distinctions. The singer and oud player is one of the rising stars of world music, cheerfully mixing the Islamic sacred tradition with jazz, rock and whatever else comes to hand, and collaborating with musicians from Scandinavia to India.
However, growing up in a small coastal village in the days of Tunisia’s repressive Ben Ali dictatorship, the young Youssef couldn’t be choosy, and his first exposure to music came from different sources.
“Actually I come from the Koranic school,” says Youssef (47). “My grandfather was a muezzin [a singer who calls the Islamic faithful to daily prayer], so religious music is part of my life. That’s really my background.
“But I have to say that the radio was the most important school for me. That was my window on the world. I was listening to the radio in my mother’s kitchen, and I have to tell you, I was listening to everything without making any judgment: rock, classical, Indian, Brazilian, African, everything.”
Youssef is one of life’s enthusiasts. His answers come with a breathless urgency, and even a simple question about his first steps as a musician leads quickly to grand philosophical crescendos.
“My first contact with a musical instrument was a plastic toy guitar, trying to play some of the melodies I heard on the radio. But you know,” he adds, “if I was born in your city, I would be somebody else. I believe that you are born somewhere, and your destiny is set.
“Of course, today I am lucky I can travel and play with lots of different musicians, but I am always hungry for what I missed when I was young. So now I feel like every day is a new birth for me.”
Youssef lists off the music that made it across the Mediterranean to his mother’s kitchen: Bach, Tchaikovsky, the Rolling Stones, the Beatlesand on. “Wow, how could John Lennon do such easy stuff but with such great, great beauty?”
But what really snagged the young man’s ear was jazz. “Jazz changed my life. It was like, this sounds like music that allows me to be myself. Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, all those people. Even now they are still inspiring me. They are sounding like that because they lived it.
“If you are a classical composer, you have to study all your life to be able to get there. But if you are a jazz musician, it’s your destiny and that’s it. Billy Holiday didn’t study singing; she was born like that.”
Youssef's chosen instrument is one of the most ancient still in use. Depictions of the oud date back 5,000 years, and it holds a special place in Islamic culture. But his approach is anything but traditional. Electric Sufi, his breakthrough 2003 album, mixed Arabic melodies with funk and world grooves, and featured avant-garde German trumpeter Markus Stockhausen.
The album might have endeared him to international audiences, but some in the Arab world still think that playing jazz on an oud is sacrilege.
What would Youssef’s grandfather made of his music?
“He died a long time before I was touring and everything, but I think he would be proud. Because for me it’s only about feeling. Whatever you use – oud or guitar or drums – you express your feeling. This is what I am trying to do with my music. I’m not trying to teach anyone, or tell them what to do. I’m just trying to share with them my story.”
Youssef had been based in Europe since the 1990s, but he recently moved back to Tunisia “for two very important reasons: love and mother”. Although he rarely talks about politics, recent events have shaken him.
“What happened two weeks ago in Sousse, it’s very sad, and the country is really suffering. Tunisian people want to do something to prove that they are not like that, but they don’t have a chance to do that, and of course this makes the pain double.
“But look,” he adds cryptically, “there are a lot of flowers in a dirty place. I am trying to be positive, and I believe in young people. They are the ones who can change things. And I guess one day we will.”
Dhafer Youssef opens the Sligo Jazz Project at the Hawk’s Well Theatre tomorrow night
Sligo Jazz Project: This year’s highlights
For the past 10 years, Europe’s westernmost jazz festival has attracted some of the biggest names in music to teach by day and perform by night. This year’s faculty includes US saxophonist Ernie Watts, ex-Steely Dan bassist Chuck Rainey and master drummer Adam Nussbaum. There will also be the cream of Irish musicians, including guitarist Mike Nielsen and Belfast trumpeter Linley Hamilton.
Kicking off this year’s festival at the Hawk’s Well Theatre is Tunisian oudist Dhafer Youssef and his quartet. They are followed by US-UK supergroup The Impossible Gentlemen (Wednesday); Dublin City Jazz Orchestra featuring Ernie Watts (Thursday); acclaimed UK vocalist Lianne Carroll (Friday); and, always a highlight, a closing concert by the assembled faculty, the SJP All Stars (Saturday).
There’s also a festival club at 5th on Teeling running from Thursday to Saturday, and nightly jam session at venues around the town.