Yacine Boularès: Coltrane by way of Descartes

Ludovico Granvassu By

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The thread of rhythms follows the thread of migrations.
Saxophonist Yacine Boulares took the road less travelled to discover and develop his passion for jazz. After graduating in philosophy from the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris, he felt the urge to put into practice the notions of aesthetics he had researched for his dissertation. Following his studies at Paris' Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique and then at the New School for Jazz in New York, he set off on a professional journey that has unfolded at the intersection of jazz and North and West African traditions. Along this idiosyncratic path, he has had the opportunity to assemble and blend an eclectic mix of influences resulting from his various heritages and life experiences. His projects aptly reflect the diversity of his interests and, in the process, have afforded him the opportunity to define his identity through self-discovery and civil engagement.

Excerpts of this interview as well as music related to it were aired on Mondo Jazz.

All About Jazz: As you were growing up how did you become interested in music?

Yacine Boularès: I was born in Paris from a Tunisian father and a French mother. Until I was about six years old, I had ear issues that got fixed later. So, at that time, it didn't seem that I would have a destiny in music. That came later. As a kid, I would listen to the music that my father used to play, mostly Arabic music. I remember listening especially to Oum Kalthoum and to Fairuz, the great Arab singers. And then I remember discovering pop music through my older sisters.

AAJ: When did jazz enter your life? Do you remember the first jazz artists and albums you listened to?

YB: At the age of fourteen, a friend of mine sparked my interest in jazz music. The first thing that intrigued me and made me want to know more about jazz, and saxophone in particular, was Maceo Parker's Life on Planet Groove. I think the next album I delved into was Kenny Garrett's Pursuance: Music of John Coltrane. When you think about it, it's funny that I listened to Kenny Garrett first and then I discovered that there was an artist whom he was paying tribute to by the name of John Coltrane. And so the third album that I got had to be by Coltrane. It was Crescent. And then from Coltrane I discovered this whole world. So, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I picked up my first saxophone. Not for long, though, since it was stolen from my apartment after a few months. Then my father bought me another saxophone when I was nineteen for high school graduation. At that time, however, I was studying at the University, so I didn't play a lot and it's only when I was twenty-one or twenty-two that I started taking music lessons and I are really started digging into jazz and music more seriously.

AAJ: You undertook music on a professional basis after taking a year off following your philosophy studies. How did you come to that decision?

YB: When I enrolled in my Masters in Philosophy, I wanted to write a dissertation about the Philosophy of Music. As I was conducting that research project, I became more and more interested in the actual experience of playing music. I felt that something was lacking in philosophical writings about music. They left me with more questions than answers. So the more I was reading about music for my dissertation the more I wanted to play music.

At the end of the first year of my Masters program I reached a turning point. I became very ill with meningitis. I was hospitalized for a couple of weeks and I was fighting for my life. When I got better, I decided to take one year off from school and to focus on music. Quickly I understood that that was what I needed to do to be happy.

AAJ: Did your interests in philosophy and music influence each-other?

YB: The first two years after high school, during my preparatory school I was majoring in philosophy and literature. When I narrowed my studies down to philosophy, I became interested into philosophy of arts, aesthetics in particular. My love for music grew during my philosophical studies. So I can say that I got seriously into music through philosophy, and then narrowed it down more through actually playing music. I also think that all the discipline one needs to learn philosophy also helped me in studying music. I was a late starter in music and having strong foundations in philosophy gave me the intellectual structures to help me understand musical concepts more easily. Logics is an important part of philosophy and that is close to mathematics, which, in turn, is quite close to music. Some musical concepts can be very abstract. If I didn't have these intellectual structures it would have been quite difficult to understand them.

AAJ: Which schools of philosophical thought you were most interested in? And, with hindsight, does that preference reveal parallels with the jazz styles and musicians that you prefer/are drawn to?

YB: I wasn't interested in specific schools of thought but a number of authors left an imprint on me. I remember reading "The Birth of Tragedy" by Friedrich Nietzsche and it structured my understanding of beauty in general. Nietzsche distinguishes a pure form of beauty, apollonian beauty, from a raw form of beauty, dyonisiac beauty. That left a big mark on me. I was also very interested in theology. My dad was Muslim and my mom is Catholic, but I never grew up with religion. And so I was asking myself lots of questions about transcendence and reading René Descartes' "Meditations on First Philosophy" and how everything related to proving the existence of God. In music I've found a lot of answers and a form of transcendence that I never experienced before. For instance, listening to Coltrane, especially his albums Crescent, in particular the composition "Wise One," or A Love Supreme where there was a direct connection between some form of transcendence and music, was critical for me. I only realize it now, but that was a turning point for me because I found answers in music that I hadn't found anywhere else.

AAJ: Are there philosophical texts that you find yourself going back to now that you are a musician, and, if so, how do they impact your artistic development?

YB: When I decided to concentrate on music I did not read philosophy for quite some time. I entered the conservatory in Paris when I was twenty-seven and all my classmates were much younger than me. So I always felt like I had to catch up, and didn't have much time to get back to reading philosophy. Once I started being more confident about my musical skills and direction, I did go back to philosophy. Now I am trying to work on philosophy and music directly. For instance, on January 27th I'm going to take part in "A night of Philosophy and Ideas" in New York, at the Brooklyn Library. It's an interesting concept. It's a philosophy of marathon, with philosophy lectures, readings and debates, as well as music, from 7:00PM to 7:00AM. It that context I am going to give a musical interpretation of some excerpts of Gilles Deleuze's work, together with German-Turkish pianist Can Olgun. In other words, I will be merging my two interests.

AAJ: What aspects of Deleuze's work will you be exploring? And how do you approach such abstract concepts through an immediate art medium like music?

YB: I have been really interested in the concept of "difference in repetition" which both Deleuze and Félix Guattari have analyzed to determine how it structures the "philosophical mind." In my view, this concept also structures the artistic, and musical, mind. Repetition influences how we perceive music, how we absorb beauty. For instance, we are often fascinated by a piece of art the second time we see it and are able to "recognize it." This is because there's pleasure, in particular aestethic pleasure, in recognition. This kind of recognition comes from repetition. Of course, we are often fascinated by beauty at first sight but, I think, even there the pleasure comes often from what we recognize. This can be nourished by how the artist deviates from what we know, it's a very complex process but at the heart of it there is an element of recognition and repetition. The differences that emerge from "in-depth repetition" is something that really interests me. As jazz musicians, we often play forms that we somehow loop but never play the same. Think about how we play a blues form. We never play it twice the same way, although we're going to repeat parts of it. At the moment it's all pretty vague. I can't wait to figure it out but that's how I think I'm going to approach this project with Can Olgun. We are going to compose and then improvise. We both have an interest in the music of Lennie Tristano. He, and his whole school, was writing music on top of music. That's difference in repetition. So we might be starting from one of his compositions and explore the world that it opens.

AAJ: You have a project with French cellist Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal, who -among many other genres -explored the music of Mali with Ballaké Sissoko. He encouraged you to delve into your Tunisian musical heritage. How did that process unfold? Was it a return to your roots or rather a discovery of a part of your personal background that you were not completely familiar with?

YB: I think it was all of that. Until recently, before moving to New York, I had a big question mark in my life. My process of discovery started about eight years ago. France's relationship with its former colonies is complicated. Being French-Tunisian and living in France was complicated for me. I always assumed that I should be the perfect French, to integrate better. I never questioned this assumption. I embraced everything that France had to offer intellectually, because I thought it represented what France is and I believed that I should be 100% French. That's, you know, the whole idea of "assimilation."

When I moved to New York, people were interested in my Tunisian roots. All of a sudden, the interest towards my Tunisian background had a positive connotation. Up to that point I had not really focused on my Tunisian roots. It's not that I was ashamed of them, but, subconsciously, I had been conditioned to leave them aside. My father was a linguist and he always thought that we shouldn't learn Arabic because we had to be French first.

But that is why New York is so great. It forces you to define yourself because there's so much going on, culturally, that you can't be doing what everybody else is doing. You have to differentiate yourself from the other saxophone players. You have to define yourself.

The first musicians I met in New York were from West Africa, because of the French language that we share. Mostly from Cameroon and Ivory Coast. I started playing a lot with them and learning their music. I was part of Cameroonian drummer Jojo Kuo's band. He was the drummer of Fela Kuti, after Tony Allen left. I was also part of the late Martino Atangana's band who played a lot of traditional dance rhythms from Cameroon. So my first professional gigs in New York helped to better understand jazz and allowed me to re-examine my north African heritage.

When I graduated from the New School, one of my former teachers, Robert Sadin, who is a very influential arranger, composer and producer, asked me to be part of the band called to record Placido Domingo's record Encanto del mar in 2014, in which he interpreted Mediterranean songs from Spain, Italy and North Africa. It is during this recording session that I met Vincent Segal who was part of the ensemble. As we were recording, the producer asked me whether I could try and arrange this Arab-Andalusian standard entitled "Lamma Bada," because I was Tunisian. I spent the night preparing the arrangement and then I worked on it with Vincent. And that's how our friendship started. Vincent Segal is a sorcerer of the cello. He uses it to dive very deep in all kinds of music from all over the world. You mentioned his interest in Malian music with Ballake Sissoko. But Vincent was also part of Nana Vasconcelos' band, so he knows Brazilian music really well. As well as hip hop and all the rest... He is like a shaman that can call upon spirits from all kinds of cultures. And as I was asking myself so many questions about my own origins, thanks to Vincent I started exploring the Tunisian Stambeli music, which is a style of music that was brought to Tunisia by African slaves and is similar to Gnawa music. And so that's what we did with our last record entitled Abu Sadiya. Together we explored this part of my own heritage that I didn't know about. That launched a lot of research and learning. As you said, it made it possible for me to have some kind of reconciliation between my two heritages. We were lucky enough to receive the French American Jazz Exchange grant which made the project possible. We asked Nasheet Waits to join us for that. We recorded the album in 2016 and released it in January 2017. We are going to have our first US tour in April.

AAJ: What makes Tunisian music distinctive and different from that of other North African nations, in your view?

YB: Tunisia is at the edge of many civilizations, the Berbers, the Romans, the Africans, the Arabs, the French, the Italians... and I think the music is distinctive because it represents a unique blend all of these influences. In it you can find the Middle Eastern traditions of maqams and, with it, the quarter tones that are very present in Tunisian classical music. You have phenomenal players of oud, the Arab lute, and ney (or nay), the flute that is also present all over the Middle East, and Turkey. Then there are two other styles of music that are very significant. One of them is Malouf which is essentially poetry that is sung with a small classical ensemble of oud, violin and percussions. And then there's Stambeli, which is the more African music made of songs, essentially trance music used to invoke the spirits and heal people, and is played with the guembri, the three stringed bass-like instrument, qarqabou, percussions which are made of metal. Stambeli is the music that we're exploring in my last record; rhythmically you can feel a lot of West Africa in it.

AAJ: As you were reconnecting with your roots, did you discover that there were aspects of Tunisian and North African which were already part of yourself, and of the way that you had been interpreting jazz, without knowing they came from there?

YB: That's a great question. Even before I played music, I used to tap on my lap rhythms that I never understood. After studying music and after getting into West and North African music, and more recently into Tunisia music, I realized that those were triplets, a subdivision of the rhythm that's a common thread across jazz, West African music as well as Tunisian music. That helped me understand jazz better, because a lot of its swing is based on that triplet subdivision. As a musician that makes a lot of sense to me, and I don't feel like I'm forcing anything when I say that this common rhythmic thread travelled naturally from one part of the world, and its local style, to another. Just like the migration waves that moved people from West Africa to North Africa, or from West Africa to the Caribbean and to America. And that is reflected in my own history, from North Africa to the US, via France. The thread of rhythm follows the thread of migrations.

AAJ: Your earlier project Ajoyo, indeed, is rooted in the musical traditions of other parts of Africa...

YB: Ajoyo was my first record, which I put out in 2015 on Ropeadope Records. It reflects the kaleidoscope of influences that we have been talking about, especially West African influences. As I mentioned earlier, I was part of Jojo Kuo's band. When he left New York he told me "You should start your own band. Write your own music. I'll give you a couple of gigs to try your own compositions." So he pushed me and that's how Ajoyo was born. It was based on Jojo's band, playing Cameroonian music and Afrobeat. And then I brought some Tunisian flavors into it.

I called the singer a Sarah Elizabeth Charles to be part of it. And together we added lyrics to the music. So we have songs that are very danceable and party oriented, but we talk about very serious things: life, death, racism, discrimination in general. We're both from discriminated backgrounds. I have a Muslim background. She has a Haitian background. As such, we are facing and witnessing social injustices every day.

AAJ: How do you see your social role as a musician in these troubled times?

YB: I think it differs from person to person. As far as I'm concerned, I see a political angle in my music. The world we're living in is divided more and more. In the twentieth century, we tried to make borders less relevant and now borders are being reinforced. In this climate, I feel that music is a means to show empathy, it is a language that everyone can understand. And when I play my music, whether it has African influences or North African instruments, anybody listening can identify with it and, hopefully, start building understanding. And because of this very fact I think that music represents a very important political tool. So I take my role as a musician very seriously. I think we musicians can change things, just as much as politicians or other activists can. Once I stepped into the realm of music, I felt the necessity to take a stand and to position myself.

This is perfectly natural for jazz. The first musician that comes into my mind is Charles Mingus. Jazz is political. It was, and still is, the music of Afro Americans and so it is the representation of a culture that has been, and still is, oppressed, for centuries. So jazz is protest music, whether it's with lyrics or instrumental.

AAJ: You've lived in three different parts of the world. How do you think that Jazz adapted to different cultures and how do various scenes you're familiar with compare?

YB: The beautiful thing about jazz is that it has an open, understanding and accepting nature. It can integrate a lot and it does so through a very democratic process. As such, it has been accepting all kinds of influences, folk music from Tunisia, India, China or Cameroon... That is what makes jazz so beautiful to me.

As far as the different scenes I know are concerned, when I moved to New York I was struck by the fact that here you can be whomever you want whenever you want and people will accept you for who you are. As a jazz musician, if you want to be a free jazz player on Monday and then go play bebop on Tuesday, funk on Wednesday and West African music on Thursday, nobody will put you in a little box. To me that's pretty amazing.

My experience in Paris is more limited since I moved from there when I was a student. Paris is culturally very rich, with a bustling West African scene. The classical scene is incredible and the jazz scene is really great, with musicians from all over Europe. However, I felt that those scenes were more compartmentalized. I've been working in Tunisia a lot since 2006. As soon as I started playing and learning, I started going there. It is a very small country with a small music industry and the jazz scene is even smaller. Local jazz musicians are trying to blend their heritage with jazz. I can think of a couple of very successful musicians that succeeded in doing that with a lot of taste, Anouar Brahem and Dhafer Youssef. It's hard to compare Tunis with New York. As far as I can tell, its challenge is to situate itself. As an African country, Tunisia has a bit of an identity crisis, musically. Are we Africans? Are we Europeans, because we were colonized by the French for so long? Are we Arabs? What are we? I think as Tunisian musicians we are going through that as well, trying to find a way to define ourselves.

Photo Credit: Andrea Rotili

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