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.
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