Yazz Ahmed: The Inclusive Saboteuse

Ludovico Granvassu By

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Jazz is a very conversational type of music which makes sharing your ideas and stories very natural
Pretty much from the beginning of her career, trumpet and flugelhorn player Yazz Ahmed has been intent on sabotaging the walls and fences that divide the jazz world, championing an inclusive vision in which Arabic traditions blend seamlessly with loops and electronics, and rock and pop can offer jazz plenty of inspiration.

Two years after the success of the album that brought her under the limelight, La Saboteuse (Naim, 2017), her latest release, Polyhymnia (Naim/Ropeadope, 2019), confirms her as a creative force to be reckoned with.

In this interview, the Bahraini-British musician speaks about these releases, her mixed heritage, the lure of jazz, and how she ended up studying the music of Bahraini pearl divers.

All About Jazz: You come from a musical family. Your mom was a ballet dancer and jazz trumpeter Terry Brown was your grandfather. Tell us about your upbringing and how did you become attracted by music.

Yazz Ahmed: Music was an important part of my childhood growing up in Bahrain. You could hear all kinds of music around the house all the time. My mum was a ballet dancer so she knew a lot of classical music as well as contemporary music and my grandfather was a jazz trumpeter and record producer and he always shared music with me and my family. On top of that, Bahrain is very proud of its folk music tradition so you would always hear that on the radio, on TV, everywhere.

When I moved to London at the age of nine I got the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. My mum told me and my sisters that the school was offering instrumental lessons and asked whether we'd like to learn how to play an instrument. My instant reaction was "Oh my god, I'd love to play the trumpet like my grandfather!." I started out playing classical music, but I always had jazz in the background. I loved Dizzy Gillespie and tried to play along his records. I was part of the local Youth Jazz Orchestra, but it wasn't until I was about 18 that I really started to study jazz seriously.

AAJ: What did you find so attractive in jazz?

YA: Obviously the influence of my grandfather played a major role. However, there were many other things. In particular, I was intrigued by the way you could express yourself in jazz and tell your story. Jazz is a very conversational type of music which makes sharing your ideas and stories very natural. I've always loved that and I felt that I had an interesting story to tell and that I wanted to share.

AAJ: Even though you're breakthrough album was La Saboteuse (2017 -Naim Records), your recording career started in 2011 when you were in your late 20s with Finding My Way Home. How did that first album come about?

YA: I was thinking of recording a new demo for my band. But my partner, trumpeter Noel Langley, asked me "why don't you make a real album and see what happens?." That was something I had not thought about. Once Noel planted that seed, lots of ideas snowballed from there. I did a lot of deep soul searching and I thought I could say something meaningful. I realized that if I did not put my music on record I was not going to be able to share it with the world. That record gave me the opportunity to really get deep into my mixed heritage, exploring both Arabic music and jazz and how they intersect.

AAJ: La Sabeuteuse came out almost seven years later. How did your music evolve between those two albums?

YA: It took me about three years to complete La Sabeuteuse. It can be quite a task and financial challenge to record an album on your own. You have to do the odd gig that you don't want to do, a wedding or something, but it was also a really big learning process. And, after all, music is always evolving and taking new shapes and forms.

AAJ: How does your latest album, Polyhymnia, develop the work of your earlier La Saboteuse? In which direction is your music going?

YA: La Saboteuse was largely an inward looking album. It documented my personal struggle to overcome my inner demons and to free the creativity which they sought to subdue. In contrast, Polyhymnia is more outward looking. The album takes the form of a suite with six movements, each celebrating the achievements of remarkable women, whom I find to be inspiring role models.

Musically, Polyhymnia has a broader scope than La Saboteuse, displaying a wide range of musical styles, reflecting the various characters behind each piece. In addition to the Arabic flavored jazz, which some listeners will be familiar with from my previous album, you can also hear my interest in more traditional styles, including big band, gospel and funk. On this album, I am also experimenting with contemporary classical disciplines, including minimalism and sound design and there is even an old hymn tune and some New Orleans second line groove in the mix.

This might sound like a lot to cram into one record but Polyhymnia is composed for a large ensemble and whereas each of the six movements tells a story in its own right, I feel that it is all connected. These contrasting elements are all woven into my personal musical identity.

Although the emphasis may seem to be more on my voice as a composer with this album, I always leave the members of my band with plenty of space for freedom of expression when I'm writing. That might be in the form of traditional soloing over set structures, or it could be a free collective improvisation. It's always about balancing the controlled material with the wild sections, leaving plenty of space for the important element of surprise.

There are about 26 musicians in total on Polyhymnia, including Naadia Sheriff, Samuel Hällkvist and Corrina Silvester who were also featured on La Saboteuse. They are joined by two musicians from my current touring band, George Crowley and Ralph Wylde, plus others I have enjoyed working with over the years, such as, Tori Freestone, Alcyona Mick and Sophie Alloway.

AAJ: The album is a celebration of female courage and determination. How did you choose the women to which you have dedicated your compositions?

YA: The first track on Polyhymnia, "Lahan Al-Mansour," is dedicated to Saudi Arabia's first female film director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, best known for her debut feature film, the award winning "Wadjda," (2012) which was shot entirely in Saudi Arabia under extraordinary circumstances.

I came across this enchanting film when I was trying to improve my Arabic. Its central theme, a young girl who dreams of riding a bicycle, had echoes of my childhood in Bahrain, where I would secretly ride my BMX in the desert. I was intrigued to discover it was directed by a woman and I began to research her inspiring story.

When I was researching prior to composing the suite, I stumbled across a Facebook page called 'A Mighty Girl' which featured an article telling the story of civil activist Ruby Bridges, which inspired the second track of my album. The post featured the iconic photographs of a six-year-old Ruby being escorted to school by Federal Marshals in 1960. Indeed, this event was the inspiration behind the famous painting, "The Problem We All Live With," by Norman Rockwell, which President Obama hung in the Whitehouse during his time in office. The contrast between the innocence of a child and the ugly brutality of the racism she was subjected to really struck a nerve in me and I wanted to respond to those feelings in music.

The story of Malala Yousafzai, which is behind "One Girl Among Many," made headlines around the world, so I was already aware of her. For those who don't know, in 2012 Malala survived an assassination attempt at the hands of a Taliban gunman for her public advocacy of the basic human right to education. Travelling to England for further medical treatment she continued her education, beginning her degree course at Oxford University in 2017 and along the way becoming the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. I was so moved by the dignity and power of her peaceful advocacy displayed in the speech she gave at the United Nations on her 16th birthday. If you haven't watched it yet, please do.

I learned about Rosa Parks, the source of inspiration for "2 8 5 7" while listening to an online radio documentary about the Civil Rights Movement, marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, on the BBC website. On the same page was a program called Freedom in America, which explored the events that led to Rosa Parks changing the course of American history. Her refusal to tolerate injustice sparked a movement for equality, the fight for which continues around the world to this day.

I learnt about the Suffragettes from my grandmother. When I became old enough to vote, she would remind me that we fought for the vote and expressed how important it was to make our voices heard. Their lives and stories inspired my composition "Deeds Not Words."

I first became aware of the music of Barbara Thompson when I watched "Playing Against Time," the moving documentary from 2012 about her battle to keep performing during her struggle with Parkinson's disease. One aspect that touched me deeply was the tireless love and devotion of her husband, Jon Hiseman, the legendary drummer, who sadly passed away in 2018.

Polyhymnia is inspired by just a small handful of remarkable women, but of course there are thousands of amazing role models I could have chosen, this suite is just a snapshot of where I was at the time of writing. If I were starting today then I'm pretty sure there would be a piece dedicated to that incredible young woman, Greta Thunberg.

AAJ: What did these women have in common and how have their inspiration translated into your music?

YA: I think all these women share some similar traits: they are all strong; courageous; determined; dignified; they refuse to give up; refuse to be ignored and carry on fighting against the odds and keep spreading their message to the world. These are characteristics I greatly admire and perhaps try to emulate in my own small way.

When I was creating the suite I thought about the character, background and actions of each of the women and reacted emotionally to their stories, allowing my thoughts to unfold. There was some improvisation involved and some research into styles of music I hadn't approached before. In composing "One Girl Among Many" for example, I used snippets from Malala's speech at the United Nations and extracted the melodic material from the natural cadence of her speaking voice. In "Deeds Not Words" I deconstructed the melody of an old battle hymn used by the Suffragettes as a rallying anthem, re-shaping it to fit into my own musical landscape.

However, the most direct emotional response to these muses are reflected in the improvisations included in this album.

AAJ: Are there parallels between the role models to which you dedicated your compositions and the "Queens" of Shabaka Hutchings' Your Queen Is a Reptile?

YA: There are perhaps some similarities, for example, fighting for those who don't have a voice and bringing an awareness through music of the ongoing inequality of women's rights. Shabaka was really trying to set the record straight by celebrating those women whose achievements have been underreported or even erased from history.

Polyhymnia is also a vehicle to celebrate the talents of the musicians on the album, many of whom just so happen to be women. The suite was first performed at the Women of the World Festival on International Women's day in 2015. It is a celebration and homage to all women really.

AAJ: In your projects you sculpt fascinating soundscapes which are built out of an elegant interaction between electronic and acoustic instruments. How do you strike the balance between these two worlds?

YA: It wasn't really until I started working with Radiohead and These New Puritans that I was introduced to electronics and all the sonic possibilities that come along with them, which I found really fascinating. Those experiences made me want to include these strange sounds in my music, and I bought a case pad, tried to learn how to use it, sat down and kind of messed around with it. I'm not doing it because it's fashionable. I see them as legitimate compositional tools.

AAJ: British jazz is experiencing great success. What's your take about this golden phase of the jazz scene in the UK, and London in particular?

YA: Since the UK is a multi-cultural country, the British jazz scene benefits from influences from other musical heritages. I think people really enjoy mixing all these different languages to create something that's both unique and uniting. In this jazz community we are actually encouraged to open-up, be unique and honest to ourselves.

AAJ: You have a mixed British and Bahraini background. Whereas the British jazz scene is well known and established and there's an increasing number of jazz projects influenced by Arab music, the jazz world does not have specific examples of Bahraini influences on jazz. What was your approach in bridging these two musical traditions?

YA: Indeed, nobody really hears Bahraini music outside of Bahrain. It's so specific to the island. And it's not commercial music. So, I went along with the memories of hearing the music when I was a kid growing up in Bahrain. I had to dig deep into my personality and my heritage to get these ideas across. A big push came from a commission that I got in 2015, to write a work inspired by the music of the Bahraini pearl divers and female drumming groups [the fidjeri music, or "sea music"]. I received a grant to go back to Bahrain and study that tradition. I had the privilege of being invited to a private concert that the pearl divers put on in their clubhouse, which was really cool. I recorded it and I took these recordings back and studied them. But I also turned excerpts from those recordings into some loops which I then used for the music I wrote for that commission.

AAJ: In your view what makes Bahraini music distinctive and different from that of other Arab countries?

YA: Bahrain is a very small island and they've had a long history of trading with Africa, India and the Middle East. So those influences have found a way into Bahraini music. The focus is often on chanting, even though not on harmony. There are a lot of very interesting clapping rhythms, with simple melodies on top. Many of the songs are about being at sea diving for pearls, and the hardship that comes with all of that, and, of course, missing your loved ones when you're out at sea. Then there's a lot of celebratory music, for weddings for instance, which is always really uplifting. In general, I find Bahraini music to be very hypnotic compared to other types of Middle Eastern traditions, the kind of music in which you can lose yourself into, in a trance.

AAJ: Did you discover any commonalities between jazz and music from Bahrain?

YA: Bahraini music has a lot of differences and a few similarities with other Arabic musical traditions. The main similarity is improvisation, which is very common in Arabic music. You know, some of their improvisations can last for hours sometimes. That is a clear commonality with Jazz. And there are also some common scales, harmonic minor scales, in Western music that we share with Arabic music. But there are of course also lots of differences. For example, they use a lot of quarter tones which we don't use in Western music. That poses some challenges for Western musicians and I had to do a lot of experimenting to make it blend well with the Western aspects of my music. In the end, I I think I found something that's very personal. Something that reflects my mixed heritage.

AAJ: You've performed in various parts of the world, including in countries where jazz is not yet a well-known music genre. How did the response of audiences differ?

YA: What I found quite interesting is that the further east I've gone the younger the audience was, compared to the audiences in the UK and in Europe. I'm not sure whether that's because jazz is an underground music and maybe it seems very cool for the young audiences to come and see it. Maybe it makes them feel as if they've discovered something new. In general, the response has been always very positive and engaged. So many people in the audience wanted to talk to us after the gigs. When we played in Kuwait, for instance, the whole audience just came to talk to us afterwards, one by one, asking questions and getting photos of us, which was very sweet.

AAJ: You've gone back to Bahrain to perform your music. How was going back?

YA: There was a clear sense of homecoming. I felt quite apprehensive because it was my first time playing there, and it was also the first time playing live in front of my father. It went really well, and my father said he was very proud of me. It was such a treat and I'm very grateful for that opportunity.

AAJ: What are you working on at the moment, now that this album is out?

YA: I'm currently touring the UK with my 12-piece Hafla Ensemble, playing the music from Polyhymnia, as well as preparing for some very exciting shows with my quartet in Europe and North America.

Away from touring, I'm writing music for a new collaborative project with producer Hector Plimmer, working on a live EP release, documenting the recent performances with my side project, Electric Dreams, and I've just gone back in the studio with my Hafla Band. Lots to keep me busy!

Photo credit: Seb JJ Peters.

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