Dhafer Youssef (born 1967 in Teboulba, Tunisia) is a composer, vocalist, and oud player. He has been living and working in various European countries since 1990. During this time he had the opportunity to perform his music on stages in Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and other countries as well as his native Tunisia (where he started singing in the Islamic tradition at age 5).
Dhafer Youssef's music is rooted in the Sufi tradition and other mystical music but has always been wide open to ideas from any other musical culture as well as the jazz scene. With his poetic approach on the oud (the Arabic lute), his complex Arab-colored compositions and especially his deeply affecting singing when humming along with his melodies, Dhafer Youssef is one of the most impressive voices to emerge in this musical field in many years. Testifying a wide range of sound colors, stylistic facets and musical ingredients, his 1999 ENJA release "Malak" (ENJ-9367 2) is a thrilling statement incorporating Arabic lyricism, rhythmic power, visionary strength, multi-cultural influences and jazz-oriented improvisation. Dhafer Youssef opens the way to a new definition of East-Western crossover.
Dhafer Youssef also works in avant-garde and world music where he's been nominated for awards. He has released four albums of his own and also did notable work with Paolo Fresu. He indicates an affinity for the Music of India and Nordic music. He was a guest artist on the Norwegian jazz artist Bugge Wesseltoft's album FiLM iNG.
Dhafer Youssef Biography
Late junction (BBC) presenter Fiona Talkington explains how an exceptional young Tunisian musician found his creative home in Europe.
A small seaside town in Tunisia in the 1970s. A boy walks along a deserted shoreline picking up the odds and ends he finds lying around: A broken fishing net; a few discarded sardine cans; spokes from an old bicycle. His heart and mind are full of music and he wants to play. It's as much as his father can do to put food on the table for Dhafer and his seven brothers and sisters. There certainly isn't spare money for music lessons, let alone for an instrument. So Dhafer makes his own oud, the traditional middle-Eastern lute, using whatever he can find.
You've only got to listen to the achingly beautiful first minute or so of Dhafer Youssef's last album Digital Prophecy to hear how the passion for music, born in that small Tunisian town, still lives on.
The young Dhafer did what was expected of him and sang, having learnt at the traditional Koran school, but at the same time, he was hearing music on the radio - the only source of entertainment in this small town. "It was just music. That's all I knew" says Dhafer "I didn't know what was classical what was jazz and so on. Just music..." And so, on his homemade oud, Dhafer taught himself to play by ear.
One day a friend came back from his travels with an electric guitar and a small toy one for his young nephew. Dhafer borrowed the toy for a week, at the same time secretly yearning to get his hands on the proper instrument. Eventually his friend began to lend it to him for a few days at a time: "days when I didn't sleep, the time was too precious. I just played."
As he began to earn money by singing at weddings, he saved enough to buy his first 'real' oud for the equivalent of 100 Euros. This was frowned on by friends and family. "God's given you a voice, you've got to sing."
But Dhafer had fallen in love with the sound of the instrument. It was the sound of his roots, the country where he was born. "If I'd been born in Africa I'd have been a drummer. In New York- a sax player. But I was born in Tunisia -I play the oud. If I'd been brought up near a piano maybe I'd have played that, but actually I didn't even see my first piano until I went to Vienna when I was 19."
Vienna lured him with the promise of the opportunity to study music. "I did anything I could to earn money. I washed dishes, cleaned windows, worked as an Italian waiter even though I wasn't Italian. I did anything I could just to keep the music going. But I still couldn't read music. I went to listen to lots of music: jazz, classical, anything. And I met a viola player Tony Burger who patiently helped me to write my music down, and we would just play together for hours. Then I met the tabla player Jatinder Thakur who really got me into Indian music. This was a BIG discovery. I fell in love with the sound. It seemed so near to my soul, and I played with him every day. He was at the heart of the first quartet I played with."
"In Vienna, I was still working to survive. But, I have to say, it was the most beautiful time of my life. It was a dream coming true: I was doing my own music, bringing alive the colours in my soul, playing a lot of theater music with people like accordionist Otto Lechner."
"Then along came an amazing opportunity. The Jazz club Porgy and Bess in Vienna would give a musician carte blanche to do what they liked, one night a month for the next twelve months. A new project every month. I could invite anyone I wanted to play with me so I just thought: 'why not?' and asked so many people I admired from all over the world: Iva Bittova, Peter Herbert, Renaud Garcia Fons and Christian Muthspiel for example."
"It was a huge success and I got to do in nine months what might have taken ten years. I was doing something completely different each month and at every gig, people would come up and ask about the music. Sometimes, things went so well with the musicians that one night at the Porgy and Bess wasn't enough and we'd go into the studio to record. That's how my first album, Malak came about."
"Well, after that, I thought I would go back to Africa in search of my roots, but after a while, I felt that Europe was where my home was. My creativity is in Europe and wherever that is, there is my home. Enja wanted another recording from me and I went to New York for a while and recorded Electric Sufi with a group which included Dieter Ilg, Markus Stockhausen and Doug Wimbish."
The world was beginning to take notice of Dhafer's captivating high vocals and intensity of playing and he considered settling in New York.
"But then came September 11th and I just thought in this troubled world I should return to Paris."
"I began to have more and more contact with Norway and Nils Petter Molvaer invited me to play with him and the singer Anneli Drecker." This lead eventually to his third album, Digital Prophecy. Here, Dhafer's profoundly spiritual singing and playing become embedded in the Scandinavian, existentialist world of Norwegian music, embodied in the playing of Eivind Aarset on guitar, drummer Rune Arnesen, Bugge Wesseltoft on keyboards and Dieter Ilg on bass, along with the sampling of Jan Bang. "I just love playing with musicians from the North. They are more African than some Africans and they are an inspiration to me."
Dhafer's band consists of the cream of Norway's electronic nu-jazz scene. Eivind Aarset, one of the finest guitarists in the world today, is renowned for the ambient washes and eastern flavoured drones that have featured on the work of Nils Petter Molvaer, Kjetil Bjornstad and for his own band, Electronique Noire. Drummer Rune Arnesen's urgent beats also feature in Molvaer's work and add a distinctive, contemporary drum'n'bass sensibility ably teamed with the highly in-demand depth charges of bassist Audun Erlien. The line-up is completed by trumpeter Arve Henriksen recipient of one of Norway's Jazz launch Europe awards whose unique style of trumpet playing and vocals is confounding audiences and fellow musicians alike.
"I am the only one who doesn't speak Norwegian!" says Dhafer, "but our gigs together are not about what happens for an hour on stage. These are simply great human beings, and how we are as musicians comes as much from the time we spend hanging around: waiting at airports, traveling together, being on the road, in a bus, sharing good food."
Fiona Talkington - Journalist, DJ and Presenter, Late Junction, BBC Radio 3
Biography by Charlotte Dillon
Singer, composer, and oud player Dhafer Youssef was born in 1967 in Teboulba, Tunisia. The oud is an Arabic lute, a string instrument that can achieve a beautiful sound from those who know how to master it.
Youssef began singing when he was only five-years-old. Since then he has performed for audiences in Tunisia, Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, and other countries. He has appeared with his own ensembles and recorded two albums with them, one in 1993 and the other three years later.
Youssef's music combines Sufi tradition, world, mystical, and jazz influences with Arabic lyricism. In 1999, Enja Records released Youssef's third album, Malak, which includes the songs "A Kind of Love," "Tarannoum," and "Eklil."
Youssef provided vocals and oud for the album and was accompanied by such well-known artists as violinist Zoltan Lantos, bassist Achim Tang, tabla and dolak player Jatinder Thakur, tambourine player Carlo Rizzo, bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons, and drummer Patrice Héral. In 2002, Youssef released Electric Sufi on Enja and added electronic elements and funky grooves to his genre-bending sound.
Dhafer Youssef (Tunisia)
In this post 9/11 world, with its centrifugal drift to extremism, a new breed of North African and Middle Eastern musician has been in the vanguard of attempts to promote cultural tolerance and an alternative vision of Arabic and Islamic culture. The Tunisian oud player Dhafer Youssef is living proof that, despite the bleetings of Salafist and Wahabi imams, music still holds pride of place in the Arab and North African heart.
It has always been emblematic of that culture's willingness to tolerate and interact with other cultures. Youssef doesn't need to ride a camel or wear a djellaba in order to prove his point. He only needs to be what he is: a vocalist and oud virtuoso of rare ability, a defiant cosmopolitan and a declared modernist who reserves the right to go where his muse takes him, and collaborate with anyone he might meet there. Growing up in the Tunisian port town of Teboulba , where he was born in 1967, Youssef absorbed the sounds he heard clandestinely on the radio, 'without a filter' as he himself recalls. He had a special penchant for jazz and he soon realised that Tunisia would never give him the freedom to explore that particular path. So he left for Vienna, without a dinar to his name. His peripatetic life then took him to Barcelona, Berlin, New York, Dakar and back again to Vienna, meeting, playing and collaborating. A debut release 'Malak' on the Enja label in 1999 sowed the seeds of an international reputation and Youssef moved to the Barbès district of Paris.
He developed some perennial musical partnerships, notably with the Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and the Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset. Youssef feels a special bond with Scandinavian musicians, which is fortunate, since Norway and Sweden are now widely regarded to have the most fascinating and dynamic avant-garde jazz scenes in the world. Youssef has also performed with Uri Caine, Jon Hassell, Markus Stockhausen, Nguyên Lê and the cuban pianist Omar Sosa, to name but a few. In 2001 recorded the 'Electric Sufi' CD with the ex-Sugar Hill Gang and Tackhead rhythm section of Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbush and followed it up recently with 'Digital Prophecy', another multi-layered, multi-faceted marvel. With walls, boundaries, barriers, labels and frontiers becoming ever more rigid and impregnable, Dhafer Youssef reminds us that any composer or musician of worth must be free to roam, with his body, his mind and his spirit, or music itself might end up being the biggest casualty.
Born in Teboulba, Tunesia in 1967, composer, singer and oud player Dhafer Youssef has been living and working in Vienna, Austria since 1990. During this time he had the opportunity to perform his music on stages in Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland and other European countries as well as his native Tunesia (where he started singing in the Islamic tradition at age 5). Dhafer has been working with Renaud Garcia-Fons, Markus Stockhausen, Carlo Rizzo, Nguyên Lê, Jatinder Thakur, Sainkho Namchylak, Paolo Fresu, Arto Tuncboyacian, Linda Sharrock, Wolfgang Puschnig, Christian Muthspiel, Jamey Haddad, Iva Bittova, Tom Cora and other great improvisers influenced by world music concepts. He also formed his own ensembles with whom he recorded two previous CD's in 1993 and 1996. Dhafer's music is rooted in the Sufi tradition and other mystical music but has always been wide open to ideas from any other musical culture as well as the jazz scene. With his poetic approach on the oud (the Arabic lute), his complex Arab-colored compositions and especially his deeply affecting singing, Dhafer Youssef is one of the most impressive voices to emerge in this musical field in many years. Testifying a wide range of sound colors, stylistic facets and musical ingredients, his 1999 ENJA release "Malak" (ENJ-9367 2) is a thrilling statement incorporating Arabic lyricism, rhythmic power, visionary strength, multi-cultural influences and jazz-oriented improvisation. Dhafer Youssef opens the way to a new definition of East-Western crossover.
MALAK was enthusiastically accepted by critics and audience and led to solid concert appearances. In 1999 - 2000 and 2001 Dhafer Youssef performed with his quartet (Markus Stockhausen tp, Dieter Ilg or Renaud Garcia-Fons b, Patrice Heral dr) throughout Europe. In addition he concertized with trumpeter Nils Petar Molvaer and percussionist Marilyn Mazur in Scandinavia and bassist/producer Bill Lasswell invited Dhafer to take part in the World Festival of Sacred Music in Hiroshima, Japan in May‚ 2001.
The new CD ELECTRIC SUFI (ENJ-9412 2) was produced and recorded in New York, Cologne and Paris featuring the excellent ensemble of Will Calhoun dr, Doug Wimbish el-b, electronics, Dieter Ilg b, Mino Cinelu percussion, Wolfgang Muthspiel guitars, Markus Stockhausen trumpet, Deepak Ram bansuri providing the perfect setting for Dhafer's deeply felt oud playing and his intense vocals.
Dhafer Youssef is an ENJA recording artist.
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Electric Sufi (2002)
Digital Prophecy (2003)
Divine Shadows (2006)
Glow (with Wolfgang Muthspiel) (2007)