The Musical Elixir of Singer and Oud Diviner Dhafer Youssef

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Dhafer Youssef performing at the Oslo Jazz Festival in 2015. Photo by Tore Saetre (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Flickr
Dhafer Youssef performing at the Oslo Jazz Festival in 2015. Photo by Tore Saetre (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Flickr (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I first heard Tunisian singer and oud virtuoso Dhafer Youssef’s music on his 2010 release, Abu Nawas Rhapsody. It spurred me to buy an earlier record, Divine Shadows (2006), on which he works with a string quartet. Youssef’s vocal training is evident on both albums—his impressive voice has religious power, similar to that of great gospel singers, Pakistani sufi singers (think qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), preachers, and griots. Like other devotional music, Youssef’s vocal style is characterized by conviction and urgency, but also of enchantment and groove. Born in Teboulba, Tunisia in 1967, Youssef attended Qur’anic school planning to become a muezzin, the singer who calls the faithful to prayer. However, after moving to Vienna and gaining exposure to jazz and world music, Youssef quit his academic studies to perform and collaborate with a wide range of musicians. He is at home in a variety of musical settings, including jazz, Arabic, and Western classical.

Youssef has just released his eighth album, Diwan Of Beauty and Odd. The title’s meaning eludes me. “Diwan” refers to any regional governing body in Islamic societies. The song titles provide some hints: “Fly Shadow Fly,” “Of Beauty & Odd,” “Delightfully Odd“; there is the “Cheerful Meshuggah” meaning “crazy” or “mad” in Yiddish (or maybe referring to a Swedish extreme metal band in the 1990’s). In the album promo video, Youssef walks down a busy New York City street, talking about how much he loves the city and its multi-ethnic culture. He works with top-notch New York jazz musicians on this album—pianist Aaron Parks, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Mark Guiliana. It’s his most jazz-influenced album, fused with eastern influences and his amazing voice. Although Youssef is well-known in Tunisia, France, and other European countries, the same isn’t true in the U.S.  I hope this new album helps change that, and maybe spawns a tour as well.

Here is a recent video of Youssef performing with a large string ensemble. His evocative vocals are both ecstatic and bursting with pleasure:

And here is a track from the new CD:

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