The oud-the 11-string, fretless, acoustic relative of the lute so central to the culture of the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean-is inextricably tied to tradition, more than 5,000 years of it. But in the hands of Dhafer Youssef, one of the most highly respected and influential virtuosi of the instrument in the world, the oud takes a giant leap into the future. For more than two decades, Youssef has paid his respects to the ancient legacy of the oud while integrating its melodious, robust and resonant-but simultaneously delicate tones-with modern sounds and sensibilities, transcending genre and defying the expected. On his new album Birds Requiem (OKeh Records) Youssef has created his most breathtakingly powerful work to date, a suite of 11 interconnected compositions that, he says, were "constructed as music for an imagined movie."
Recorded primarily in Gothenburg, Sweden, with additional recording in Istanbul, Birds Requiem features Youssef on oud and vocals, clarinetist Hüsnü Senlendirici, trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvaer, Aytaç Dogan on the zither-like kanun, Eivind Aarset handling electric guitar parts and electronics, pianist Kristjan Randalu, double bassist Phil Donkin and drummer Chander Sardjoe.
Birds Requiem didn't start out as such. "At first, the title of the album was Incantations," says Youssef. "Even in my interviews, I mentioned the project using that title, which I found suitable. But once the album was recorded, the more I listened to it the more Birds Requiem imposed itself as a title."
The album is structured around what he has dubbed the "Birds Requiem" suite, whose four parts ("Birds Canticum," "Fuga Hirundinum," "Archaic Feathers" and "Whirling Birds Ceremony"), form the centerpiece of the recording. "This structure creates a leitmotif," he says, "which also symbolizes two entities that intermingle, represented by voice and clarinet." Those two essential elements produce an ethereal and welcoming pairing of sounds that, along with Youssef's oud and the other supporting instrumentation, is both otherworldly and simultaneously suggestive of something earthy and primordial.
Youssef envisions the entirety of Birds Requiem as a score for a film that exists only in his creative mind. "I imagine the movie being about two entities," he says, "myself and my permanent search for a wandering soul. It symbolizes the idea of the disappearance of the body and the wandering of the soul. This idea is also reflected in the image of the birds depicted in the songs and in the album's pictures."
Of all of his works to date, this album is closest to his heart. "It's a very personal album, that of souvenirs and memories," he says. "I was preparing this album at a turning point in my life, and at that moment, a return to the origins occurred-mine but also the origins of music."
The album took shape, Youssef recalls, after a performance he gave in Ludwigsbourg, Germany, with Senlendirici and Dogan, both of whom are from Turkey. "I always wanted to work with these great musicians and this encounter accelerated the process," he says. Youssef then brought in the other musicians and, with Lars Nilsson at the helm of the recording process, the project came together. "I composed the entire album except for the song 'Khira,' which was totally improvised between me, Kristjan Randalu and Nils-Petter Molvaer," Youssef says.
For Youssef, Birds Requiem marks the continuation of a journey into the possibilities of the oud that began during his childhood in Tunisia, where he was born in 1967. He discovered jazz as a youth and knew as he explored his instrument and composition that his lot in life would be the fusion of Eastern and Western styles into something wholly exhilarating and new. He relocated to Europe in the '90s and his reputation as an artist who blurred the lines between world music, jazz, classical and even contemporary genres such as funk grew exponentially with each new release. Albums such as 2002's Electric Sufi and 2006's Divine Shadows redefined the role of the oud in modern music, and Youssef's compositions, which also often featured his impassioned vocals, have been hailed as cutting-edge. He has received many honors for his work including a nomination for the BBC Music Awards For World Music in 2006. "I've always been in a permanent search for new sonorities," he says. "Even at the age of 6, I was curious. I discovered the echo of my voice and its resonances. Later, I experienced the undulations and the resonances of sounds that we find in Electric Sufi."
Birds Requiem is a culmination of all that he's accomplished previously, taking Dhafer Youssef's music to the next level. But he prefers not to overanalyze it all. "I sincerely think it is hard to succeed in describing the mood in this album or the others," he says. "I am convinced that its essence can only be felt while listening. It solicits the participation of the listener and the audience. Each one can feel it according to his own background or experience. Birds Requiem continues my search."