Last night I had the pure privilege of experiencing Dhafer Youssef’s first concert in America. The Tunisian-born singer and oud (Arabic lute) virtuoso, appearing with a string quartet and percussionist, launched Walker Art Center’s New World Jazz Series.
It was also, according to Youssef, the first public performance by the band, which featured violinists Todd Reynolds and Daisy Jopling, violist Caleb Burhans, bassist Mark Helias and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. It was a spectacular debut, and it was thrilling to be a witness to what happens when Sufi mysticism meets jazz, rock and electronica—in the hands of a master. The experience defies a pat definition, but it’s somewhere at the intersection of chamber music, improvisation, and spiritual journey.
A long vocal meditation opened the band’s first number, with Youssef first chanting in drones that were seamlessly picked up and carried by the strings, then soaring off with long and richly ornamental melismatic lines characteristic of the Sufi tradition. There was a hush in the audience that I’m not sure I have ever experienced, as if he’d spun us into a trance with him.
His voice is honey and harissa—smooth and sweet, but complex and foreign—and it’s beautiful to watch him sing. He has a magnetic presence, seemingly as much with his band as with the audience. With one slow, graceful gesture that reminded me of tai chi, he indicated his wishes, and the others dutifully responded. And Youssef’s facility with the oud is like he came out of the womb playing it.
The second piece the band played was typical of the musical structure for the rest of the concert. A rhythmically complex ground bass in an off-kilter compound meter was laid out in part or in full and developed, then layers of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms were built upon the groovy foundation. That structural similarity offered a helpful framework for me to get acquainted with the music, which is intricate and mesmerizing, but unsettling. The fact that the rhythms were never in a typical two- or four-beat pattern (in other words, not a beat for walking or waltzing), created a crackling energy that drove the night. Plus, it leaves you wanting to discover how to move to it.
A few times during the concert, Youssef employed a fascinating vocal technique, blocking one nasal passage and singing in a strange falsetto into his cupped hand. The resulting sound was something I can only describe as a combination of muted trumpet, harmonica, and Beijing opera with a cold—otherworldly and utterly captivating.
On a couple occasions, I sensed a lack of comfort in the violins, mostly around the devilishly tricky entrances, but I’m sure that will pass with more public performances. There were some truly thrilling moments, like Reynolds’ wild improvisation in a trio with Takeishi and Youssef, or Youssef laying down the groove for Helias’ bass solo.
My kudos to Philip Bither, Walker’s performing arts curator, for introducing Youssef to this country. If the remaining concerts in the New World Jazz Series are half this good, the series should be a huge success.