I interviewed Yazz Ahmed; the established face of contemporary fusion jazz. Since releasing her debut album in 2011 (Finding My Way Home), Yazz Ahmed has been conquering the scene with her original blend of Arabian maqam scales played on a unique quarter-toned flugelhorn. As well as this, Yazz’s long list of collaborations, such as Lee Scratch Perry and Radiohead, has contributed to the addition of electronic music into her sound, earning Yazz global acclaim and success in her creation of a truly psychedelic East-to-West form of jazz.
We chatted over the phone ahead of her debut concert at the Southbank Centre, where Ahmed will launch a remix EP of her second album La Saboteuse.
Can you start by telling us the story of how and when you first started to play musical instruments?
“I grew up in Bahrain, we had… sort of strange instruments in the house. We had the guitar amongst others, and I would just mess around with those not really knowing what I’m doing. I would drive my mum mad by playing recorder duets with my sister. Then when we moved to England, when I was nine, my mum asked me if I wanted to learn a musical instrument in school and I said, ‘Yes, I would love to learn the trumpet’.
Why I chose the trumpet is because my grandfather, Terry Brown, used to be a jazz trumpet player in the 1950s, and so I saw him as this big kind of hero, and I just thought he sounded pretty cool… I just thought, Yeah the trumpet sounds like fun, I want to be like Terry. So that’s where it all started.”
Is this where you got your love of jazz from?
“I think so. My grandfather would play jazz records to me, especially British Jazz artists, and my mum used to play jazz in the house and other quite cool music. Reggae — my mum’s a big reggae fan, so there were a lot of influences around in the house, and I really loved all of them, particularly jazz.”
Do you feel that psychedelia was always a part of your music, or was it something that grew?
“It just seems to have grown into that way. Since working with electronic artists and using electronic music, I’ve found it can make you more fluid, dreamy and otherworldly. It’s just amazing what you can do to music if you just sort of add an electronic element to it. It’s opened up lots of possibilities and what colours I can get from using electronics as well as acoustic instruments, and it’s really fun to experiment.”
You had a lot of success after your debut album Finding My Way Home, can you tell us about an event that really had an impact on you or your music?
“Yeah, I think working with Radiohead and other major electronic artists has really inspired me quite deeply, in all sorts of ways: learning how to rehearse, how to take myself seriously… And again this electronic aspect with the recording; things such as using pre-recorded material and manipulating it, collating it and using it the live performances. So I learned a lot with art-rock kind of people, definitely.”
You are of Bahraini and British origin, when did you start to connect to your Arabian musicality origins?
“So my father is Bahraini and my mum is British, and as I continued my music studies and graduated from music college, I started to discover new music.
The album that really inspired me to look into the music of my first home was an album called Blue Camel by Rabih Abou-Khalil who was an oud player. This album brought up memories of the music of Bahrain from where I was from growing up. That then inspired me to start researching the music, and I experimented with mixing what I heard with jazz, then I suddenly felt like I had a purpose and I felt a lot more rounded as a person because I was mixing my Bahraini heritage and my British heritage together, and yeah… I became one. I feel like I’m always evolving.
So that’s where it really began, with that album, Blue Camel – It’s awesome, it’s a brilliant album.”
From the La Sabateour, I think ‘Jamil Jamal’ is my favourite track – can you tell me about how you came to write this song?
“That was the second piece I had written inspired by Arabic scales and rhythms and, I mean it’s quite a complex tune, but also very simple in its idea; along this idea and theme of evolving both identities. I used a couple of Arabic scales, but it’s all meshed together it had the kind of complex, kind of menacing quality to it. I really enjoyed that feeling of being able to mix these two types of music together and also to bring out the wonderful improvisations of the band. Everyone has their opportunity to shine and it’s lovely how it all comes out in the piece…”
Where are you based at the moment?
“I live in a very sleepy village just outside of Luton, it’s very peaceful. It’s a nice change to London; it’s nice to write music and chill out.”
Can you tell us about your quarter-tone flugelhorn?
“A flugelhorn is just like a trumpet, but it’s bigger – you can kind of think of it as a pregnant trumpet, so it’s a little wider, the tubing is bigger, it creates a warmer more mellow sound – so the colours are slightly different when you’re playing this instrument. Flugelhorns don’t usually have quarter tones, which are used more in Arabic music, Indian music and music with that kind of free jazz.
I had been wanting to play quarter tones to really get into the very emotional notes that you have in Arabic music, which uses quarter tones. For me, I often think of them as the blues qualities in Arabic music— similar to the blues; this kind of music where it’s very emotional and they tell stories about their struggles. For me, that’s the Arabic version: quarter tones.
“I feel I can get deeper into the music with my emotions having this new instrument. It was made for me by the guy who makes my other instruments. His name is Kenny and his company collects trumpets. He lives around the corner from me and he has a little workshop at the end of his garden where he makes fantastic instruments, all by hand.”
Are you looking forward to your concert? Have you played the venue before? What can we expect from the experience?
“I’m really looking forward to it… We haven’t played at the Southbank Centre, so it’s obviously a very exciting thing.
We’re going to be playing music from La Sabatoure and we’re going to be playing music that is inspired by the music of the pearl divers from Bahraini – also music that will be using the drumming groups who would typically perform in wedding celebrations, so you’ll hear a bit of that.
I’ve also invited Brigette Baraha, a singer, and she’s going to sing you three melodies that I’ve written inspired by this music, so that’s really lovely.
There’s also going to be some wonderful lighting by a visual artist called Tupac Martir. It is going to be a visual experience as well as sonic. So hopefully all the senses will be awakened, enthused and excited.
We will also have an oud player who’s going to be opening the set whose name is Rihab Azar and she has an amazing story. She is from Syria and her birthplace is Khan, and obviously, Khan has been destroyed, and so she moved to London. She’s got this amazing story of her birthplace and moving to London and this emotional journey she’s had. I think it’s a wonderful theme of migration and collaboration of cultures… She’s going to be opening it, so I’m very excited about that.
I should also mention that it’s the launch of my remix EP. It’s really fun to collaborate with other people who are not jazz musicians. It’s really exciting when you never know what’s going to happen, and that’s the beauty of music.”