If Dhafer Youssef never sang a note, his composition and oud playing would earn him a place in the first rank of world/jazz musicians. It just happens that he also sings, with the most extraordinary, unearthly power. His is a strange, keening voice, a clear, emotional development of a devotional chant, a close relative of Qawwali, and with a tone of such purity that on record it’s not easy to tell where an instrument stops and the voice begins.
His self-taught style is technically peculiar, putting a hand to the side of his nose as he reaches for impossibly high notes. But for Dhafer, technique is no more than the means to an end. “I don’t like to sound like anybody,” he explains. “I like to do what I feel is me. Like my face. Like my fingerprint. A lot of people come and say, ‘Oh, you sing high!’ Is this the most important thing? Singing is like being naked, you know! It’s not about singing a song or singing a text. I have this feeling that I’m always looking for something. I never know what I’m going to sing before I open my mouth. It’s always a surprise for me.”
The emotional impact of this high-altitude vocal style is palpable. “Un Soupir Eternel,” the track which closes Youssef’s new, fourth album Divine Shadows is dedicated to the late mother of Norwegian guitarist and producer Eivind Aarset. She died shortly before the band’s 2004 tour, and the track is a live recording from the Queen Elizabeth Hall in November of that year.
Those who were at the London show remember clearly the intensity of the performance and the effectiveness of the requiem, serving as both lament and celebration. Arve Henrikson’s trumpet builds a delicate pattern of apparent simplicity as Aarset’s processed guitar paints a breathing, widescreen wash of sound until Youssef’s voice joins, inarticulate at first, then rising to the most sublime howl. It prompts the effect that Youssef himself identifies as a yardstick of whether or not the improvisation is “flying”: goosebumps. Only then is a whistleable, folky, timeless oud and trumpet melody allowed in.
That overused but under-defined word, spiritual, springs readily to mind when listening to Youssef’s playing. It’s not just the sufi tradition that he espouses, but also the quality of the music: introspective, delicate and melodic but also communicating great passion. A spiritual concern is reflected in the title and concept of the album. “Divine shadows are the musicians. People. You, me,” he explains, in the most matter of fact tone. “Because there are no shadows without light. And no light without shadows. We reflect everything for this world, you know.”
Whether underpinned by profundity or vagueness, there’s no doubting that the delicacy and power behind the music easily inspire philosophical reflection. If this makes the experience sound a little precious, it’s worth pointing out that in person, and between songs, Youssef is affable and funny. He laughs a lot. And when the groove is on, the band, driven by Aarset’s guitar and Rune Arnesen’s diesel-powered drumming, are more than capable of rocking out in a live show. On Divine Shadows, the track “Odd Poetry” comes close to capturing that live sound.
A quirk of this latest release is that the liner notes refer to the musicians by their fathers’ names, in the Tunisian style. So Youssef is referred to as Dhafer ben Youssef Maaref, but, for example, Rune Arnesen gets the treatment too, becoming Rune ben Otto Moskvil Arnesen. Youssef’s rationale is that this is an extension of the notion of Divine Shadows, placing the musicians within their own families.
"It’s also like doing the song for the mother of Eivind. For example the person who did the mastering, I asked him, ‘What is the name of your father?’ He was surprised. ‘Why you ask that?’ ‘Just tell me.’ He said, okay. ‘Your name is like that for me.’ He said, “Wow! My father will never expect this i