Sat, 07 December 2019
Acclaimed British-Bahraini jazz trumpeter, Yazz Ahmed, talks memories, inspirations and getting back to her island roots.
You left Bahrain for the UK as a child. What are your memories of the island?
My memories are all about happy times with my family, swimming outdoors (it’s much too cold in England!), riding my BMX in the desert, big parties with all my aunts and cousins at my grandfather’s house, delicious food and the music.
How did you first become involved with jazz music and what touched you about this specific genre?
I’ve always loved music. My mother played a huge variety in the house, everything from Mussorgsky to Burning Spear, but my true gateway into jazz was my maternal grandfather, Terry Brown. He was a professional jazz trumpet player in the ‘50s, and performed with British jazz legends such as Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and John Dankworth. Later he became a record producer. I loved the music he shared with me and his tales of life on the road. He also gave me my first trumpet lessons. It’s the freedom of expression in jazz and the personalities the musicians reveal through their improvisations that got me hooked.
Your music has been described as ‘psychedelic Arabic jazz’. Would you agree with that description and, if yes, how would you explain/describe your sound to someone who has never heard it?
Some of my music can be described as ‘psychedelic Arabic jazz’, perhaps especially when I play live with my quartet. There are no musical limits when I’m on stage with my band. We explore all possibilities, weaving in and out through Arabic maqams, mixing belly dancing, jazz and drum and bass grooves, experimenting with electronics, reacting to one another through improvisation. The music can become quite hypnotic, casting a spell over the listener and taking them on a sonic journey into their psyche.
Despite leaving Bahrain at just nine years old, the Kingdom is clearly still a strong influence. Have you done a lot of research into your Arabic heritage in order to weave it into your music?
During my early 20s I became more aware of my mixed heritage and wanted to revisit the sounds and flavours I had left behind. Thanks to some funding I received from Birmingham Jazzlines, I was able to visit Bahrain for a study trip to learn about the traditional music of the island. I met with a wonderful flautist, Ahmed Al-Ghanem, who introduced me to the pearl divers from Muharraq and gave me some very useful reading material on the theoretical side of the music. Reconnecting with my Bahraini roots, looking within, trying to work out who I am, has helped me to develop a musical language which resonates with my growing sense of identity.
Your latest album Polyhymnia has just been released (is it available in the region on vinyl?) and is very much a tribute to powerful/empowering women. How personal are the things that influence your music – for example women’s empowerment in this case or the plight of refugees on A Shoal of Souls?
Yes, Polyhymnia is available on vinyl and can be ordered on Bandcamp.
I always need to feel a spark of personal connection before composing, and all the pieces on the album reflect stories and achievements that have touched me very deeply. For example, I was moved to tears when I watched the Youtube video of the incredible speech Malala gave at the United Nations and musical ideas began to flow very quickly. If you haven’t seen it please go and check it out online.
As far as the plight of refugees goes then, yes, like all decent people I hope, I do take it very personally. We could all so easily find ourselves in the same situation one day and I think the first response from us, both as individuals and countries, has to be one of compassion and respect.
What’s next for you?
I have a really fun collaboration with UK electronic artist, Hector Plimmer, coming up in the spring, and I’m also working on releasing an EP with my side project, Electric Dreams, which will feature tracks recorded live during our recent shows.
Are we likely to see you back in Bahrain any time soon?
I hope to come and perform again soon, but there are no plans at the moment, except for a trip to see my family this winter.