Once heralded as one of Jazz’s rising stars, it’s safe to say that Yazz Ahmed is now well and truly risen. Having played with Toshio Matsuura, Radiohead, These New Puritans and many more, toured Europe and the Arabian Gulf, played festival after festival last summer and now working on her third album in the wake of a phenomenal remix EP, the British Bahraini trumpet and flugelhorn-player shows no signs of slowing down.
Born in London to a British ballerina and Bahraini engineer, Ahmed spent her childhood in Bahrain before moving back to London with her family. Following in the footsteps of her grandfather Terry Brown (who’d played with the likes of Ronnie Scott in the 50s), she took up the trumpet and began a musical journey that would lead to her being hailed as “the high priestess of psychedelic Arabic jazz”. First composing her own music after graduating from Guildhall in 2006, she found inspiration in the music of Rabih Abou-Khalil, where for the first time she heard a fusion of the sounds of her Bahraini childhood with the jazz music she had studied.
Her second album ‘La Saboteuse’ came out in 2017 to critical acclaim. More confident and coherent than its predecessor, it manages to build a continuous body of work from tracks formed of differing makkams – Arabic scales – and rhythms. Whether on her trumpet or her bespoke Flugelhorn, Ahmed commands the soundscape with precision, pushing a compelling narrative of exploration and struggle – an exploration of her dual heritage and the musical possibilities it opens up, and a struggle against the internal doubts and stultifying self-sabotaging thought processes she terms ‘La Saboteuse.’ We sat down soon after the release of her compact but hard-hitting remix EP, to talk about creative process, industry bias and her place in the British Jazz scene.
Hot on the heels of a Europe-wide tour, how are you doing?
Really good, thanks. I spent 3 days in Sweden, Leipzig before that, Canada, Chicago, and 5 days in Brittany and France…A lot of work but so much fun. I’m just a bit exhausted!
You’ve been touring with your Hafla band, right?
Yeah and also a smaller version of that – I’ve got a quintet and a quartet. Hafla is an Arabic word that means “party” or “concert”, so I think of it as a gathering of likeminded people, a celebration. It’s my party band.
You’ve been called “the high priestess of psychedelic Arabic jazz,” coming through on the same wave as Sons of Kemet, Nubya Garcia, Jamie Isaac and so many more. How do you situate yourself between the burgeoning British Jazz scene and the world music circuit?
I never think of categorising myself or fitting somewhere. I just do my thing, so I’m quite honoured and surprised that I’m included in this blooming of the British jazz scene. It’s really exciting.
You lived in Bahrain until you were 9 and then moved to London with your family, and now you live outside the city. Has London been a big part of your sound?
That’s a good question, I’m not sure. I think when I left music college and I was looking for inspiration for compositions, sometimes I’d jump on the tube and go to an art gallery, or a park square, looking for the contrast of peace amid the craziness. So I think it’s played a role in working out how to find inspiration. London’s also a great place to meet all sorts of people from all across the world – and I love that, I love connecting with other people. Because of that there are so many ideas to share and lots of collaborations to make.
Now I’ve developed as a musician, I feel that since I’ve moved out I’ve been able to connect to myself in a different way. And I’ve noticed the calmness of the countryside compared to London. Where I live just outside of Luton is a very interesting place, it’s very diverse and unusual, quite rough in some places but I like that.
Your grandfather played in the 50s with Ronnie Scott and your mum was always playing reggae round the house, and you draw on the Bahraini music of your childhood in your own work. In terms of merging these influences, to what extent was it organic and to what extent was it a conscious choice?
It’s taken me a quite a while to rediscover my Bahraini roots. It started with just listening to a lot of contemporary Arabic music mixed with jazz, as well as the old-fashioned traditional music – the songs of the pearl divers, of the women drumming groups. Gathering all of these different sounds in my mind, I didn’t know how to express this musically, so I was quite studious. I went to libraries and got books about Arabic music to understand how it works. Then came the experimentation. I just tried to construct ideas that were personal to me, trying to stay true to my mixed heritage. So it was conscious in the decisions I was making, but a lot of it was formed by improvising.
You have a specially-made fugelhorn to play the makkams, right? Is there a different thought process of composition to take into account with the quarter-tones?
Yes – even though I grew up with these quarter-tones it’s difficult to play on an instrument used to play western scales. It’s very challenging, so I have to think in a different way.
You’ve mentioned Rabih Abou-Khalil as a big influence on your music. Who else is important?
Ibrahim Malouf, who’s a spectacular, virtuosic trumpet-player. I also love Kenny Wheeler – his music always makes me cry.
How do you think your sound has developed since Finding My Way Home?
It’s developed a lot! The Arabic elements have become stronger, but I’ve also been using live electronics in my performances, and in my recordings for La Saboteuse. Manipulation of field recordings is also something I’m very interested in: using the recording studio as a composing tool, there are so many possibilities in terms of writing music.
Let’s talk about La Saboteuse, could you talk us through the four chapters?
We wanted the story to unfold, so we thought the best way to do that would be split it into chapters. ‘The Space Between the Fish and the Moon’ is from a Rumi quote – I love the poetry of Rumi. The second chapter is the ‘Shoal of Souls,’ which describes the figure of La Saboteuse, that inner creature pulling down and drowning your positive thoughts (I’ve also written a single of the same name, dedicated to all the lives lost crossing the Mediteranean Sea in hope of a better life). ‘Spindrifting’ represents the pearl divers, diving in hopes of bringing home riches, but sometimes they returning home with nothing. The last chapter is ‘Sarabandos and Nocturnes’ – the first is the spinning dance of the Sufis and nocturnes obviously refers to night.
Was devoting an album to The Saboteur, as you call her, an attempt to cathartically address her head on, and if so how has your relationship changed with her?
The Saboteur is an anti-muse, she stops my creativity (the artwork illustrates her effect beautifully with a figure dragged down into the water to be suffocated). I thought I would create her as a character so that my negative thoughts become a thing, an object. That helps me to address and shut her off, to challenge and combat her. It really helped, and I hope it helps others to realise that “these thoughts don’t make any sense, it’s just my saboteur,” and to tell her to shut up.
Would it be going too far to ally her with a sense of imposter syndrome within a music scene so dominated by men?
I never thought of that but it does make sense, yeah!
As someone who’s very consciously engaging in this kind of fusion, do you ever find it annoying or reductive to be talked about as a “female trumpet player with Bahraini heritage,” do you find that prism to be limiting when some artists might be considered neutrally?
I don’t like it when I’m named as a female trumpet player. I don’t mind the Bahraini part because I’m very proud of that, but [specifying my gender} isn’t normalising, it’s making you already feel that you’re different, causing conflict with people’s perceptions of female musicians – what they’re supposed to sound like, how they’re supposed to behave. It’s ridiculous; you’d never hear a male trumpet player qualified like that.
As a woman in the jazz scene, aside from the general climate and bias you might be fighting, are there any specific obstacles you’ve had to struggle against?
I think mainly it was psychological things growing up. Definitely when I was younger, playing with guys – and this is a real generalisation – there is a point when young men become very competitive. I think, in my experience at least, young women and girls are naturally less competitive, and want to form a team and create something that’s bigger than the individual. For example, going to jam sessions when I was in my early twenties, I’d be very put off and intimidated because it was all a competition. I just wanted to play and have a good time. I see that in a lot of female players, they just shut down psychologically. It’s taken me a lot of time to get confident.
You have previously said you felt the need to communicate your own feelings and your own story. What stories do you like to tell?
I like to tell stories of my journey: coming to London from a Muslim background, adapting to British culture, rediscovering myself, and figuring out where I’m going next. And I like to bring a message to people. I’ve written a suite called ‘Polyhymnia’ which is dedicated to influential and courageous women, performed recently at the Southbank, which I’m recording right now (that will hopefully come out in May or June). The message of that is to inform people about these amazing women who have made such a difference in history. There’s a message of female empowerment there, but it should also be inspiring to everyone. I try to convey a message but at the same time I just want people to enjoy the music.
You’ve said before that “perhaps new listeners are drawn to the honesty and authenticity of jazz – it’s not fake and it’s not trying to sell you something.” What do you mean by authenticity, and why is jazz distinct from other genres in your opinion?
It seems to me at the moment that so many people are rediscovering their roots and trying to be true to themselves. A lot of them are also trying to reflect what is going on in the world around them right now, the politics and hostility of the world. I think this is a really unique time for Jazz.
It’s fair to say that ‘La Saboteuse’ has blown up into the mainstream. Did you feel like a threshold had been crossed once the album was out, with the reception it got?
I didn’t expect such wonderful feedback – it was reviewed and really praised in heavy metal blogs, a lot of online hip hop platforms were playing the album, it seemed to have reached a very diverse group of people. And it’s amazing, I had no idea it would be so popular! I’m really grateful to everyone who’s supported it.
Do you have a favourite track?
Good question! I have two favourites, ‘The Lost Pearl’ and the ‘The Space Between the Fish and the Moon,’ mainly because the actual recording session was terrible! Everything went wrong: the microphones weren’t working, there were lots of distortions, it was like The Saboteur got into the recording process! It took a long time to think about how to solve this problem, so Noel and I – my partner and producer – we went to our home studio and re-recorded a lot of it. We got percussion layers added on top and it turned out to be something that was so much better than it was originally going to be.
Your remix EP is brilliant, how did you go about choosing collaborators?
Charlie Curran sent me a long list of DJs and producers that he likes, and I chose three that I thought would really enjoy re-imagining my music, and they all said yes! They guys that I worked with are super inventive.
You’ve played with Toshio Matsuura, Jessica Lauren, Samuel Hallkvist, your producer Noel Langley, Illustration Cupboard, Radiohead, and many more – who have you learnt the most from?
Definitely These New Puritans, and learning how to use a chaos pad and manipulate recordings with them. I also really learnt a lot from Jason Singh. He’s a vocal sculpture, and he makes this beautiful music just by sampling. He’s been a massive influence on me, as has John Hassel, who was one of the first trumpet players to get into using electronics to build these amazing soundworlds.
Do you have a favourite gig?
I’ve done lots of very exciting gigs. One that comes to mind was for the London Olympics where I played at the BT River of Music festival with musicians from the Arabian Gulf. I’m very proud of representing Bahrain and Great Britain. I also played at Love Supreme last summer which was amazing.
What’s next for you?
I’m continuing touring in Europe, , and I’m recording my third album ‘Polyhymnia’ with a 14-piece ensemble. I’m composing a new solo trumpet piece inspired by the moon for Open University. And I’ll be back in London this Summer!
And finally, who are you listening to right now?
A lot of electronic music, especially Aphex Twin, and also a lot of contemporary jazz.
Words by: Amardeep Singh Dhillon
Images Courtesy of: Yazz Ahmed