Dhafer Youssef, Birds Requiem

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 01.21.14 in Reviews

Sufis frequently use birds as a metaphor for the soul’s divine journey to God, and a requiem is formally a mass held for the dead. Dhafer Youssef, a Tunisian oud player, unfurls a broad canvas to capture these weighty themes. Birds Requiem is purposefully spiritual music, ambitious and dynamic in its scope. It ranges from the profoundly pensive to rapturous, cathartic crescendos.

Purposefully spiritual music, ambitious and dynamic in its scope

Youssef’s adventurous, improvisatory thirst has led him to collaborate with string quartets, Indian tabla players, and, most frequently, members of the Norwegian nu-jazz movement. As with his Digital Prophecy (2003) and Divine Shadows (2006), Birds Requiem features Norwegian collaborators Nils Petter Molvaer on trumpet and Eivind Aarset, who receives credit for guitar, electronics and “second ear,” which hint at his vital contributions to the project.

Birds Requiem

Dhafer Youssef

Youssef’s oud playing is by turns brooding and spry, and his vocals range from low, resonant talk-song akin to a muezzin calling to prayer to an ethereal near-falsetto. The thrilling climax of “Blending Souls & Shades” features this high vocal surging in tandem with clarinet (from Turkish playerHusnu Senlendirici), Aarset’s electronics, and Molvaer’s coursing trumpet. Elsewhere, the Turkish-inflected “39th Guley,” is goosed by a lilting rhythm akin to Irish music.

Youussef has likened Birds Reqiuem to “movie music,” and there is a cinematic quality to the suite’s programming. But his biding achievement here is larger: He distills enormous spiritual themes into visceral, organic music that neither shortchange the topic nor impose an obligation on the listener to do anything but absorb these silvery, iridescent songs on his or her own terms.