London Student

Interview with Yazz Ahmed: meet the British-Bahraini fusing jazz with Arabic scales

What was your first experience of jazz?

My first experience was when I listened to records with my Grandad. He was my mum’s father, from my English side, and a trumpet player who became a record producer – whenever I’d go home to my grandparents, we’d listen to jazz like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and Toby Hayes. I was really fascinated by music and you can really feel the personalities of the musicians coming out. It captured my imagination.

What is it like being an Arab woman in the music industry?

My Bahraini family has taken a long time to understand what I am doing. First thing they’d say is ‘how are you earning money?’ etc. It has taken a while, but my dad is now really understanding since he can see I am doing something important.

Your music has been described as Arabic Jazz. You make it seem like Middle Eastern music and jazz blend together so flawlessly.

I did a lot of experimenting. I first started listening to a Oud player called Rabih Abou-Khalil, a very talented musician. This music kind of inspired me to write my own fusion of Middle Eastern music and jazz. I got a lot of books out of the library and began learning Arabic scales. There’s the improvisation part that Arabic music and jazz share so beautifully – the harder bit to connect was the jazz harmony and Arabic music, because Arabic music does not really have any harmony – there’s lots of chanting. It has taken me a long time to find my own language and understanding of those two cultures.

How do you feel about the up-and-coming London jazz scene revival?

I am really excited about it – I think jazz musicians are trying to connect jazz to current events and some are experimenting with club music, like The Comet is Coming. It’s showing people who’d never listened to jazz and think jazz is terrible that it is an adaptable and very wide ranging style of music. Since jazz has travelled across the world, it has picked up many different influences. Ethiopian jazz is completely different to British jazz.

There is a lot of electronic music on your album. How did you discover that?

It started when I worked with some rock bands, and with a beatboxer who makes beautiful music as well. Those guys helped me to understand how to create soundscapes, to use electronics, to manipulate records. The first track on my album was recorded with the sound of my Arabic teacher reading a poem.

Leave a comment

Maya Sughaiyer