Yazz Ahmed interview: “Music has helped me identify who I am”
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
For adventurous trumpeter Yazz Ahmed music was the key to unlocking her identity as a half Bahraini, half English girl growing up in suburban South London. She’s since forged a sonically-distinctive style, shaped as much by her work with Radiohead and These New Puritans as her own eclectic instincts. Here she speaks with Andy Robson about investigating her ethnic roots to challenge the strictures of genre and her new work, Polyhymnia, inspired by the courage of extraordinary women
Yazz Ahmed doesn’t do ‘stereotypes’.
“I have a different story to tell. I’m half Bahraini, half English, my father’s Muslim and I grew up in a Muslim country. My parents split up and we moved back to England when I was very young.”
Yazz was nine when she returned with her mother and sisters to the cloudier reality of southwest suburban London. “So there was always this sense of moving. When I moved to London I left my Arabic, my Bahraini side and adapted to British culture.”
Hardly surprisingly, that ‘adapting’ wasn’t easy. “I think I’ve struggled with my identity and not knowing where I fit… I went to a pretty rough school in Raynes Park, Morden. I used to be such a chav!”
For me writing is an emotional and intuitive process. I sometimes think intellectually, but the end result is based on my feelingsYazz Ahmed
Though Ahmed reckons not to have suffered racial abuse, her sisters have. They got called ‘Paki’ or were shouted at from cars “to go back to the Taliban”. “Growing up in Bahrain was very multicultural and we never experienced anything like that. So it was very alien, it was something we noticed.”
Something else she noticed in her late teens was that, “female trumpet players in the bands next to me didn’t carry on. I knew of no other female professional trumpet players. I thought it sad that it was seen as a male instrument.”
But young Ahmed persisted. Growing up with her jazz loving mum, a Royal Ballet dancer, Yazz saw trumpet playing as ‘normal’. That was down to maternal grandfather, Terry Brown, who’d played trumpet with the Johnny Dankworth 7, no less. Ahmed’s childhood was salted by Brown’s playing and stories of life on the road with the likes of Tubby Hayes, Jimmy Skidmore and Ronnie Scott. Ahmed’s search for Arabic roots may be nascent, but her British jazz credentials are deeply embedded.
A key moment, bringing the worlds of jazz and the Mid-East together, was her discovery of Blue Camel. She’d sought out that album because of her love for Kenny Wheeler, her favourite flugelhorn player. But the album is bossed by radical oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil. Blue Camel reflects his vision of a music beyond borders, a music of give and share and give again. It’s a music that respects the great traditions of east and west, while reflecting that the best music is about change. That music, like our identities, is fluid and alive to the now.
For Ahmed, “music has helped me identify who I am. It’s been very nourishing, helped with my identity, where I came from and who I am, the struggles I’ve overcome and still have.” Some of those struggles are expressed through La Saboteuse, her second album, which faces down her ‘inner saboteur’, an entity that strangles her creativity.
“She pops up now and again,” grins Ahmed, “but she’s not as noisy as she was. She did stop me being creative for a lot of the time. But it’s helped to give these thoughts a form: la saboteuse. When she turns up now, you go: “Oh, here she is again. You have to tell her: ‘Do you mind I’m trying to work here!’”
Returning to her roots, like confronting her saboteuse, was a conscious decision.
“It’s strange. If you’re from a mixed background and your parents are separated, it can be confusing for a child, for the adult… rediscovering my roots has made me feel more whole.”
“I’m learning Arabic and researching the music of the Gulf. I’m still learning, especially about the blue notes, the quarter tones in Arabic music.”
Indeed, she’s commissioned a special quarter-tone flugelhorn from her trumpet maker, Leigh Mckinney. “It was very difficult to learn to play. Even though I’m familiar with Arabic music, as a trumpet player I hear in western sounds. It’s difficult to not automatically tune the notes that some people might think are ‘out of tune’. Because these notes, the more emotional human tones, are in-between what western ears hear. I’ve had to learn to just breathe and let the notes flow, rather then squishing and trying to make them ‘in tune’.”
The title of her first album from a decade ago summed up her searching: Finding My Way Home. And the range of styles touched upon signposts where the maturing Ahmed was headed. The core musicians were the quintet she formed during her student days, finishing a jazz masters at Guildhall. In contrast, four tracks were improvised in the moment with bassist Janek Gwizdala and extemporised music remains close to Ahmed in projects like her band Electric Dreams. But she also mined classic American and British styles, covering Miles’ ‘So What’ and Stan Sulzman’s ‘Birthdays, Birthdays’. And for good measure Noel Langley, now her long time partner, producer and collaborator on Polyhymnia, arranged orchestrations to the title-track.
But the quick of something different was in ‘Wah-Wah Sowahwah’, the first song Ahmed wrote that explored Arabic colours and rhythms. And with Polyhymnia, those elements are increasingly to the fore.
“Yeah, two pieces on Polyhymnia are reflective of my Gulf and Arabic influences. There’s a piece about Haifaa al-Mansour, the Saudi film director, one of the few women filmmakers in the region. Maybe those influences aren’t so surprising given the subject. But the other piece which I consciously chose to write with an Arabic influence was about the suffragettes (‘Shoulder to Shoulder’).”
Listening to a pre-release version, what makes the song intriguing is that after a long, enigmatic opening section with an Arabic rhythmic feel, we are suddenly treated to the theme from ‘Men of Harlech’, which is usually associated with male voice choirs. The contrast still amazes Ahmed. “When I was researching for the piece, I found the suffragettes put their own own lyrics to ‘Men of Harlech’ to create an anthem that they’d sing on marches. I hadn’t known that, and I guess that’ll surprise a lot of people!”
Indeed, Polyhymnia will surprise many, even those who know the original 2015 concert piece. That was a suite inspired by courageous and influential women. It was commissioned by Tomorrow’s Warriors with support from PRS Women Make Music and was performed with an all-female line-up. The theme of brave women, often protesting silently, like Rosa Parkes who in 1955 refused to give her seat to a white man as the Alabama law then demanded, led Ahmed into, “a different way of writing. Normally I’m diving into my mixed heritage, but for this I had to think about women in their context and surroundings, and I had to think about my emotional response to them.”
For Ahmed, her writing space moved from looking inward at her own experience, to looking outward at the experience of others. “For me writing is an emotional and intuitive process. I sometimes think intellectually, but the end result is based on my feelings. Sometimes I start writing by improvising on the trumpet, which I find quite therapeutic. It’s easier than sitting down with pen and paper. Or I’ll sing or plonk around on the piano. Sometimes I walk: nature is very inspiring. And I find rhythms everywhere; like I’ll be sitting on a train and I’ll think ooh, that sounds strange…”
So for her piece about Ruby Bridges – whom like Rosa Parkes, Ahmed admits she knew little of before starting the project – she researched the music contemporary to her extraordinary story. As a six-year-old in 1960, escorted by four Federal Marshals, Bridges was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in Louisiana. At the time Bridges thought she was attending Mardi Gras, not school, because there was so much noise, and people were “shouting and throwing things”.
Building on the New Orleans connection and the ‘innocence’ of this little girl, Ahmed summons the spirit of Mardi Gras with a rolling piano intro worthy of Dr John. But brass counter-blasts soon crash in and there’s space aplenty for sax solos and spectacular drumming. It’s a second-line march, but not one you’ve heard before.
Despite its powerful themes, and its dedications to extraordinary people, including jazz’s own Barbara Thompson, Ahmed wanted Polyhymnia to express more than ‘just’ women’s experiences. The themes, courage, suffrage, facing down mortality, are universal.
So, though contributors are principally women, such as Alcyona Mick and Tori Freestone, Ahmed’s also recruited long-time associates like George Crowley (bass clarinet) and Samuel Hallkvist (guitar). Indeed, in her own words, recording the project became ‘epic’ as more and more musicians knocked at her garage to lay down tracks. “And then Noel and I would be on our own to do all the editing: quite exhausting! I’m not sure I’d do this over again. But once its mixed, oh, it’s going to be powerful and I hope people appreciate it.”
Another learning experience for her was that it was “really hard to recreate the adrenaline rush of playing live in a studio context. It’s really tricky. I’ve had to take a different approach, having to think about what’s different from a live recording.”
That meant drawing deep on La Saboteuse. “For Saboteuse, I used the studio as a compositional tool. It became another instrument, letting me add extra sounds and be creative with pre-recorded sounds.”
“As a result, Polyhymnia doesn’t really sound like a ‘big band’ as it did in the premiere. It’s layered and textured and, I dunno if it’s the right word, but it’s ‘contemporary’, with the addition of electronics, and, well, oddness!”
Some of that ‘oddness’ comes from her love affair with the Kaoss Pad, a sound manipulator that she was introduced to playing alongside These New Puritans. Despite her years of academic jazz and classical training, and a deepening interest in the formalistic rules of Arabic music, Ahmed retains a punk and Puck-like love of musical mischief.
That side of Ahmed’s jazz identity is most evident in Electric Dreams, a project with vocal sculptor Jason Singh, ubiquitous drummer Rod Youngs and Hallkvisit, again. “Jason is a beat boxer, but loves minimalism and creates soundscapes. We go through jazz, drum’n’bass, odd free stuff. Arabic stuff. We don’t do too much because too many gigs can make you stale and we don’t want to get stuck.”
In fact, the band is so sensitive to the moment that when they go into the studio in October, Yazz wants an audience live in the studio “because we get so much feedback from audiences.”
And talking of feedback: “I was talking to someone about what to wear on stage. You can’t ever win. If you wear something that’s seen as a bit masculine, your sexuality will be assumed. But if you wear something revealing you’re suddenly a slut.
“The clothes I’ve chosen for the Jazzwise cover are meant to reflect my Arabic heritage. I’m wearing a street version of an abaya,” – the wearing of the abaya is a theme taken up in al-Mansuour’s work – “I’ve gone for that look to represent my Arabic heritage. It’s symbolic of female power, of coming from a female background.”
To keep control of how we see ourselves, and of how others see us is key to shaping our identities. And Ahmed is keen to take back control. “A lot of my promo photos have been very glamorous and I thought that’s how it’s meant to be. But these shots are more revealing: revealing of my personality and my heritage.”
It’s a challenge for Ahmed, but one she relishes. And it’s a challenge for the media.
“Life would be boring without challenges. Psychologically I’ve grown more confident as my musical career has developed. I’ve had a lot of support from Serious, Tomorrow’s Warriors, Birmingham Jazzlines, and that’s helped me believe in myself rather than bumbling away on my own.”
And next? “Ah, I can’t really let on. But I’m now writing songs in Arabic and that’s thanks to Birmingham Jazzlines. The songs are inspired by traditional Bahraini music, music sung about pearl divers or by women at weddings. It’s a music of loneliness, of being away from their families, of hoping to discover great riches and then coming back with nothing. There are similarities across Qatar, Kuwait, but Bahraini music is a bit different. They use slang words that aren’t used in other Gulf states. My Bahraini granddad said: ‘Don’t learn Arabic from your aunts and uncles. They speak real trash, they speak, how would you say, ‘not proper’!’”
I wanted to be an archaeologist. I loved digging. I loved dinosaurs...Yazz Ahmed
Ahmed’s also “been inspired by Persian poetry, especially the mystic Sufi poetry of Rumi. I learn from wherever I can and add it to the palette.” And that palette grows ever wider. So what would the little girl who grew up in Bahrain make of the Brit-based globetrotting composer and instrumentalist, now feted by ambassadors and ministers?
“I don’t know. I wanted to be an archaeologist. I loved digging. I loved dinosaurs…” and for a moment Ahmed is that little girl again.
“I’d sneak out of the house – I had a BMX – and go cycling, without telling my mum. We weren’t allowed out…”
It’s a scene that chimes with al-Mansour’s movie Wadja, where a girl has ambitions, dangerous ones that challenge the status quo, of riding a green bicycle. But another young cyclist, our BMX rider, found a different way to freedom. By way of herself. And that story, breathed through a quarter-tone flugelhorn, has only just begun.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!