Dhafer Youssef

Dhafer Youssef is a Tunisian Oud player, vocalist and composer born in November 19th, 1967 in Teboulba. The son of a modest family from this Tunisian Center-Eastern fishing village, he comes from a long line of muezzins. Mastering vocal performances is to him a heritage and a family tradition. 

At an early age, his grandfather initiates him to quranic recitals. He starts discovering the potential of his voice and finds his calling. Far from quranic school benches and his grandfather’s hard discipline, Dhafer Youssef tests his voice singing the songs played on his mother’s radio set. His mother’s kitchen becomes his first experimental laboratory, away from rigorist methods. At the age of 6, he discovers the echo of his voice and its resonances. He remembers spending hours singing in the Hammam of the local village. The resonances produced by his voice in that cavernous place fascinate him, nourishing his ardent juvenile curiosity: young Dhafer discovers his favorite toy. 

Moved by the child’s beautiful voice, the local muezzin encourages him to record the call to prayer for the village’s mosque. Dhafer undertakes the task using a cheap plastic microphone. His voice flows from the top of the minaret. Its resonances gain altitude. It is his first encounter with an audience, an experience that will remain engraved in his memory seven studio albums and hundreds of world live performances later. 

A few years later, Dhafer Youssef joins the local liturgical song troupe as a vocalist. However, this experience does not last long because of the increasing politicization of the group’s activities. Far from places of worship, Dhafer now tries the Oud at the youth center in Teboulba. This is where he discovers the electric bass and the groove, which leads him to play at local weddings before joining the Radio Monastir singing troupe. Young Dhafer is selected to join the orchestra by its founder, Mesbah Souli, a violin player, member of the Tunisian National Troupe and music professor. 

Aspiring to explore new horizons, Dhafer Youssef leaves his home village for the capital. In Tunis, he joins the musical conservatory at Nahj Zarkoun. Dissatisfied with the quality of teaching, he moves to Austria with the ambition to complete his musical training. The creative exaltation provided by multiculturalism in Vienna and the multiple encounters he has there open for him a new world of possibilities. 

After he starts studies in musicology, Dhafer realizes that he is not interested in academic training anymore. Seduced by jazz and other musical genres such as Indian music, he takes part in numerous jam sessions and encounters at different bars and clubs with for instance Wolfgang Pusching. He finally meets Gerhard Reiter, the Austrian percussionist with whom he founds his first band, “Zeryab”. In 1996, his multiple discoveries and experiences in Vienna give birth to his first album “Musafir” (The Traveler, in Arabic). This album is the result of an atypical encounter with Anton Burger, Achim Tang, Jatinder Thakur and Otto Leichner. He presents his project at Porgy & Bess, the renowned Viennese club. After a successful first night, he is offered a carte blanche and starts a series of monthly concerts at the club. There he meets Nguyen Lê, the French guitarist of Vietnamese origins but also Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu who invites him to several performances throughout Europe. 

Dhafer gains in maturity over the concerts and confirms his steady development with the release in 1998 of “Malak” under the Label Enja Records. In this album, the European jazz melodic structures meet a Mediterranean groove of a particular form. This marks the beginning of an authentic musical identity impregnated with the artist’s origins without falling into typical Orientalism. Joind by Nguyen Lê on the guitar, Markus Stockhausen on the trumpet, Achim Tang on the bass and Patrice Heral on the drums, Dhafer is propelled towards an international career. Acclaimed by the critics, he goes on a successful European tour before going back to the studio with a new project. 

In 2001, he records “Electric Sufi,” his second album with Enja Records where he collaborates with Wolfgang Muthspiel (guitar), Markus Stockhausen (trumpet), Deepak Ram (bansuri), Dieter Ilg (bass), Mino Cinelu (percussions), Rodericke Packe (electronics) as well as Will Calhoun (drums) and Doug Wimbish (bass). In this first experiment with electronic music, the sound mixture is exalting. A result of his interest in vocal undulations and resonance, the jazzy music of “Electric Sufi” is an opportunity for the artist to experiment with his voice and use it further as an instrument. Dhafer’s distinctive signature is confirmed during an inspiring tour. 

Back to the studio in 2003, Dhafer Youssef records “Digital Prophecy”. In this album, the search for new sounds intensifies and the result is exhilarating. The symbiosis between the Oud and electric sounds is increasingly organic, and alchemy operates between great artists from the electro-jazz Scandinavian scene: Nils Petter Molvaer (trumpet), Bugge Wesseltoft (piano), Eivind Aarset (guitar), Auden Erlien (electric bass) and Rune Arnesen (drums). As Dhafer’s music acquires more height, he is nominated twice in 2003 for the BBC Awards for World Music. 

After these unlikely encounters between Oud and electronic music, Dhafer Youssef sets a new challenge for himself: introducing more string instruments in his creative universe. This surreal equation is resolved with the release of “Divine Shadows” in 2005. The sound is resolutely thrilling without losing its ethereal quality. Spiritualism is asserted, manifesting itself unapologetically and far from stereotypes. The album is marked with the sounds of Arve Henriksen and Marilyn Mazur, together with Dhafer’s now longtime companions Eivind Aarset, Audun Erlien, and Rune Arnesen. After the 2003 nominations for the BBC Awards for World Music, “Divine Shadows” secures Dhafer a third nomination in 2006. 

After Djalal Eddine Rûmi, Al-Hallaj and other Sufi philosophers and poets that have inspired Dhafer, the artist turns to the texts of Abu Nawas, a Persian VIIIth century poet renowned for his odes to wine in a conservative society. Released in 2010, “Abu Nawas Rhapsody” is the artists’ 6th album. It is also a musical manifesto which removes the barriers between the notions of sacred and profane. Accompanied with pianist Tigran Hamasyan, drummer Mark Giuliana and double bass player Chris Jennings, Dhafer Youssef goes back in this album to a more jazz and groove style. Dhafer’s powerful voice is introduced subtly before starting a vigorous fusion with the instruments. Without forgetting the artistic identity that he has forged through his experience and a continuous search for sounds, Dhafer Youssef transcends genres.