Whether you want to call Birds Requiem, the new album from Tunisian oud virtuoso Dhafer Youssef, jazz layered with world music or world music spiced with jazz, is really only a question of emphasis. The one thing that’s truly essential to call it is beautiful. Youssef has put together an exotic musical journey that resonates with mystical elegance.
Certainly much of the album’s exoticism comes from the musician’s instrument and its cultural traditions. The oud, a staple of Middle Eastern music, is a cousin of the lute. It features a fretless short neck which gives it a sound all its own. Usually it is strung with five sets of paired strings and a bass string. It is an instrument that evokes the souk, flying carpets, and Aladdin’s lamp.
But it is less hokey magic and more an otherworldly spirituality that pervades the music of Birds Requiem. The title imagery alone suggests the natural religiosity the composer seems to be seeking. Early on Youssef says he planned to call the album “Incantations,” a title with even more obvious mystical denotations. Listening to the recorded music, the new title “imposed” itself. Incantation smacks too much of magic. Requiem, with all its ritual formality, as well as its classical music associations, is the much more appropriate title for the work Youssef has produced.
The album consists of 10 tracks composed by Youssef, and one song, “Khira ‘Indicium Divinum’ Elegy for My Mother,” which he tells us was completely improvised between pianist Kristjan Randalu and trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvaer. The complete ensemble, which recorded primarily in Sweden, includes clarinetist Husnu Seniendirici, double bassist Phil Donkin, drummer Chander Sardjoe, and electric guitarist and electronics player Eivind Aarset. Aytac Dogan plays the zither-like kanun. Youssef adds some vocals.
Four tracks specifically titled “Birds Requiem” are spaced strategically throughout the set. “Birds Canticum ‘Birds Requiem’ Suite” opens the album. “Fuga Hirundinum ‘Birds Requiem’ Suite” is its fifth track, followed by “Archaic Feathers ‘Birds Requiem’ Suite” the eighth track. The album ends with “Whirling Birds Ceremony ‘Birds Requiem’ Suite.” These four pieces provide the central focus of the album. The idea of the parts of the suite scattered through the whole suggests a thematic relationship throughout, a symbolic intermingling of voices symbolizing the dialogue between the spiritual and earthborn.
Youssef also says that the music was composed as though it was intended for an imagined movie, the score for a movie in his mind, once again stressing some important unifying principle underlying the whole. Suffice it to say, from beginning to end, this is a powerful piece of music. Whether in parts or as a whole, it is a unique composition that needs to be heard to be appreciated.