Dhafer Youssef has a ready way of defining his favourite musicians. Irrespective of their backgrounds, Youssef regards his heroes as Sufi masters. Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, the Scandinavian jazz musicians who accompany this Tunisian master of the oud on his latest album, Divine Shadows, all fall into this category.
"Like the Sufi tradition, which I studied in my early teens, there’s something mystical about the music these people create," he says. "It goes beyond notes and chords and the nuts and bolts of composition, and really reaches inside and touches the soul."
Youssef’s biggest hero of all is the musician he’ll be touring Scotland with next week, the extraordinary Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. Being able to make music with Sosa, for Youssef, is confirmation that he himself is a successful musician. Success, he says, can’t be judged by earnings alone. Which is why his parents would have preferred him to study medicine or law or architecture.
Born into a family of eight children in a small Tunisian town, Youssef felt an urge to play music very early on. He studied at the Koran school from the age of three and sang throughout his childhood. It was the sound of the oud, the North African lute, however, that really excited him.
"It just seemed like the sound of where I came from," he says. "I’d hear music on the radio and I didn’t really know what it was but when I heard the oud, I felt a real connection to it."
The connection was so strong that, like many a budding guitarist before him, he tried to make his own instrument from tin cans and bits of string.
"It was hopeless, really, but my father didn’t have the money to buy me a proper oud," he says. "We weren’t poor exactly but we certainly weren’t rich and with eight children around there were more important things to find money for than instruments and music lessons."
Hopeless or not, he persevered with his homemade oud, picking out melodies by ear. Meanwhile, through singing at the Koran school, Youssef began to get hired to sing at weddings. He saved the money he earned and eventually had enough to buy a real oud. Once he had this in his hands, he couldn’t let it go. He spent whole days engrossed in practice and when, at the age of nineteen, the opportunity to study music in Vienna came his way, there was no stopping him.
"Everyone at home said, no, you’re crazy. You have a voice, you should stay here and sing. But I wasn’t listening," he says. "I did any job I could find to raise the money I needed to live in Vienna. I washed windows, washed dishes. I even worked as an Italian waiter, despite not being Italian, and Vienna itself was like a whole world of new experiences. I’d never seen a piano before, for instance."
His musical horizons were expanded further when a Vienna jazz club, Porgy and Bess, suggested that he put together a series of monthly concerts, playing whatever he liked with whomever he liked. He’d already teamed up with a viola player and was playing every day with a tabla player, who turned him on to Indian music. The virtuoso French double bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons became another of his partners on these sessions which, he says, gave him ten years worth of experience in just nine months.
"I was still working at various jobs just to be able to keep living and studying in Vienna," he says. "But it was a fantastic time and I got to make my first album, Malak, through those sessions at Porgy and Bess."
More than that, with word of his intensely spiritual singing as well as his deeply personal oud playing beginning to spread, he began to get invitations to play in New York, Paris and Norway. He briefly considered settling in New York and also thought about moving back to Africa, but felt that Europe offered the best opportunities for him to play the music he really wanted to play.
The Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, whose mixture of ambient sounds and electro grooves has made him a big star across Europe, was a particularly strong supporter of Youssef’s. Indeed, through Molvaer’s connections, Youssef became the sole non-Norwegian speaker in his own band for a while, a situation he turned round by giving all the Scandinavians honorary Tunisian names on the cover of Divine Shadows.
On his tour with Omar Sosa and American percussionist Marque Gilmore, which is organised through the Scottish Arts Council’s Tune-up series, the common language will be, says Youssef, simply music.
"This is the sort of thing I was put on this earth to do," he says. "Because I really feel that I was born a musician. I know that my folks back home still worry about how I’m managing to live and I’d probably tell my own children, if they were trying to choose between music and a more secure job, to take the secure job. This life is not always the easy way but the experience of playing with great musicians makes up for all the tough times and really makes me feel fulfilled."
From The Herald, October 11, 2006