home listen reviews
Dhafer Youssef

DIVINE SHADOWS • Dhafer Youssef

You may have heard the story of the young Delta blues legend who made his first guitar from screen door wire and a cigar box. Had that man grown up in Tunisia he no doubt would have made an oud instead--much like Dhafer Youssef. Though possessed of a magnificent voice schooled in singing the verses from the Koran, as a boy he preferred to pick out on his homemade instrument the multi-cultural music broadcast on the radio. Later, moving to Europe, he worked with musicians of all styles and nationalities. Divine Shadows is the result of his particularly simpatico collaboration with musicians from, of all places, Norway.

The ghostly pale producer/guitarist Eivind Aarset and his Scandinavian cohorts' brand of cool, electronic nu-jazz might seem worlds away from the desert heat of the swarthy North African's Mediterranean roots, but the combination works magnificently. Both camps traffic heavily in atmosphere and mystery. Divine Shadows is introduced with Youssef's vocalizations recalling a muezzin's call to prayer, over the Oslo String Quartet's long tone pads, and Marilyn Mazur's cavernously echoed percussion. The vocalizations continue on track two, where they explore the singer's spine-chilling falsetto, beginning with a backing of electronic blips and bleeps, later joined by the strings. For the third track Youseff's voice is replaced by his oud, at first solo--swamped in ECM style reverb--introducing one of the CDs many memorable melodic themes, then joined by Mazur's hand drums, and again the strings.

Throughout Divine Shadows, electronic and acoustic textures mix and meld, as do genres. Mid-Eastern modalities, jazz improvisation, classical strings, electronic programming, ambient guitars--all are up for grabs as Youssef continues his musical journey. The absolutely gorgeous sounding Divine Shadows is far from merely New Age ambience, or Starbucks World Music wallpaper. It is music made with passion, daring, ambition, and energy.

CODA: I would be remiss if I didn't mention that in the post-9/11 era, Dhafer Youssef is denied the innocence of merely plying his art. His music comes from a divided culture, one part of which has become a symbol of terror and destruction. The singer's cries no longer evoke solely the emotional, but benign, exoticism that they might have pre-2001. Yet in a way this makes his work all the more powerful. It offers a microcosm of a possible world where people from all over the planet come together, not in fear and anger, but to create something complex, beautiful, and full of joy. • Michael Ross

listen to clips        return to covers

dhaferyoussef.com       jazzlandrecords.com

puremusic home