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Yazz Ahmed

Yazz Ahmed -  ‘Alhaan al Siduri’ , CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 03/10/2015.

Photography: Photograph sourced from the Birmingham Town Hall / Symphony Hall website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

October 06, 2015


An ambitious piece of work, flawlessly played and sung by an excellent ensemble featuring some of Britain's finest jazz musicians.

Yazz Ahmed - Alhaan Al Siduri, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 03/10/2015.

The trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed is one of three Jazzlines Fellows appointed in September 2014 by the Birmingham based Jazzlines association with the support of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation. The Jazzlines Fellowship scheme is open to young professional musicians aged 21-35 with the recipients nominated by their peers and by music industry professionals. The three musicians to be awarded Fellowships in 2014 were Ahmed, vocalist Lauren Kinsella and bassist Chris Mapp. Each has received a year of professional support which has allowed them to develop their careers and to produce new music, with tonight’s performance by Ahmed the first of this year’s Jazzlines Fellowship Showcases. 

The 2013 recipients of the award were the Birmingham based musicians Percy Pursglove (trumpet), Lluis Mather (saxophone), Dan Nicholls (keyboards) and Jonathan Silk (drums). Last year I was lucky enough to witness and review on Pursglove’s ambitious Fellowship showcase, “Far Reaching Dreams For Mortal Souls” a nine part suite featuring jazz and classical instrumentation plus an eight strong vocal ensemble. 

Pursglove’s work was rapturously received by a supportive home town crowd and although the attendance was more modest for the premi?re of Ahmed’s showcase work her music matched Pursglove’s in terms of ambition and excellence and earned a very generous reception.

Ahmed was born in the UK to a Bahrainian father and an English mother and her suite, also of nine parts, “Alhaan Al Siduri” was inspired by her Bahrainian roots. Prior to the discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932 the main economic activity of the island was pearl diving, an industry that has now almost died out , partly due to the oil boom and partly due to the invention of cheaper, cultured pearls.

In October 2014, shortly after the awarding of her Jazzlines Fellowships Ahmed visited Bahrain and attended a concert given by the Pearl Divers of Muhaaraq. When the pearl diving industry was at its zenith each of the pearl fishing boats carried a professional singer or “nahham” who took no part in the work of pearl fishing or sailing but instead encouraged the workforce in their various tasks by singing appropriate songs. Not all of these related specifically to the work in hand, they often spoke of loneliness and melancholy and of the yearning for loved ones left on the shore - not a million miles away from the western sea shanty then.

Despite the decline of the pearl fishing industry the songs of the nahhams have become an important part of the Bahrainian national and cultural identity. During her visit Ahmed researched the music associated with the pearl fishing industry, particularly from the female perspective. She spent time listening to songs and collecting field recordings, some of which have been woven into the fabric of the suite. Besides the traditional, secular work songs of the pearl fishers Ahmed also studied the Bahraini wedding songs performed by groups of female drummers and it is these two aspects of Bahrainian music that have helped to inspire “Alhaan al Siduri”, literally “Melodies For Siduri”

Siduri is a character mentioned in the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, a goddess of the Gulf who lives on an island at the edge of the sea and whose land is “a garden in which the sun walks in the morning”. Ahmed has imagined this island as Bahrain and the English lyrics to be heard in Ahmed’s work are fragments of traditional Bahraini songs translated into English and mixed with Ahmed’s own “daydreams and musings on my homeland, written in the melancholy style”.

The music of Alhaan al Siduri” was performed by an extended version of Ahmed’s regular working working group Ahmed Family Hafla, “Hafla” being an Arabic word meaning “informal family gathering”. I witnessed a performance by the Hafla group at The Vortex in London as part of the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival, a highly enjoyable set that combined aspects of Middle Eastern music with more conventional jazz elements. The band included Naadia Sheriff (piano, keyboards), Ralph Wyld (vibraphone), Dudley Phillips (electric bass), Martin France (drums) and Corrina Silvester (percussion), all of whom were present in tonight’s ten piece line-up. Playing bass clarinet at the Vortex was George Crowley who was replaced this evening by Shabaka Hutchings to complete the core Hafla line-up. Tonight’s extended ensemble also featured the voices of Brigitte Beraha and Alya Marquardt plus Ahmed’s principal collaborator in this project, Jason Singh on voice and electronics, a musician described by Ahmed in her programme notes as a ‘voice sculptor’.

It was Singh who helped Ahmed to incorporate the field recordings she had made in Bahrain into the fabric of the “Siduri” suite via the medium of looping, sampling and soundscaping - his vocal sounds and electronic wizardry were an integral part of tonight’s performance. Meanwhile Ahmed herself sometimes manipulated the sound of her trumpet or flugelhorn via the medium of a Kaoss Pad, a device she had also utilised at the Vortex performance.

And so to the music itself which was a continuous ninety minute performance with no breaks between movements. This sometimes made it difficult to distinguish exactly where one section ended and another began but given the overall conceptual feel of the piece this would have been immaterial to most listeners. The focus was very much on texture and colour and the overall ensemble sound with the performers knitting together superbly on this tightly composed material which absorbed the attention of the audience throughout. Orthodox jazz soloing was rare although there were moments of individual excellence sprinkled throughout the performance.

“Invocation” began with the sounds of Ahmed’s unaccompanied flugelhorn soon joined by the voice and electronics of Singh and with Ahmed treating the sound of her own instrument via the use of her Kaoss Pad. The ambient atmospherics were subsequently supplemented by Marquardt’s incantations in Arabic, these seemingly based on a traditional Middle Eastern folk melody.

When Marquardt’s voice fell away the addition of bass, drums and keyboards seemed to usher us into the next section, “To The Lonely Sea” with the sound of field recordings punctuating the music as gradually the whole band became involved with Marquardt and Beraha singing wordless vocal lines.  Ahmed switched to trumpet as Singh’s ‘beat box’ style vocals intertwined with Sheriff’s keyboard motifs and Hutchings’ sinuous bass clarinet. More conventional soloing came from Wyld with a four mallet excursion on the vibes and Phillips with a brief outing on his six string electric bass.

A brief passage of solo electronics led us into “Though My Eyes Go To Sleep” which saw the rest of the band clapping out a rhythm above Phillips’ grounding bass riff. The lyrics of the piece were sung by Beraha in English with subsequent solos coming from Wyld (briefly) on vibes, Hutchings on bass clarinet and Ahmed on echo drenched trumpet.

The fourth movement, “Yamley” began with Singh teaming field recordings of massed male voices with Sheriff’s keyboard motifs as Beraha and Marquardt traded vocal variations of the word “Yamley”, something that sounded far more interesting than this rather bald description might suggest. Ahmed on flugel and Sheriff at the keyboard then traded solos, their dialogue underpinned by the unobtrusive Silvester on frame drum.

“Her Light” featured the sinuous melodicism of Ahmed on trumpet and Hutchings on bass clarinet and the Norma Winstone style vocalising of Beraha on a brief stanza of English lyrics. There was a drum and percussion feature as France and Silvester conversed amicably above Phillips’ electric bass groove, this followed by Ahmed’s echoed trumpet and Wyld at the vibes, the mallet man’s unaccompanied passage providing the bridge into the next section “Dancing Barefoot”. This wedding song saw Sheriff moving to acoustic piano and Ahmed to flugel as Beraha delivered the English lyrics, subsequently linking up with Marquardt. The instrumental honours here went to Hutchings with a lengthy passage of solo bass clarinet, this presaging subsequent dialogues between Ahmed on trumpet and Beraha on vocals then Sheriff on piano and Silvester on percussion.

Bass clarinet and Singh’s electronics introduced the pearl fishing song “The Mermaids Tears” , the English lyrics again delivered by Beraha prior to instrumental interludes from Sheriff on acoustic piano and Phillips on fuzzed up electric bass.

A passage of solo electronics heralded the instrumental “A Paradise In The Hold” with its vigorous rhythms and spirited trumpet, bass clarinet and vibes solos. A closing section of group handclaps underpinned by Silvester’s percussion led into a final passage of field recordings and subsequently into the final movement “Siduri -Waiting For The Dawn”. This was a yearning but ultimately triumphant invocation of the goddess with Siduri summoned by the chanting of voices intoning both English and Arabic lyrics and by the sounds of Ahmed’s electronically enhanced flugelhorn.

The audience had listened in rapt silence throughout the suite, not applauding individual solos nor clapping in the more obvious breaks between movements, but finally they erupted in approbation with several members of the audience getting to their feet, and rightly so. This had been an ambitious piece of work, flawlessly played and sung by an excellent ensemble featuring some of Britain’s finest jazz musicians. It was the successful fulfilment of a project that had been almost a full year in the planning and overall the performance represented a triumph for Ahmed and her colleagues.

Ahmed’s vary enjoyable début album “Finding My Way Home”, recorded in 2008/9 but released in 2011 contained some of the seeds for the “Siduri” project. She is currently working on her long overdue second release but I’m not sure if it will contain any of the music heard this evening. It would be nice if the “Siduri” suite could be documented on disc at some point. This was music that would be well worth hearing again. In the meantime Ahmed’s new album will be very eagerly anticipated.   

The other Jazzlines Fellowship showcases are;

Lauren Kinsella - Somewhere In Between at The Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015.

Chris Mapp’s Gonimoblast w. Maja Ratkje @ The Crossing, South and City College, Digbeth, Birmingham.
Thursday, November 26, 2015.

Chris Mapp’s Gonimoblast w. Arve Henriksen @ The Crossing, South & City College, Digbeth, Birmingham
Friday, November 27, 2015.

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