Somnambule - Writing About Music

Dhafer Youssef ~ Digital Prophecy

"The last breath I will take will still be in Arabic."

Digital Prophecy traces a journey from Tunisia’s heat to Norway’s cool. Across this distance an affinity is discernible in the shared outspokenness of expression of the two countries’ musical cultures. This recording may also be viewed as the latest in an ongoing dialogue between Norway and the rest of the world – Nils Molvaer’s sound has long seemed like a soft muezzin call, Aarset’s guitar like a keening djinn, Henriksen’s trumpet shakuhachi-like and so on. Another lineage may be traced from here back to Marilyn Mazur’s groups and thence to Jan Garbarek’s outernational explorations.

Digital Prophecy consists of a number of settings for Youssef’s vocals and oud (direct ancestor of the European lute) which range between intimate duets and full-blown group grooves. The blend of contemporary beats with the ageless sound of the oud, vocals and bansuri flute is entirely convincing and unforced.

Diaphanes (from the Greek: showing through) allows Youssef’s reverb-drenched oud to swim in the warm swells and eddies of Aarset’s guitars and electronics. A whole book might be written about reverb, often an unwelcome treatment signifying the hushed reverence of the museum, the sound of imposed sanctity. Here the effect evokes the acoustics of Cordoba’s Mezquita or the Alhambra at Granada and is applied only to the oud while the other instruments occupy a different sonic space, the result being a useful delineation of the instrument.

On Aya (1984) Jan Bang’s beat programming, Dieter Ilg’s bass and Rune Arnesen’s drums provide a busy, engaging rhythm bed above which Youssef’s vocals which rise, untranslated, to a spine-tingling yell to the heavens. Ronu Majumdar’s bansuri flutters around the stream of sound like a dove.

When Nils Molvaer appears on the seventh track, Seventh Heaven Suite, his arrival seems entirely natural, inevitable even. Bugge’s keyboard work on this track is as sparing and elegant as ever.

Holy Lie (Empire D’Ivresse Suite) is a wonderfully up(break)beat affair which seems to bubble with joy and appears to be almost literally levitated off the ground by Youssef’s wordless song.

Alongside fellow oud players Anouar Brahem (also Tunisia) and Rabih Abou-Khalil (Lebanon), Youssef is exploring fertile ground between western and Arabic improvisation. Digital Prophecy makes a potent political point about the openness of the middle-east to dialogue in contrast to the image portrayed by much of the media today. It is not an abrasive sound – the digital of the title is not that of Autechre or Farmers Manual - but its supple grooves and subtle soundscapes make a calm but impassioned plea for understanding and dialogue and invite you in like cool, tiled architecture on a sweltering day.
Colin Buttimer
July 2003
Published by the BBC