How much does the Gulf’s traditional folk music have in common with one of America’s greatest art-forms – jazz?
Far more than any musicologist might realise, argues Tarek Yamani, the trailblazing UAE-based pianist, who exposes and explores the shared rhythmic strands linking these two distinct disciplines in an ambitious new, multi-faceted project.
Commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Festival, Yamani’s conceptual new album Peninsular will have its live premiere on Sunday at a concert titled Portraits in Khaleeji Rhythms and Jazz, bringing together a jazz trio with a five-piece Emirati percussion troupe. The result of more than a year’s formal research, the concert and album are accompanied by a book, co-authored by drummer/collaborator Rony Afif, titled The Percussion Ensemble of the Arabian Peninsular, which offers academic study, transcription and history of 36 regional rhythms.
These generations-old percussive patterns form the basis of the Lebanese pianist’s latest sonic expositions. Each of the album’s nine tracks is built around a different rhythm – Qatari arda (Indisar), khaliji rumba (Hala Land) and the UAE sittati or bannati (Qumairah).
Two tracks are based on Yemeni rhythms – the country which gave Yamani his name – and the Lebanese musician professes a deep connection with the region’s desert-worn Bedouin beats. The link with jazz, says Yamani, is Africa – the same swinging, triplet feel which fuelled early jazz and Cuban music was also exported to the Gulf over centuries of trade.
“I always heard something very African in these [Gulf] rhythms,” says Yamani. “But at first I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.”
Coining the term “Afro Tarab” for his music, Peninsular might be seen as an extension of the journeys began on the 36-year-old’s last album, Lisan Al Tarab. But the two projects are different in approach and implementation. Subtitled Jazz Conceptions in Classical Arabic, the earlier release, from 2014, saw Yamani re-arranging familiar Levantine melodies from around the turn of the 20th century into an acoustic piano trio style.
It was a thrilling cross of Arabic harmony and improvisatory approach, which cemented Yamani’s place as arguably the most exciting jazz musician working in the GCC today.
By contrast, Peninsular is made up of original material tightly wound around the source material of traditional khaliji rhythms. Composing each tune, Yamani would sit at the piano, playing to a looped recording of a given percussive pattern until inspiration came. He would then work on these melodic fragments in silence.
Recording the project, the beats again formed the backbone, with Emirati multi-percussionist Wahid Mubarak laying down as many as 10 interwoven percussion parts to create a basic rhythm track for the band to record – a technique common in rock and pop – but in conflict with the collective improvisatory nature of jazz.
Playing a mix of acoustic and electric piano – the latter enabling the use of quarter-tones not found in western music – Yamani was again joined by a trio, this time playing alongside bassist Elie Afif and drummer Khaled Yassine, two countrymen he first performed alongside 15 years ago in Beirut.
Born in 1980 in a country in the throes of civil war, Yamani’s family home sat on the divide between East and West Beirut. He recalls a childhood backdrop of bombs and bullet holes – his first piano teacher refused to return to Yamani’s precariously placed home after a few visits.
Playing guitar in heavy-metal bands in his teens, Yamani went on to form the influential Arab hip-hop group Aksser, and later learnt harmonisation while touring with celebrated oud player Ziyad Sahhab.
In 2005 Yamani went on to pursue a degree in jazz piano at The Netherlands’ Prins Claus Conservatorium, a formative opportunity to immerse the 20-something prodigy in the genre.
“Finally, I could just focus on music – no assassinations, no bombs, no protests,” says Yamani. “In these four years I grew exponentially.”
Shortly after graduating, Yamani won the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz’s Composers Competition in 2010, and a year later, moved to the most competitive jazz marketplace in the world: New York City.
In 2012 he was invited to perform at the United Nations’ headquarters in Manhattan, appearing on stage alongside reigning jazz legend Wayne Shorter.
On the same day, his first album Ashur – a straight jazz trio workout recorded in Germany, intriguingly accompanied by drums and tuba – was released. Yamani’s singular voice was established with a follow-up, Lisan Al Tarab, two years later.
In 2015 the pianist relocated to Dubai, where he has gigged prodigiously as part of local bar-band stalwarts, Afif Jazz and Abri & Funk Radius. However, it is Yamani’s tireless exploration of Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms where his voice sounds brightest, authoring a distinctly holistic fusion of two musical tongues which he is equally well versed in.
“A lot of people say they mix jazz with Arabic music, but there’s a level of fluency you have to reach to know the vocabulary – if you can say 16 words of Chinese it does not make you fluent,” adds Yamani. “Playing like this is really second nature to me.”
• Free tickets for Tarek Yamani’s performance at New York University Abu Dhabi on Sunday, at 8pm, are currently fully booked. Sign up for updates at www.nyuad-artscenter.org. Peninsular will be released on March 27