The rhythm of the ancient mariners: how Yazz Ahmed was beguiled by Muharraq's pearl divers
In our series of inspiring life stories across continents, we meet the award-winning British-Bahraini jazz musician ... moving now, as always, to the beat of a different drum
It was the sound of centuries of history, evoking the warm waters of the Gulf when boat crews dived for the treasure of the seas on oyster-rich beds long before oil dominated local economies.
The Bahraini pearl divers, dressed in white thobes, were clapping double-sided hand drums and clay pots, chanting cycles of plaintive choruses to a melody set by their nahham, or lead singer, at a private concert in their clubhouse.
In the audience, Yazz Ahmed listened mesmerised to the traditional song that expressed a yearning for the divers’ families back on land and asked for the guardianship of God against the many dangers of their maritime trade.
The small gig in the ancient northern city of Muharraq in 2014 turned out to be a defining moment in the career of Ahmed, the trumpeter, flugelhornist and composer who this month won the Jazz FM UK Jazz Act of the Year, and Album of the Year.
As the performers re-enacted the ancient rituals of pearling that shaped the cultural identity of the island society, something resonated deeply with Ahmed, who was born in London to a Bahraini engineer father and a British ballerina mother.
It was not long before she began to imagine how to mix the fijiri vocals and percussion with an electronic, jazzy edge. "The songs are quite hypnotic,” she says, “and so I made some music out of these field recordings by manipulating them and chopping them up. Some of my music has come from those recordings of traditional music on the island."
'The Epic of Gilgamesh'
These historic influences from her father’s birthplace were central to Ahmed’s songwriting as she prepared for the 2016 concert at the Bahrain International Music Festival. It was her first gig in the island kingdom, having moved to London at the age of nine, and she created a suite for the occasion with the working title Alhaan al Siduri.
"It translates as 'Songs for Siduri' – she's a character in The Epic of Gilgamesh,” Ahmed says. “She's a goddess-like figure and welcomes Gilgamesh to the island, which historians like to think is Bahrain. That's how the connection began with the story and the pearl divers.
"We played that music, and it was quite nerve-racking because it was the first time my dad had ever seen or heard me play. I was quite nervous, but it went all right. He said: 'That was very professional,', which, in his words meant, ‘It was all right; it was good’," she recalls with a laugh.
As with the lament of the pearl divers, Ahmed, too, confesses to being homesick for the terra firma of Bahrain, where the paternal side of her family still lives. She has not been back in the past two years, and regrets that it is not possible to return, as she would ideally prefer, every 12 months.
Family of engineers
For much of her life, Ahmed grew up in a different country to that of her Bahraini relatives, who were initially a little nonplussed to learn that she made a living as a musician.
"My family there are all engineers, and they build ships and engines and all sorts of things,” she says. “So they were quite confused by that, but now my dad and his side of the family understand what I'm doing, and that it's not just a little hobby."
Far from a mere diversion, Ahmed’s talented compositions bring together the sounds of her mixed heritage in what has been described as “psychedelic Arab jazz”, and have garnered many awards and plaudits. Her career is studded with high-profile collaborations with the likes of Radiohead, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Transglobal Underground, Susheela Raman, Tarek Yamani, Amel Zen and a world tour with These New Puritans.
Even so, Ahmed sometimes has doubts about her songwriting. After time spent in the recording studio, she often needs to "let the music breathe" by not listening to it for a while. Instead, she seeks inspiration through other people’s music or poetry before returning to her own work with new ears.
"It spurs on either new ideas or it reassures me that maybe what I've created is good,” she says. “Sometimes as musicians, we go through stages of self-doubt, and that can be quite crippling in some ways."
Ahmed first picked up a trumpet when she was nine, inspired to play by her maternal grandfather, Terry Brown, a jazz trumpeter in the 1950s and a record producer. It was he who gave the young Yasmeen her first lesson, and she then continued to play at school. Later, in her teens, she began learning the flugelhorn.
Breaking into the scene
She went on to enrol for a master’s in jazz at what was then the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she describes herself as being a “poor student”, doing babysitting stints in return for free instrument lessons. The course opened her eyes to a broad sweep of musical styles. She became acquainted with the name of Canadian trumpeter and flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler, as well as studying in depth great jazz pioneers such as Miles Davis and Gil Evans.
"I learnt a lot from studying with musicians who are better than me, and it really helped me to improve my own craft,” Ahmed says. “I learnt so much in that year."
Which is not to say that breaking into the male-dominated jazz scene was easy. Jam sessions, renowned in musical culture for being informal events characterised by improvisation and solos, often became competitive. It was, she says, tough on her confidence while she found her way.
"Stereotypically, and this isn't everyone, but a lot of younger male musicians, they like the competition,” she says. “They like trying to outdo each other. I know it's not true for everyone, but, as a female musician, you really notice that.
"When I was starting out with jazz, I noticed people often naturally think that women are inferior when it comes to jazz. I remember getting a comment from this guy where I played at his club, saying: 'Oh, wow, you play like a man!'”
It is unsurprising then that Ahmed’s recent award-winning Polyhymnia album was conceived of as a message to the world about the growing empowerment of women, through a series of paeans to some of those who have inspired her. It features musical tributes to civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, Saudi film director Haifaa al Mansour, saxophonist Barbara Thompson, and the Suffragettes.
Highly acclaimed by critics and the public alike, it premiered at the 2015 Women of the World Festival in a performance by an all-female ensemble on the South Bank in London.
Missing the old times
Since then, though, the coronavirus pandemic has devastated the music industry. Ahmed says that she has still been quite busy, playing at a few socially distanced gigs, recording a set on Boiler Room, the online broadcasting platform, and earning songwriting commissions for the Adult Swim TV channel and the Festival of New Trumpet.
Her next Covid-secure show is at King’s Place in central London at the EFG London Jazz Festival on Thursday. Although no audience will be able to attend due to England's second nationwide lockdown, Ahmed hopes to broaden her base of listeners through a livestream of the performance with her quartet.
Still, she misses the pre-pandemic times, saying that it is not the same without the live events. Ahmed recalls a memorable gig she played at the Jazz a Vienne festival in France where the legendary Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf was in the audience.
"He was very kind and was very complimentary,” she says. “After, he sent me a message saying 'that was wonderful, thank you very much', and he invited me to play at his festival in Paris, which unfortunately had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. But that was really nice and good to be recognised."
A moving tribute
The potential is there for her to play at the Parisian festival when the pandemic is more under control but, in the meantime, Ahmed has been slowly working on her next album, the one that will be threaded with the traditional music of Bahrain's pearling trade for a modern, global audience. She is aiming for a winter release next year, although she concedes that it may take a bit longer because there is "quite a lot of work to do with some guest singers".
As with many other people around the world, a silver lining to the pandemic has been more time to appreciate nature. She lives within arm’s reach of London in a leafy village near Luton, where she admits that the local deer inhabitants took less getting used to than the silence and darkness – and the bats.
Flying mammals notwithstanding, the slower pace of life on the outskirts of the capital provides the ideal environment for crafting an album. "I don't like rushing because, in the process, I’m always changing, editing or re-recording things because my ideas evolve,” she says. “So we're playing around with this date [for the album], but it could be in 2022, you never know.”
It will take the music industry a while to recover from the pandemic, but the memory of certain moments from a less-confined past have energised Ahmed to continue doing what she loves in spite of everything. Kenny Wheeler, one of her favourite composers, saw her play before he passed away in September 2014.
"It was in a big band, the London Jazz Orchestra,” she says. “He was very complimentary of my work and said he had my first album. He was very supportive, and that spurred me on to keep going and never give up.”
Updated: November 18, 2020 11:57 PM