The 'high priestess of psychedelic Arabic jazz' talks the women behind her new album...

British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed fuses Arabic music with British jazz, finding her groove at the point where the rhythmic charge of traditional Middle Eastern percussion overlaps with contemporary sounds.

Inspired to learn the trumpet by her grandfather, Terry Brown - who played with 1950s British jazz legends like John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott - Yazz had to actively seek out female jazz artists when she was getting into music, finding inspiration online in people like trumpeters Kiku Collins (who played with Beyoncé) and Ingrid Jensen.

She continues to draw inspiration from women, basing her forthcoming album ‘Polyhymnia’ on forceful females from around the world, including Saudi Arabia's first female film director, civil rights activist Ruby Bridges and Malala Yousafazi - advocate for female education in Pakistan.

Yazz told Clash all about the inspirational women - and their stories - behind 'Polyhymnia'…

The first track on ‘Polyhymnia’ is called ‘Lahan Al-Mansour’, or ‘Melody for Al-Mansour’, and is dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s first female film director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, best known for her debut feature film, the award winning ‘Wadjda’.

I came across this enchanting film - shot entirely in Saudi Arabia under extraordinary circumstances - when I was trying to improve my Arabic. Its central theme, a young girl who dreams of riding a bicycle, had echoes of my childhood in Bahrain, where I would secretly ride my BMX in the desert. 

The track opens with a collective improvisation, a call to creativity and a salute to the muse - Haifaa Al-Mansour. I wanted to paint a vast, unchanging desert landscape, to contrast with the unstoppable drive of the main theme, which her insistent determination and courage. The melody is carried by the trumpet section, in call and response with the main ensemble - a composition that continues the exploration of Arabic scales and rhythms, in my own search for identity.

I love this quote from Haifaa, I think it explains the subtle way she seeks to encourage change: “Bicycles represent a lot, freedom of movement, for one. Being in charge of your destiny. When bicycles were introduced in the West, women’s clothing changed. The bicycle carries a lot of meaning, but it carries it gently.”

Just two years after the release of ‘Wajda’ there was a change of attitude in Saudi Arabia meaning it is now acceptable for women to ride bikes. However, sometimes change cannot be achieved by gentle persuasion, as is illustrated by the story of the civil rights activist, Ruby Bridges, to whom the second piece in my suite is dedicated. 

I think many people will be familiar with the iconic photographs of a six-year-old Ruby being escorted to school by Federal Marshals in 1960. Indeed this event was the inspiration behind the famous painting, ‘The Problem We All Live With’, by Norman Rockwell, which President Obama hung in the Whitehouse during his time in office. 

Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to desegregate an all-white public school in the New Orleans district. She had to be given protection due to the threats of violence made against her by the parents and, on the first day she attended school, every teacher but one walked out in protest.

My composition, ‘Ruby Bridges’, is inspired by interviews she gave as an adult, recalling that, as a child, her interpretation of all the noise, shouting and jostling was that it must have been some sort of Mardi Gras parade. I decided to write a piece reflecting the spirit of a New Orleans carnival, with a carefree, childlike melody in contrast with dissonant harmony, carrying an unsettling sense of menace. I’m trying to tell a story through the music about the power of innocence to overcome evil. 

The story of Malala Yousafzai made headlines around the world. In 2012 she survived an assassination attempt at the hands of a Taliban gunman for her public advocacy of the basic human right to education. Travelling to England for further medical treatment she continued her education at Oxford University in 2017, and along the way becoming the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

My piece ‘One Girl Among Many’ is inspired by and contains excerpts from her moving and humbling address, given to the United Nations Youth Assembly in 2013. Listening back to her eloquent words, I was struck by the distinctive musical qualities of her speaking voice. In this composition I extracted the hidden melodies from the phrases, choosing those that made the greatest impression on me.

This is a technique I first encountered in Steve Reich’s masterpiece, ‘Different Trains’. In my piece you will hear Malala’s words spoken in unison by the ensemble, sometimes as a premonition of the melody that follows, other times as an echo.

Using words in my compositions is still something quite new to me. Usually I like to let the listener take their own meaning from my music, but here the message is quite explicit: this is both a call to action and a hymn to the thirst for knowledge, in gratitude for the example Malala gives through her words and deeds.

It was the simple direct action she took which transformed Rosa Parks into a civil rights icon, recognised by the United States Congress as ‘the mother of the freedom movement’. The famous protest she made in 1955, by refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama, set in motion a chain of events that changed the course of American history. 

It’s impossible to attempt to convey the magnitude of the impact Rosa Parks made during her lifetime in a simple piece of music. I just wanted to create a tribute to her and bring her story to anyone out there who is unaware.

I actually created this composition by using the number of that famous bus, 2857, to give me melodic and metric material to work with. Music has a very close relationship with mathematics and I am interested in the minimalist school of composition. However, in this case the numbers were really more of a way to unlock some deeper emotional response in me, a bit like using I Ching hexagrams to help make decisions.

The result is a piece of two halves, the first section representing the quiet dignity of her protest and the second showing the unstoppable power and passion of the movement she sparked.

This theme continues in the title of the fifth piece of the suite, ‘Deeds Not Words’. That was the motto of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, those activists, better known as The Suffragettes, who eventually gained women the right to vote. 

In their pursuit of their aims they sometimes took extreme measures and made great personal sacrifices to achieve something it’s all too easy to take for granted. ‘Deeds Not Words’ is a composition in which I take elements from an old battle hymn, ‘Men of Harlech’, which the Suffragettes used in one of their anthems, ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’, writing new words set to a familiar tune.

It begins with a drum and percussion improvisation, conjuring the sound of distant thunder, the weight of years of oppression building to a cry for equality. The melody of the traditional hymn is heavily disguised at first and reimagined, using an Arabic scale and asymmetric rhythms to create something reflecting my own experiences. 

The voices of the ensemble gradually come together, the individual strands forming a powerful unison line, stronger than the sum of its parts.

As with all my compositions, I am keen to balance the written material with space for improvisation and creative freedom. The solo section here is a four-way conversation between trumpet, baritone, vibraphone and guitar, before the main theme returns and continues its march. 

Barbara Thompson is a British saxophonist, bandleader and composer who was for many years just one of a handful of instrumentalists, carving out a successful career as a jazz musician in an overwhelmingly male dominated music scene. During the 1970s and 1980s she performed all across Europe, sometimes in arena sized venues, with her pioneering fusion ensemble, Paraphernalia. Barbara’s musical legacy speaks for itself, but the inspiration for this last movement is my admiration for her twenty-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

I was very moved by the BBC documentary, ‘Playing Against Time’, about her struggle to continue to perform and her determination to keep creating music as her physical condition became ever more extreme. What was particularly touching was the love and support she received from her husband and life partner, the legendary drummer, Jon Hiseman.

As a composition, ‘Barbara’ reflects my growing interest in minimalism and is a joyful and optimistic conclusion to the suite. It actually concludes with a mighty chord of C major!

My last album, ‘La Saboteuse’was largely inward looking, dealing with my own creative struggles, but on ‘Polyhymnia’ I’m looking outward for my inspiration, celebrating and praising the achievements of remarkable women.

Of course there are thousands of amazing role models I could have chosen, this suite is just a snapshot of where I was at the time. If I were starting it today then I’m pretty sure there would be a piece dedicated to that incredible young woman, Greta Thunberg. Witnessing all she has achieved in just over a year, creating a global movement stemming from one simple action, is truly inspiring.

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‘Polyhymnia’ is released on 11th October on Ropeadope Records.

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