Next Wave #835: Yazz Ahmed

In Association With Vero True Social

For anyone who’s ever tried to write, make music or create anything, you’ll be familiar with your inner critic. It’s the voice that tells you to work when you’re procrastinating and then tells you you’re better off procrastinating when you do get to work. It’s the sickening feeling of dread that follows a realisation that what you thought was worthwhile is a waste of yours and everyone else’s time. Or, that your experiences of self-doubt are in fact only yours, that no one is that self-critical, that the inner critic doesn’t exist at all.

Someone who knows their inner critic all too well is jazz trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed. Instead of letting it hinder her work, though, she’s made it the thematic centre of her latest record, ‘La Saboteuse’. “The album is named after my inner destroyer, my anti-muse,” she explains, “it’s a negative voice that everyone has, that we all struggle with, and playing music for me is part of the battle in confronting these voices.” Yet, it is through accomplishing the very act this voice denies that Ahmed sees it conquered. “Giving her a name has made me able to shut that voice up,” she says, “the inner critic can hold me back but I’ve learnt how to put that to one side and just let the creativity flow.”

The creativity certainly flows on ‘La Saboteuse’, Ahmed’s second LP following 2011’s ‘Finding My Way Home’. Born and raised in Bahrain before moving to London at the age of nine, Ahmed fuses Arabic music with British jazz, finding points of similarity amongst the rhythmic charge of Middle Eastern percussion on tracks like ‘Jamil Jamal’ or through the emotive bass clarinet and Arabic scales present on the Shabaka Hutchings-featuring title track.

Inspired to learn the trumpet by her grandfather, Terry Brown, who was a trumpeter playing with ‘50s British Jazz legends like John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, Ahmed soon felt the need to incorporate her Bahraini roots into her work. “When I was getting interested in Arabic music, it was a question of how do I blend my cultural backgrounds together?” she explains. “I did a load of studying and I found similarities with Arabic music, like improvisation. It’s a very emotional music like jazz and there’s lots of room for expression.”

Ahmed’s expression isn’t just limited to Arabic music and the jazz tradition though. Having collaborated with Radiohead, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and These New Puritans in the years after the release of her first record, her ears were opened to a number of new sounds. “With Radiohead and These New Puritans, I was very influenced by their use of electronics and particularly the Kaoss Pad which I like to use live,” Ahmed says, “I also realised that you can use the recording studio as a composing tool in itself, you can edit things, affect the sounds and create lots of new ideas.”

This results in the eerie electronic gurgles of ‘The Space Between The Fish And The Moon’ and Ahmed’s propulsive cover of Radiohead’s ‘Bloom’ on the album. With a remix EP of the record also set for release in July, featuring edits from Hector Plimmer and DJ Khalab, Ahmed is keen to keep pushing the boundaries of what constitutes jazz music and the audiences that it should be accessible to.

One audience – its equal largest – that is still vastly under-represented in jazz is women. Ahmed explains how, “when I was younger there was nobody to look up to, I wasn’t aware of any female jazz musicians, except for singers, and it made me think that this might not be a viable career path for women. I had to actively search on MySpace and I found a trumpet player called Kiku Collins who played with Beyonce and Ingrid Jensen who were both massive influences.” Being a female bandleader at the height of her powers, Ahmed is effecting her own change, citing others like Nubya Garcia and Camilla George as also making sure that “people are being more encouraging and supportive. Their pre-conceived ideas of how women are meant to behave on stage and what instruments they’re meant to play have changed.”

Further silencing that inner critic, Ahmed’s next full-length project is a concept piece inspired by courageous female role models and played by female musicians. “I want to represent these amazing female musicians to the world and show that we can play!” she says, creating pieces inspired by Malala, Rosa Parks and the suffragettes, amongst others. For Ahmed, “jazz has always been a music of the people,” and her work continues to reach out to the public in its self-expression.

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Words: Ammar Kalia

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