Yasmine Ahmed was just seven years old when she played her first note. The curious young woman was at a friend’s house, and was intrigued by the piano. Though she had never had a lesson in her life, and knew nothing about the instrument, she sat down and played, entranced by the sounds of each note as it emitted itself from the piano.
Two and a half decades later, she is known as Yazz Ahmed the rising star, according to Jazzwise and Time Out. She has played alongside major bands like Radiohead, These New Puritans and the Manic Street Preachers to name a few. Her music has been heard across seas in Europe, America, Mexico, Russia and Japan, and last month she came to Kuwait with her Quintet for a performance at the Museum of Modern Art.
“I had never played to such an appreciative audience before!” she told bazaar. “After our performance at the Museum of Modern Art nearly every single audience member came up to us to say hello. My favorite feedback was from a friendly young lady who had very much enjoyed seeing a woman in charge, bossing the boys around!”
For this strong young Bahraini-British woman that moment encapsulates the ultimate reward for her work, and the love she puts into every note. Inspired by her grandfather, Terry Brown, a jazz musician from the 1950s who had played alongside the John Dankworth Seven, Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, she has been dedicated to creating music that expresses her complex individuality. Though she plays many different types of music including rock, pop and reggae, it is the jazz that always brings her back to herself.
“I’ve always loved the freedom in jazz and the openness for self-expression. Jazz can be a very individualistic type of music, allowing opportunities for the musicians to tell a story through improvising.”
Her debut album, Finding My Way Home was released in August 2011. The compilation of original sounds and rhythms drew from her Bahraini heritage, is influenced by the likes of Miles Davis and showcases what London Jazz News calls “highly individual instrumental and compositional talent.”
She is now working on her second album, a further exploration of the sounds she developed for the first. It will feature her two bands, some duets with Lewis Wright, and a collaboration with Swedish guitarist, Samuel Hallkvist. We caught her during her hectic schedule between composing and performing to talk to the woman behind the music that has moved people around the world.
What is your favorite part of your job?
There are so many things that I love about my job as a musician and composer, so it’s quite difficult to pinpoint what it is that I enjoy the most. I love to use music as a vehicle for expression, a deeper way of communicating with an audience, and an escape from the mundane.
Music brings people together, overriding differences and prejudices that some people may have. It’s a way of bringing peace and that’s what I really enjoy. When audience members tell me that I’ve moved them in some way, or even inspired them, I feel like I’ve done my job.
What are you working on currently?
At the moment I’m writing a suite inspired by the melodies, lyrics and rhythms of the work songs of the Bahraini pearl divers and the wedding music of the female drumming groups of Bahrain.
These influences will be complimented by jazz harmony and improvisation, interwoven with elements of contemporary electronic sound design. I’m also working on my second album, which further explores my Arabic heritage. I’m really excited about both projects and can’t wait to share the finished works.
What do you find most different about life inside and outside the Arab world?
Well, there are more opportunities in the UK for musicians, which is where I started playing the trumpet. However, music is becoming much more accepted and widespread in the Gulf and I hope to be a part of that journey by educating young people and adults about the importance of music, as well as inviting those who would never normally see a live concert to experience the thrill and enjoyment of music!
A big difference is the weather! It can get a bit dull and extremely cold in England! So I really miss the heat and the sun. I also miss the delicious food I loved eating in Bahrain! I think that most people in the Middle East are very easy going and relaxed compared to the hectic life style in many western countries!
What do you find most different about work inside and outside the Arab world?
I find that Arabs tend to be a lot more relaxed, which is great, but is also something people living outside the Arab world can find frustrating! I think that some people living outside of the Middle East could benefit from taking a more laid back approach, whereas those in the Arab world could learn a bit about the way we work outside.
Where are you originally from?
My father is Bahraini and my mother is English. I grew up in Bahrain and moved to England when I turned nine.
Where is most of your family?
My family is scattered around the world, however, the majority both live in the UK and in Bahrain.
What were the circumstances under which you/your family left your home country?
When I was nine years old, my mother and father broke up, so I moved to England with my mother and four sisters.
Even though I had been to England many times already, it still took me a while to adjust to the weather and social attitudes of some people. One thing I hadn’t experienced before was racism. Having a mixed heritage and going to an international school in Bahrain, I lived in a little bubble unaware of such prejudices. I had friends from all over the world and thought that was great!
I remember one of my sisters having a hard time at school in England. I hadn’t heard racist language before, so it was a shock to me. Not everyone was like this though! Most of the students were very kind and accepting.
What is your favorite thing about where you live?
Where I live is very peaceful – I live in a little cottage in a very small village, away from all the noise. It’s tranquil and gives me space to think and be creative.
What is the worst thing about where you live?
I don’t drive, so that makes life a bit tricky when you’re in the middle of nowhere!
Where will you eventually retire?
I’m not sure actually. My partner jokes that he’ll retire to Bahrain with me and look after the family garden for us: tend to the fruits and vegetables; look after the goats; and take long naps in the hammock!
Finish this sentence: In a year from now I will be…
…on tour with my band promoting my second album. Hopefully with some shows in the Gulf States.
Finish this sentence: When I die, I…
…hope that I will have picked enough daisies, eaten enough ice cream and taken enough risks. People seldom regret the things they have done in life, but often regret the things they haven’t done.
Check out Yazz Ahmed’s website www.yazzahmed.com for more information on her music and career. Follow her on Facebook: YazzAhmedMusic, Twitter @YazzAhmed1, SoundCloud @YazzAhmed and on YouTube @AhmedDinnerJazz.