There’s a stir of silence as we sit around our cozy office, gathered to hear the heart-wrenching croon of Yousif Yaseen’s soulful voice. His eclectic range brings a symphony of sounds, sending the buzzing sensation of surprise to our ears with his unexpected tremolos bringing raspy rhythm and blues to classic Arabic tarab. It is indeed a unique experience, created by a unique voice, gifted to us by Yousif Yaseen – an extraordinary musician in his own right.
Kuwaiti-born and raised Yousif didn’t always fancy himself an exceptional musician growing up, and to him, the shift really happened during his formative adult years. Though he had started playing guitar at the age of 13 and dabbled in music with his high-school rock band “Retroflex,” it took a few more years for his passion to escalate into a full-fledged profession and title as a composer and singer/songwriter. “I was originally studying to become a pharmacist, but around seven years ago, I started to take music very seriously and enrolled in Berklee College of Music in Boston where I stopped writing songs and playing guitar for a while to focus on broader aspects of music.” This led him to explore the different components necessary to create music, such as performing in various ensembles, studying music theory and studying the Maqam. To Yousif, this necessary incubation resulted in a new creative spurt and a renewed understanding of the aesthetics that shaped his sound, which ultimately formed the eccentric yet hauntingly beautiful musical personality he is known for today.
Though Yousif’s range incorporates jazz and contemporary influenes in his music, Maqam is a standout term within his musical abilities. This can be identified by those special variations of tremolo we encountered during his impromptu performance of songs from his album Visions. Maqam, a traditional and exclusive practice of Arabic music, is known as an improvisational technique that clearly highlights the various pitches, patterns and development of a given tune. It’s basically what determines the difference between those who can sing in Arabic and those who can’t, and Yousif excels at it. His tone is reminiscent of Old-Kuwaiti bahri (sea-calling) music, and classical Tarab, which is defined as the act of musical ecstasy and was known by the likes of singers such as Oum Kalthoum and Sabah Fakhri. But within his mishmash of influences and styles, Yousif’s extra special touch is how he tunes his guitar in a shockingly different way, in reference to Maqam to have its sound slightly waver to a unique melody, accompanying his haunting vocals. “Tuning my guitar in that way was an accident, but I believe in paying close attention to those accidents, not disregarding them. After my friend had my guitar tuned weirdly, instead of fixing it to the standard, I saw something in its setting and created my own sound.”
As is apparent on the recently released Visions, this created sound is both original and eclectic, making Yousif’s sound completely different from Kuwait’s other modern musical acts. Recorded with his band and an ensemble of strings, horns and percussion, Visions combines mythology, nature and the mysteries of space to create what Yousif describes to be an “epic universe.” For example, one track “La Tinsani,” follows a young Arab woman traversing the infinite in a wormhole, on her way to Mars and beyond – a story inspired by a documentary special on civilians signing up to inhabit Mars that resonated within Yousif for a very long time. “It is a very lush and colorful album, and I had the pleasure of working on it with a superb international team in Boston and New York City.”
And while he’s currently in the process of making the magic happen for his next album, Yousif continues to spread his whimsical nature and love for life and music in his experiences, while remaining humble toward his influences, mentors and the general surroundings that contribute in making his profession a passion. His shout-outs include Sawt scholar Dr.Ahmad Al Salhi, who is “basically reviving and revealing the traditional music in the upper gulf, which in his hands becomes a self sustained, nearly classical musical language,” virtuoso and independent music leader Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, who has created a whole independent Arabic music industry/scene based in Egypt, and his honorable mention, mentor, Simon Shaheen, whom he describes as a great resource in traditional Mashriqi music.
At the end of the day, it’s the people he meets and the stories they tell, that are his ultimate inspiration. As we manage to pull ourselves away from his shivering acapella cover of Nina Simone’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” accompanied by his signature slap-thump drumming on his guitar, he leaves us with this pearl: “The most fun part of making music for me is how the things I see, and the things I read and think about seep. It doesn’t even have to be literal and in the lyrics even. Sometimes the melody can carry so much weight, and it’s incredible to see that emotion come out of you; it can feel redemptive.”
We surely see it, and feel it too.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL QUESTIONNAIRE
What do you most value in your friends?
Their peculiarities and quirks.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Happiness could be an active engagement with your immediate reality, a sense of contentment, whether excited or calm. I don’t believe the concept of perfection always resonates with that perception of active engagement. I mean the world is so imperfect.
What is your greatest fear?
To be overcome by fear itself, to fear my own true potential.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Sometimes I forget what I am capable of, and it’s hard to shake off the doubts. You should never sell yourself short!
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
An eagerness to make quick assumptions and judgements.
Which living person do you most admire?
Too many heroes to number: Dr. Ahmad Al Salhi, Sawt performer and scholar; Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, composer and independent Arabic music icon; Erykah Badu, Thom Yorke, Tom Waits and Bjork. But the winner is Diana Nyad, who is by far one of the most impressive (read: badass) humans alive.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Socks. Life is too short to be wearing dull socks.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I’ve recently noticed myself saying “you’re kidding!” or “wow” all the time. I’m just filled with so much wonder for the world and I am constantly baffled, it seems.
What is it that you most dislike?
Walking in squishy wet socks and shoes after a rainstorm. But hot chocolate makes up for it.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d like to learn to dance. I saw the most incredible swing dancers recently at a jazz concert. I was astounded. It’s on my list of things to learn.
If you could have any job, what would it be?
I’d fancy being an adventurer/explorer with my own TV show. A bit like Steve Irwin! Sigh, music will just have to do.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
Right now, it’s my debut album, Visions. I couldn’t have done it without my band (Tomás Latorre, Clemens Graßmann and Benjamin Furman) and the rest of the ensemble and production team.
What is your most treasured possession?
My guitar. We share years of history, and she’s my first true love.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I would say my intense curiosity (though its manifestation can be particular and moody) and love for sharing what I know.
Where would you most like to live?
I have a fantasy that only urban folk would have, and that is to live in a quiet place by a mountain, and just be… simply, writing music for the sun and the wind, probably somewhere in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The extreme alternative would be living on a spaceship traveling to the far throes of space, which I think is probably going to be possible sometime before I die.
What are your favorite words to live by?
You are powerful. Trust yourself.
Yousif Yaseen’s album Visions is available on different platforms including ITunes, bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music and Soundcloud.
Follow Yousif on Instagram @bu_yaseen, on Facebook: Yousif Yaseen Music, and Twitter @yaseenmusic. For more information, please visit his website at www.yousifyaseen.com.