9 Nov 16
YZ is Younes Zarhoni’s moniker to create a highly personal blend of Sufi mysticism and electronic music
This article is part of The Avant-Guardian no. 8.1, a special supplement on the Eastern Daze festival.
His powerful voice sings medieval Arabic poems on top of acid-like electronics and beats. Music led him towards a deepened identity in which beauty, freedom and spiritualism is more dominant than culture, background and the place where you’ve been born. In November he will release his debut 10” on Lexi Disque, and he will conclude the Saturday of the Eastern Daze festival in Ghent. We met him at the always cosy Brasserie Verschueren, in the center of hipster Sint-Gilles.
NL: Tell me something about the co-joined release by Lexi Disques and Pneu Records.
YZ: They were recorded last January. I have written 5 to 6 tracks, which I used to play as defined pieces with an end and beginning. More and more I noticed they are becoming more vague. Mostly I play pretty late and loud, and people dance to it. I feel that it would be better if they don’t have this defined start and stop, so that you can stay in the trance.
It was never my intention to create dance music. It came out naturally because I like it. On the moment I started to play live shows, I noticed that the music started to vibrate within the audience, and that there are possibilities in the music to make a more dance oriented sound. I’m still figuring out how to create a more fluid and transcendental structure out of the elements of the original songs. It’s new territory. The challenge is to avoid the clichés of techno, but still make something that is still rudimentary and that triggers people. One way is to use the same elements, but using them in another way — for instance playing with the pitch of the harmonies —so that the mood becomes different by changing the pitch. You’d have to start think like a dancer, not like a singer or songwriter. It’s the craftsmanship of a DJ, Quoi.
In writing songs, you have the concept of duration. You are restrained to think within 3, 4, 5 or 6 minutes. The duration and timing is very important in a real song — to kick it off, let it develop and finish it properly. In more trance-like music, this works different, over a longer time. The organic character is way more important; it’s more about mixing than composing. I rather like working on longer tracks than to be a constrained by a standardized timeframe.
NL: you are in search towards a method in which the songs serve as context, more than a structure to hold on.
YZ: Yes, totally.
NL: Is it something that is equally important in Sufi Music?
YZ: You find Sufism over the whole world, from Morroco to Senegal to Indonesia. The main concept is trance and music is a tool to get into it. Sufi rituals are meant to last to whole night. Music, meditation and movement can take on different forms,
depending on the context. By example, in Tanger, rhythm is very important. Personally, I’m mostly interested by the lyrics.
I see a parallel in both Sufi Mysticism and dance music. Both are trying to achieve a state of transcendentalism through repetition. Although, there is a difference. I don’t wanna be too negative about techno and the club scene, because it’s also a form of making sense in your life. But Sufism aims to become closer toward God, or another transcendental thing. Sufism is about taking distance of the ego, and it becomes the context for an ethic or moral code. The trance is not the goal in itself, but a tool to reach this. It’s all about creating meaning in your life. It’s about a purification of yourself — all things mystical, you see.
NL: You told me earlier that as a kid you use to sing in Arabic ensembles.
YZ: When I was 6 years, I started singing in mosques, I learned singing the Qur’an. You can recite it, but you can also sing it. It’s a discipline called the tajwid, in which you learn the scales, pretty similar to classical singing. Later I became more interested in Sufi and religious music and also the M’shmuda anasheed and unshuda, which is more politically and socially engaged Islamitic music. In the 80ties and 90ties in certain circles it was not done to use instrumental music, which started a new genre. Tanger was pretty known for these groups. In the 90ties several students out of this movement moved to Antwerp and Brussels to study. It was there that I got in contact with them. It was my first musical experience that was not related to the Qur’an. They played a lot of covers of Arabic singers like Sabah Fakhri and George Wassouf, but they changed the lyrics into a more ethical and Islamitic version.
It was a great time, we were one of the first youngster bands started in Antwerp. Later I joined a band with adults that played a lot. Every week two, three shows all over Belgium, in mosques, wedding parties, regular concerts and so on. Which was pretty cool. On a certain point I met the singer who was more Sufi-oriented. With him I formed a new group. Strange enough, the Islamitic Movement music was pretty awkward towards their tradition, because Sufi music is less engaged, I suppose.
NL: this movement was more about empowerment?
YZ: C’est ça, Sufi music is too static for them. Nowadays there is more a revival of music coming out of the Sufi tradition. Also the better singers are coming out of that background, like Rachid Gholam.
NL: Do you still make music together with those guys?
YZ: No, not really. I still see them time to time, but that’s all.
NL: How come you started playing solo, as you were used to do music in groups?
YZ: It was a purely practical thing, as I was a lot abroad. On the other hand, I always have a very defined idea about what I wanted to do. My solo music was a starting point, in which I laid down foundations that could be used to play together with
others. But it turned out I felt more comfortable with the foundations. So I choose that path.
In collaboration with ‘Western’ musicians —although I consider myself as a ‘Western’ musician as well — I choose for people with a very specific sound. With Spandau I wanted to work with Nico (Sale) and Mathias, with a background in contemporary classical music, or free jazz people. Although I noticed in those collaborations that it was very hard to create one entity, and that people took an individual position. It made that I was seen as the ‘non-western’ musical element, which felt a bit uncomfortable.
NL: Because you were seen as an exotic part?
YZ: No, not really. The music started to lean towards world music. Maybe we never managed to create a sound that transcended the clichés of it.
NL: How you feel then about being part of a festival that highlights the mutual influence between non-Western and Western music? I’m aware that framing people in this black-and-white opposition can cause that we overlook what matters, and over the complex thing music is. Especially your music, you can be considered as Brussels, but also as Arabic, but does it matter?
YZ: For me it doesn’t matter that much. I think framing people in this or that tradition is a bit difficult. I’m influenced by everything what I see and hear, and by what I like — Arabic music, free jazz, blues or whatever… At the same time my own memory and my parents theirs — my origins so to say — influences me. As kid I heard something that triggered me, something that connects. My granddad collected long-distance radios that could receive stations from all over the world. Before my dad shipped them to my granddad, I used them to scan all these stations. I always heard connections between different traditions of music. I’m convinced that those are there. In Mauritanian music I hear Flamingo for instance.
The diaspora effect is pretty interesting as it connects all those traditions.
Although I notice that the fact that I sing in Arabic triggers people into something more complex, which shouldn’t be if I would sing in Flemish. It isn’t contemporary Arabic, neither street dialect. One poem is for instance written by a poet out of the Saath Dynasty, that was located on Zanzibar in the 18th century. It has a very beautiful and specific cadence that is in strong contrast with the electronic music. I always like things that are made out of strong contrasts.
NL: I think the answer seems pretty complex, but is in the end pretty simple for music. In 2016 you have this framing, which is about identity. But I don’t think it matters for good music.
YZ: If you look at the Cuban music hype from some years ago, it didn’t matter if people didn’t understand the lyrics. Although I’d have to admit people are more aware about Arabic, certainly when it’s not music to dance to. But I think definitely defined by context.
NL: Do you have the feeling it matters in the Brussels cellar scene where you mostly perform?
YZ: No, not at all. In that way is Brussels a great city. I always wondered what I could do sound wise, and that’s why I think Arabic is interesting. In Brussels I have the freedom to present it in that way. People care more about to the fact if it’s musically interesting or not, if there is beauty in it, if it vibrates… and less about where it’s from.
— Niels Latomme