Yazz Ahmed, who opens the Saturday afternoon concert at Pakkahuone, arrives in Finland straight from the Azores. Her new album Polyhymnia is named after the Greek Muse and dedicated to women – and first and foremost to the “courage, determination, and creativity of women”.
I’m absolutely delighted to be back on the road with my band again – our first few gigs have been such a thrill and we’re very excited to be performing in Tampere on the 6th of November. I have greatly missed sharing my music with a live audience, especially the journey we experience together during a concert. The day before our show in Tampere, we will be embarking on an epic trip (4,271 km) from the Azores to Finland in one day, which involves three flights and a very long car ride!
How would you describe your development as an artist and the transition towards finding your own voice?
Finding my own true voice has been a cathartic experience. It all started with the discovery of a beautiful album called Blue Camel, by Rabih Abou-Khalil. Ever since hearing this fusion of Arabic music and jazz, it sparked my imagination, bringing back happy memories from my childhood in Bahrain and filling me with inspiration. The revelation that I could fuse elements from contrasting traditions made me appreciate the importance of identity. Through my music, I feel that I can share my own story and experiences to express my passions. However, I am always evolving, finding inspiration from new sounds and recording techniques, taking me to musical realms I never would have dreamed of exploring!
Your most recent album Polyhymnia is also your most ambitious one: recorded with a large group of musicians, a suite written in celebration of courageous and inspiring women. In your opinion, can instrumental music make a difference? And on a more personal level, was it more inspiring to compose when you had a certain person or a life story on your mind?
Yes, I believe instrumental music can make a difference. I remember a reviewer who had listened to Polyhymnia without reading the liner notes. The emotions he experienced were exactly the feelings I was trying to express with each piece, so even without having the background knowledge, he got it. I think highlighting inequalities through music not only brings awareness to such issues but also can make a deep impact spiritually.
I wouldn’t say it was more inspiring to compose pieces dedicated to other people’s achievements, the pieces are still a very personal expression of my internal reaction to my muses. Inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere, but I really enjoyed the experience of having this focus for the suite.
One third of the groups performing at Tampere Jazz Happening this year are led by women and non-binary composers and instrumentalists: besides you Lakecia Benjamin, Sylvie Courvoisier, Esinam Dogbatse, Linda Fredriksson, and Iro Haarla, plus singer and songwriter Natacha Atlas. Has gender ever been an issue during your professional career and as a musician, composer, and bandleader?
Well, this question is potentially opening a can of worms. How long have you got? In short, I, along with the vast majority of women artists, have had plenty of unwelcome experiences which I’ve had to battle to overcome. Even at this stage in my career I still receive criticism, from promoters and industry professionals, about how I look and advice on how I choose to present myself on stage. I am pretty sure the same would not be offered to my male colleagues. Congratulations on considering gender balance when curating Jazz Happening this year, I look forward to seeing even more diversity in the future, both here and around the world.
What’s going to happen?
There are plenty of new releases in the pipeline due out over the next 18 months. These include an EP of music produced during the pandemic and also my next full studio album. This features my seven-piece Hafla band with several guest singers and performers, including the very wonderful Natacha Atlas. The music is my take on the traditional music of Bahrain, the songs of the pearl divers, and the celebratory music of the women drumming groups who traditionally perform at weddings and parties.
I also am looking forward to presenting a new work, The Moon Has Become, which will be premiered at the WOMAD festival next year, commissioned to accompany visual artist Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon installation.
Live-wise, more dates are coming in all the time and I’m really hoping to be able to travel to North America and North Africa, which were lined up for 2020 but cancelled due to the pandemic. Really hoping the world recovers over the next year but if things take a turn for the worse again, I’m planning to start a hedgehog hospital to keep me busy…
Yazz Ahmed at Pakkahuone on Saturday 6 November 2021 at 14.00. Tickets 35/30 €