Arab Jazz: An Interview with Tarek Yamani

Tarek Yamani performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.
Tarek Yamani performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Tarek Yamani is a New York-based composer and a self-taught jazz pianist. Born and raised in Beirut, Yamani was first exposed to jazz as a teenager. Since the release of his debut album, Ashur, in 2012, he has explored relationships between African American jazz and the rhythms and melodic modes (maqam) of Arab music. In 2013, Yamani produced Beirut Speaks Jazz, a unique initiative aimed at promoting jazz in Lebanon. With his Trio, Tarek Yamani performed last month in the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Auditorium, in conjunction with the exhibition Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips.

Bento: What were your early experiences of playing and learning music?

Tarek Yamani: My father has an incredible sensitivity to music and he loved good music regardless of its genre. He had a black Samsonite case full of tapes of Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, ABBA, Bob Marley, Ravi Shankar, Umm Kulthum, the Beatles, and everything in between. I loved this case and I was always excited to pick something out of it and listen. My parents loved music but were not musicians. My great-grandfather, however, was a well-known singer during Ottoman rule and he was one of the first to record discs for Baidaphon and Polyphon in the early 1900s. His name was Ahmad Afandi Al Mir, and we managed to find in his grandson’s attic four severely damaged LPs with his picture on it.

I was born in the middle of the fifteen-year civil war, and during most of my childhood my family and I were running away. The Lebanese War was atrocious, and as in any militia-based wars, there were no rules or safe areas: one day our street would be safe, the next, a war zone. Cultural activity during those years was non-existent, and therefore the first time I saw a concert was when I played one in my school in 1996. I was sixteen, and I had been teaching myself guitar and got into heavy metal. I even formed a band with my friends, but it didn’t last for long.

My parents got me a piano when things cooled down and I was showing real interest in music. I think I was eleven or twelve when that happened. I started going to the Lebanese National Conservatory, but it was in such a mess that I soon dropped out and picked up the guitar instead. Around the age of 19, my interest in jazz brought me back to the piano.

Bento: What were your early musical influences? What artists, styles, or composers grabbed your attention and helped motivate you?

Tarek Yamani: I listened to everything that sounded like music and I loved it all, from classical to rock to hip-hop. I had a strange attraction to Pink Floyd that was more like an addiction until it slowly faded away when I became interested in heavy metal. After that also faded away, it was jazz that came into my life and changed it forever.

Nobody influenced me in jazz as much as Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane did. However, I was listening to countless jazz records from Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Holland, and Wayne Shorter, to name a few, and all were a major influence on my jazz formation.

Bento: What have you been listening to recently (live or recordings)?

Tarek Yamani: I haven’t been listening to anybody in particular recently, but I’m very much into checking out what’s going on in the Arab world. There’s a big movement in independent music, especially in Egypt when it comes to Arabic rock, and all around the Arab world when it comes to hip-hop. Electronic music is pretty much picking up, too, but jazz is not really happening yet and there are no real jazz scenes. There are mostly individual attempts and a few collective attempts that, if done correctly, will eventually create the necessary platform for a real movement.

Bento: When is the next Beirut Speaks Jazz? Are there any other upcoming performances or projects you’d like to mention?

Tarek Yamani: Beirut Speaks Jazz occurs on April 30 and coincides with International Jazz Day. I’m very much looking forward to the 2015 edition. Some of my other projects include scoring the music for my wife Darine Hotait’s short film Orb, which is going to be the first Arab sci-fi film. I’m also preparing my third album, in which I continue to explore relationships between jazz and Arab music.

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If you like Arab music, check our recent podcasts of concerts recorded in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

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