Lincoln Center's Student Advisory Council (SAC) is a group of undergraduate and graduate students from across New York City who are committed to the art world being a more inclusive and accessible space. We serve as ambassadors on our campuses and our communities. We also have the opportunity to help scout new music to present at an annual SAC-curated show at the David Rubenstein Atrium. This year's selected artist is Lebanon-born composer and jazz pianist Tarek Yamani, whose music fuses the world of jazz with his middle-eastern roots from home. In advance of his performance on March 23, I sat down with Yamani to discuss his work and how he first got introduced to the institution of jazz.
Tyler Cunningham: You didn't start playing jazz until the age of 19, which seems remarkable. Did you grow up in a musical family?
Tarek Yamani: I've heard that my great-grandfather was a professional singer who recorded, like the earliest gramophone discs. But his legacy wasn't really taken seriously, probably because generally in that part of the world, music is not considered a respectable profession, especially a hundred years ago. I dug up these records and discovered that he was actually really good and pretty famous at that time. His name is Ahmad Afandi Al Mir; he's the only musician I know of in the family.
TC: How did you finally get exposed to music, specifically?
TY: My father is a big musical enthusiast and had a lot of versatile records. He would listen to reggae, blues, Arabic, pop, and some mysterious rock bands from England that nobody knew about in Beirut at that time. So I grew up listening to this very versatile music and I registered all these sounds. As a kid, I used to imitate on a toy keyboard the music that I would hear from the TV, and that's how my parents figured that they should give me piano lessons.
TC: I guess the fact that your dad listened to so much music now shows up in your music—it's a melting pot of different genres and different cultures. Have you always incorporated so many different genres into your music?
TY: I wasn't into mixing or implementing different genres in the beginning. When I got into jazz, I felt like I had to be fluent in it first and then look into implementing my own musical heritage into it. That was my main approach, in a way. I didn't want to try mixing from the beginning because I didn't like how people with miniature knowledge in jazz were making fusion with it. It doesn't work. You really have to know what you're doing. I mean, you have to know both styles very well and then when you start implementing both styles together then you get something organic.
TC: Your music completely sounds natural and organic and you would never even think that it's two different subgenres melding.
TY: That's nice to hear. And actually I get this observation a lot and this means so much to me. Fifteen years ago that was my plan. I think this works because the fusion is not forced. It's like speaking a newly acquired language, fluently but with an accent. That's how I see the music that is a mélange of more than one genre.
TC: Outside of performance, it seems like you're about this globalist view of music. I'm thinking specifically of the festival you've organized called Beirut Speaks Jazz. What year is that in now?
TY: We stopped for two years but hopefully it's going to pick up this year. So it's been three editions and the next will be the fourth.
TC: What made you realize you wanted to do something like this, which incorporates all of these different genres?
TY: I got the idea from the International Jazz Day, the first edition that happened here. Herbie Hancock had this dream of having a jazz day, U.N.–backed. It started in 2012 and it's a day where jazz is celebrated on April 30 each year all around the world. The opening event was at the United Nations and I was invited to be one of the artists, which was a huge honor, because there was Wayne Shorter, Zakir Hussain, Richard Bona, Vinnie Coliauta—my idols were there. I couldn't believe that I would be playing with them. First when they invited me I thought I was going to be playing in the event somewhere else, you know? And then it was like, no, you're playing onstage with these guys! So that was surreal.
On the second Jazz Day I thought it would be great to have a version for Beirut. That's how it started, and it turned out to be really successful. One of the key reasons why I was doing this is because I wanted rock, hip-hop, pop, and underground folks to come together in one place. They usually hardly mix. So it was really nice to have them all in one place. Another reason was to raise jazz awareness. We don't get good jazz in Beirut, in Lebanon in general. When they do jazz festivals they bring either old-fashioned music, or good music that is not jazz, but they put it under jazz. So people don't really know, and that's something that I really hope would change. They say people don't like jazz, but I always say no, they don't know that they like jazz. You have to show them good jazz. In one of the Beirut Speaks Jazz editions I asked the audience in the middle of the concert, "So, do you like jazz?" and everybody was like, "Yeah! We love jazz!"
You have to find ways. But nobody's willing to take the time and have the patience to invest and really try to build—because this is something that you build in decades, to get this awareness of a whole society. It's not something you do overnight. This takes a lot of time, but you have to start somewhere.
TC: Let's talk about your latest album, Peninsular. What is different about this album compared to your previous albums?
TY: It was completely a turn for me. It's different in so many ways. First of all, I'm tackling music and material that has nothing to do with the Levant, which is all the area that is Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt. It's really a completely different kind of musical richness, which is the Arabian peninsula: the desert and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, all these countries—they have a really different musical culture and we kind of don't interact at all. What's special about the Arabian Gulf is the rhythms. The rhythms are not like any other rhythms of the Levant. And it's mainly because there's a history of slavery, which nobody talks about, and it's very old—500 years older than the history of slavery in the States. So all these Africans brought a lot of their traditions and instruments to the Gulf. Also, because of the proximity to India, the Indian subcontinent also has a lot of influence. So what's different about Peninsular is that it has the standard jazz piano trio but with up to 15 percussion instruments from that region, and the music I wrote is based on rhythms from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Yemen.
By the way, a friend and I wrote a book about the rhythms of the Arabian peninsula. It just came out. This one is called The Percussion Ensemble of the Arabian Peninsula. We transcribed 36 rhythms from the Arabian Gulf and provided them as rhythmic transcriptions with the names of the instruments used and how each instrument looks. We also included historical and societal background behind each of the rhythms.
TC: In the last album you used a quarter-tone keyboard.
TY: Yeah, it was my first time playing chords with quarter tones. It took some research and experimentation to make the chords sound pleasant because generally they could sound so dissonant, you know. Quarter tones won't sound dissonant if played linearly, in a certain order. But vertically I had to find the right voicings and the right amount of microtonality to have them work. That's only the start, though. I want to expand to more, crazier chords, you know? More progressions. I mean, sky's the limit, I haven't even scratched the surface. So there's a lot to be done.
TC: You write a lot about the theory that goes behind some of this music. It's great that you are really trying to push this educational field.
TY: Well, it's good to expand on the possibilities, especially for the Western musicians, the idea to have access to other than the 12 notes of the scale, you know? Imagine the possibilities. You open up a universe of possibilities that otherwise you wouldn't know existed.
Tyler Cunningham is a junior at Juilliard and is a member of Lincoln Center's 2017–18 Student Advisory Council.