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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Exciting things can happen when musicians delve into their own musical and cultural heritage, or immerse themselves in a foreign tradition. Both are true in the case of French-Tunisian saxophonist Yacine Boulares, who grew up traveling between Tunisia and France, and arrived at a newfound desire to explore Tunisian musical history and tradition after arriving in New York. After meeting cellist Vincent Segal and joining forces with drummer Nasheet Waits, the trio recorded an album dedicated to reimagining the “Stambeli” repertoire, a healing trance music created by the descendants of Sub-Saharan slaves brought to Tunisia. 

The result, “Suite for Abu Sadiya,” is a delicate, balanced, and other-worldly musical mixture of music from North African, Subsaharan cultures, jazz, chamber music and the distinctive Stambeli trance sound. In pursuing a personal sound through this repertoire, Boulares also explored complex facets of Tunisian history and culture, and uncovered answers to difficult personal questions, shining light on his identity as a multi-national musician and performer. Boulares discussed this and more in a recent phone conversation, excerpts of which can be read below.

The Jazz Gallery: So you’re playing your Suite for Abu Sadiya with Vincent Segal on cello and Rajiv Jayaweera on drums. Is this your first time performing this project without Nasheet Waits?

Yacine Boulares: Yes, exactly. This is the first time during this project where Nasheet couldn’t make a gig, so I was trying to think of someone with a similar sonic concept, and I think Rajiv is great for that. He will be able to adapt to the cello, which is a very delicate instrument. Over the course of this project, we’ve taken up the habit of playing without monitors, both to keep a pure sound on stage and to not get overloaded with sonic information. That’s one reason the drummer’s sound is key in this project. Rajiv has a huge dynamic range, like Nasheet, and they’re both able to play with lots of intensity even at the most piano dynamics. That was an important factor in bringing Nasheet into the project at first, and Rajiv will be great for that too.

TJG: It must have taken you some time to figure out that you wanted to play without monitors for a more organic feel on stage.

YB: Actually, it was Vincent’s idea, and it’s kind of a necessity for him. He’s used to playing without monitors. We did it like that when we recorded the album in France, in a very big room, comparable to a room like Avatar, all wood with high ceilings. We performed close together in that room, and played very dynamically, so we didn’t have to do any of that in post-production: Everything was already there. From the inception of the project, playing without monitors was a necessity. Before we met Nasheet, before the rehearsals and recording, I did a creative residency with Vincent. We would play together in a small room, just me on soprano and Vincent on cello. Saxophone can be very loud, and I had to seek out the tiniest dynamics I could find. As jazz musicians, we don’t often explore the range of dynamics that chamber musicians explore, so that was a first for me, a big musical shift.

TJG: Can you tell me a little bit about this Tunisian style, Stambeli?

YB: Stambeli is the healing music of the sub-Saharan Tunisians. The first slave trade began around the 10th century in Tunisia, trading goods and slaves between what has been the Ottoman Empire and other things over time, and what was the Malian Empire in West Africa. Slaves would arrive in Tunisia with their culture, their music, their healing rituals. They settled mostly in southern Tunisia, and were guided into different houses according to their ethnicity. The legend says that a spiritual figure, the person who had that job, was called Abu Sadiya. He was the host, and one of the first black Tunisians. These rituals evolved alongside Islam, so Stambeli is the result of centuries of mix between animism from West Africa and Islam. That’s the big idea of what Stambeli is, and is very similar to Gnawa music in Morocco, and the Algerian Diwan; these are essentially three variations of the same origin.

TJG: How did Stambeli come into your life?

YB: I’m a French Tunisian who grew up in Paris, and stayed in France until I moved to New York when I was 27. Tunisia was always in the background. My dad lived there for the last ten years of his life, and I visited a lot, working with local musicians as well. But growing up, I didn’t know Arabic, and I didn’t naturally reach toward Tunisia, because my not doing that was seen as positive in order to integrate into French culture. The assimilation process in France is very different from the US, and the French system is built so that communities can’t really exist. Identity, especially when coming from the former colonial empire, is complicated.

The first thing that happened when I arrived in New York was curiosity from musicians and all kinds of people. I knew about Tunisia, I had been there countless times, I had my family, and I began to grow an adult relationship with musicians in Tunisia, but it wasn’t until I was at New School that I developed a genuine curiosity. I was taking a class with a producer named Robert Sadin: He started asking me about Tunisian culture and music, and I couldn’t say much. That’s when I started researching. Every time I went back to Tunisia, I would try to meet traditional musicians, and would really do the work I hadn’t done before.

After that came a key moment. The same person, Robert Sadin, who had become my mentor at The New School, called me for a recording session for opera singer Placido Domingo, who was doing a bunch of songs from the Mediterranean, from Sicily, Spain, and so on. One of them was an Andalusian song, so Sadin asked me to arrange it, because of my Tunisian origins, and because he assumed I had done the work. I met Vincent Segal at this session: We got together to work on the arrangement of this song, and we ended up jamming a bit over this song and some other material. A Moroccan percussionist, Rhani Krija, joined us after the sessions. Vincent was playing these basslines that are at the center of Stambeli and Gnawa music, and that’s how the idea sparked about doing something with Vincent with Stambeli music.

TJG: So is Stambeli music somehow endangered or hard to find? Was it unusual that Vincent knew some of these lines?

YB: It’s a complicated story. Stambeli has entered something of a revival now, and I think people are conscious that it has been endangered. It’s a system of families, basically. If you grow up in a community with a family that will perform these rituals, that’s how you learn the music. It’s very hard to enter this circle of musicians; I never have. I’m not one of the musicians who does this more publicly and has played with them. I couldn’t just go and do it, I would have to go and spend years there, learning this music in a traditional setting, to really be a part of the community. It’s a very private music, because it’s ceremonial. During the French protectorate, Stambeli wasn’t patrolled or endangered, but when decolonization happened in the mid-late 1950s in Tunisia, the father of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, tried to unify the country. All kinds of regional specificities, especially religious ones, were sent to the back of the picture, so to speak. I’m not sure if it was explicitly forbidden or erased in any way, but Stambeli was a victim of decolonization because of the national need for unification and identity.

Since the 2011 revolution, there has been a resurgence of Stambeli, and I think slowly, people are realizing that it’s a national treasure that needs to be protected and put forward. Lastly, Stambeli represents music of the black people of Tunisia, and a part of it is tainted of racism. That’s a problem. Tunisians have difficulty considering themselves Africans at times, and I think Stambeli is symbolic of that. But if you’re going to accept the Africanity of Tunisia, and of the national identity, then you can accept African Tunisians as part of it.

TJG: What do other Tunisians think of your music and your approach, if you’ve had the opportunity to speak with any about it?

YB: The first reactions I got were of surprise, because Stambeli is not regarded well by the guardians of cultural institutions in Tunisia. They were surprised that I would do a project honoring the heritage of Stambeli, for some reasons I mentioned before. My take on Stambeli is very symbolic. It’s elements of Stambeli, it’s a narration, it’s a story of Abu Sadiya. If you were to listen to the music, and I didn’t explicitly say “This is Stambeli,” you might say “I hear some West African grooves, I hear a little bit of Maqam scales, I hear something North African,” but you wouldn’t be able to point a finger and say “This is Stambeli.” I don’t think it’s close enough to Stambeli to be in the conversation of whether it is traditional music. Rather, it’s a tribute to this music.

To be honest, I haven’t played this show in Tunisia, because we haven’t had the chance. Nasheet and I are in New York, Vincent is in France, and it’s a challenge to bring the show to Tunisia. But it’s something I’d love to do. I go back to Tunisia a little less frequently than when I was in France, but I go once or twice a year for festivals, usually with my other project AJOYO, or as a guest with Tunisian musicians. I keep up a relationship with the scene there, and I definitely want to bring this band there sometime soon.

TJG: How did you get the project involved with the French-American Jazz Exchange?

YB: I was able to make this project possible thanks to the French-American Jazz Exchange. I applied in 2015, and was lucky to receive a grant. That’s how I was able to bring Nasheet to France, to do the recording. There’s an application every year, which is great, it allows for these kinds of trans-Atlantic projects. Now I’m part of the French-American Jazz Exchange roster, and so they try to promote their grantees.

TJG: This is one of many of your projects: You’ve described Stambeli, at its core, as healing music. Does this project allow you to explore different emotional areas in music, thinking specifically of that healing aspect?

YB: For sure. For AJOYO, one of my earlier projects, it’s completely rooted in Cameroonian rhythmic traditions. I started AJOYO almost as soon as I moved to New York, because my first gigs were with Cameroonian musicians. We were playing a lot of Afrobeat, a lot of Bikutsi and Makossa, different dance rhythms, which to me were very reminiscent of Tunisians rhythms and culture. Back then I hadn’t started working on Stambeli yet, so that represented the beginning of a kind of identity quest. I started AJOYO, which is a lot more celebratory, let’s say: It’s upbeat, danceable, exploring a bright, celebratory emotional area.

Digging into the story of Abu Sadiya, and learning about the cello repertoire and history in order to write for Vincent, allowed me to explore the opposite end of that emotional spectrum. As we were mentioning earlier, the dynamics for the cello to play in a chamber music setting are the tiniest dynamics that I can play. The whole suite is revolves around C minor, C being the lowest note on the cello. The project definitely represents a nostalgic emotional zone, even tragic, inspired by this character whose story is tragic. The typical story is the one I mentioned earlier, but there’s another version that says he would have been a king somewhere in West Africa, and that his daughter had been enslaved, and that he’s looking throughout the desert of North Africa for his enslaved daughter. He becomes crazy, thinks that his daughter has been captured by the moon, and tries to negotiate the return of his daughter by dancing every night to the moon.

In Tunisia, there’s this folk character who dresses in rags and an impressive mask. To this day, he goes into the streets of the cities and dances, he scares children, he’s sort of the boogeyman. He’s a weird guy, very tortured from a traumatic past. And looking at Abu Sadiya has allowed me to mirror my own cultural identity, my own separation from my ancestors and from my father. In my living in France and moving to the US, I found, in these migration stories and in this cultural figure, a lot of answers to questions in my own life.

Yacine Boulares presents Suite for Abu Sadiya at The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, October 23, 2018. The group features Mr. Boulares on woodwinds, Vincent Segal on cello, and Rajiv Jayaweera on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.