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The sound of love

The Tunisian vocalist Dhafer Youssef is one of the leaders of an exciting renaissance in Arabic musi

To the north stretches the Mediterranean, and to the south, where it looks as if the desert has blistered, a salt lake shimmers. The small fishing town of Tabulbah sits in between: a Tunisian port nearly 200km by winding road south of the capital Tunis. This is where, in 1967, the extraordinary vocalist and oud player Dhafer Youssef was born. Youssef will be performing at the London Jazz Festival on 14 November with Joanna MacGregor and the Britten Sinfonia. If you have not done so already, you might want to get your ticket soon. It promises to be a magical evening.

The landscape of Youssef's beginnings tells us something about his musical meditations. The close proximity of the sea and desert is there in his exploration of that old Sufi theme: the soul's longing to return to the divine. This is the Muslim love story that the poets Rumi and Hafez wrote about. It is a philosophy that proved to be fruitful ground for the Syrian poet Adonis, a pioneer of modern Arabic poetry who, it is rumoured, has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 2005.

In fact, one can draw a line from Adonis the poet to Youssef the musician: both are deeply rooted in the Arabic mystical tradition, yet remain artistically outward-looking and adventurous. Adonis's work is just as influenced, for instance, by the writings of the 12th-century Arab Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi as it is by T S Eliot, Ezra Pound and the European modernists. Similarly, Youssef's music would not be as existentially relevant without its Muslim heritage, interest in classical Indian music and deep involvement in the Scandinavian jazz avant-garde.

The continued usefulness of Sufi philosophy for artists of differing origins and from distinct epochs is due in large part to its extraordinary adaptability. It seems to matter even in an age when God is supposed to be dead. Youssef's debt to Sufism is there in his evocations of the self dissolving into wonderment and yearning. He is not so much documenting the desirer and the desired as he is the space that divides the two. He ranges across culture, across the secular and religious, which gives his work a relevant urgency in these unhappy times.

It was in Tabulbah that Dhafer Youssef began his training in devotional music at the age of five. One of eight children, he grew up in a family of modest means, but one that nurtured his talent and encouraged his aspirations. Soon he began singing at weddings, and saved enough money to buy his first oud. When he was 19 he moved to Vienna and there collaborated with a generation of musicians who see themselves not so much as heirs of one musical tradition, but of all the world's music; artists such as Peter Herbert, Iva Bittova, Christian Muthspiel and Renaud Garcia Fons. Youssef's first album, Malak, released in 1999, was written and recorded in Vienna and was very much the product of such exchanges. The work established him internationally.

From Vienna he went on to work and live in Barcelona, Berlin, Dakar and Paris. In 2001 he had attempted to settle in New York, where he recorded his second album, Electric Sufi, which featured Dieter Ilg, Markus Stockhausen and Doug Wimbish. But after the attacks of 11 September he felt the need to live in a less unfamiliar city. He moved to Barbès, the predominantly Arab and African district of Paris, where, when I lived in that city and felt a bout of homesickness coming on, I would go to one of the area's small cafes and eat couscous.

In many ways Europe has always been Youssef's musical home. His collaborations with European musicians, such as the lyrical Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and guitarists Eivind Aarset of Norway and the Austrian Wolfgang Muthspiel, have been as formative and essential to Youssef's development as composer and instrumentalist as his early years in Tunisia. And although Dhafer Youssef's international wanderings are unusually far-reaching, they are also in some ways characteristically North African. In the early 1900s the Algerian coastal city of Oran, where Albert Camus lived and set his novel, The Plague, became the meeting place for Arab, African, Portuguese, Spanish and French traders and musicians. This produced the musical genre of "raï", which, like Youssef's music, is bundled rather untidily under the category, "world music".

Was Claude Debussy engaging in a bit of world music, I wonder, when on encountering gamelan Indonesian music at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle he went home and began composing the Estampes for piano? The problem seems to be with the word "world"; as an adjective it has come to mean a sort of anthropological, homogenised muddle, and so does little to reflect the careful, earnest engagement of artists such as Dhafer Youssef.

Some of the finest, most inventive jazz today is happening in Norway and Sweden. It is for this reason that Youssef has nurtured a persistent interest in the serene austerity of Scandinavian jazz, particularly that of Norway, as his third album, Digital Prophecy, testifies. And his fourth album, Divine Shadows, sees Youssef's collaboration with his team of Norwegian musicians - whom he describes as more African than Africans - go further. There is something particularly beautiful about how they have learned to carry his oud, how they understand its warmth and temperament, and know how to give it space. At times the oud is imploring, but then it consoles. It seems to be weaving something together with Eivind Aarset's guitar. When Youssef's voice arrives it mesmerises with its force as well as with its astonishing range and ability.

It is rare to encounter a human voice so powerful yet so refined, that moves you with its strength as well as with its vulnerability. It seems to at once recall the madness of the village crier and the serenity of a dawn muezzin. It has found a sibling in Arve Henriksen's trumpet. Few trumpeters can impart such depth of feeling as Henriksen. And beneath it all rides, like a gushing river after a strong rainstorm, Audun Erlien's bass, Marilyn Mazur's percussion and Rune Arnesen's drums.

They are so evenly matched that they seem to be powered by the same dreams. Then skating above that river are the electronics, programmed by Jan Bang and the other members of the band. The digital sounds evoke sometimes a distant metropolis, then an intimate scratch like a lover's fingers in your hair, as if what concerns them most is memory. At times the rhythm gives the impression of wanting to back-pedal, as if it is seeking reassurance, which works perfectly with the confidence of Youssef's sound. At other times, a short, funk-cut rhythm takes hold, pushing everything forward, and you feel not so much like dancing as whirling. This is when the experiment is working; when it is not, the music descends into ambient electronica.

In Divine Shadows, as well as in his most recent release, Glow, made with Youssef's old Austrian musical partner, the guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, Dhafer Youssef seems to chart with these north European musicians the point where Arabic and western music meet and separate. Western music, with its preoccupation with the linear journey, with movements that progress to resolution, is contrasted with classical Arabic's perambulatory nature: it is less concerned with getting there than with being. The combination is haunting, and evokes the Sufi longing for union in new ways that resonate with the predicament that the Muslim world and western Europe find themselves in today. Here the longing to return to the divine becomes the desire for harmony and brotherhood with the other. The intuitive sensitivity that Youssef shares with these jazz musicians, particularly with Aarset and Muthspiel, is a testament to what is possible when one engages with other artistic traditions.

At a time when the Arab world is enduring on the one hand the harsh gaze of Europe and America, and on the other political oppression at home, one can take heart in the fact that at least Arabic music is going through a kind of renaissance. Dhafer Youssef is part of a new generation of musicians that is as deeply rooted in its secular and mystic heritage, as it is keen to engage with international audiences. There is something both compelling and profoundly stirring, for example, in the classically engaged and intensely felt compositions of the Iraqi virtuoso oud player Naseer Shamma, or in the intellectual and emotional brilliance of the Tunisian Anouar Brahem and the experimental urgency and flamboyance of the Palestinian Kamilya Jubran (the latter's only album, Wameedd, is recorded with the Swiss jazz trumpeter Werner Hasler).

Unlike, for example, the Arabic novel, which apart from very few exceptions is struggling to gain the attention its literary heritage promises, Arabic music like Youssef's seems to have found ways to remain vital and ambitious, relevant, and engaged.

Hisham Matar is the author of the Booker Prize-shortlisted "In the Country of Men". He will be writing regularly on the arts for the New Statesman. Dhafer Youssef performs at the London Jazz Festival on 14 November.

From the Arabic renaissance

Naseer Shamma is undoubtedly one of the most talented musicians working today. Each of his five albums is magnificent, but I would start with The Baghdad Lute, a live recording from the Institut Du Monde Arabe's own label. The themes of his solo-oud compositions are unique: in "Entre Deux Poêtes" he imagines a conversation between the 10th-century poet al-Mutanabi and the 20th-century modernist poet al-Sayyab; in the final track, his oud evokes the bombing of the al-Amiriyya School in Baghdad during the first Gulf War. You can hear the drone of the fighter jets, the cries of the children scurrying for cover - and all this with just one instrument.

The music of Kamilya Jubran (below), an Israeli-born Palestinian singer and oud player, is deeply lyrical in its rebellion. She is certainly a talent to watch. Her first and only album, Wameedd, in collaboration with Werner Hasler, is available on iTunes.

Rabih Abou-Khalil (above) is a prolific, Munich-based Lebanese composer and oud player who has helped define the instrument's place in jazz music. A good place to start is Songs for Sad Women, his 2007 album.

Anouar Brahem is a hugely significant musician who has recorded with Barbarose Erköse, Jan Garbarek, Dave Holland and John Surman. Signed to ECM, his ten albums are relatively easy to find. His first, Barzakh, is an old favourite.

Ghada Shbeir's voice envelops you like something remembered. She is most known for her wonderful album Al Muwashahat, which won a BBC Radio 3 award in 2007. If you have that already, get the equally sublime Passion: Chants Syriaques.

Hisham Matar

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come