Yussef Headline Birmingham Post (June 2007)

Headline Enjoy Yussef - it's later than you think Culture Music Terry Grimley catches up with an upbeat Yussef Ahmed ahead of a rare West Midlands date Publication Birmingham Post date 11/06/2007, Byline Terry Grimley.

Not a lot has been heard of Birmingham performance poet Yussef Ahmed for a while, but now he's back with a new CD, a gig at Warwick Arts Centre next week and plans for a live recording.

Following the release of his impressive second album Against All Odds in 2004, Yussef and his band MY5.0 went through a busy period of touring, including an appearance at last year's Montreux Jazz Festival, before retiring to the studio in Leamington to complete the new album, Rejuvenation.

On listening to the CD, it's immediately apparent that they haven't been standing still. Where on their first two records Yussef's eclectic mix of jazz, soul, reggae and hip hop influences were firmly rooted in the band's impressive funk credentials, now the sound palette is being stretched simultaneously into electronics and the use of more acoustic instruments - not least acoustic guitar, a rarity in urban music.

It's not always easy to be sure which is which, although Yussef assures me that really is an African thumb piano that gives a distinctive percussive texture on Prelude 2 Dreams.

Rejuvenation is a beguiling record, successfully marrying Yussef's trenchant politics (though Easy Loving is something new for him - a straight-ahead love song) and unique vocal delivery with a spirit of sonic adventure. But beneath its dazzling and generally upbeat surface, it has doubly tragic associations.

First, the band's outstanding drummer and bedrock, George Walker, died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 42, after laying down three tracks. The album is dedicated to his memory. And since it was completed keyboard and synthesiser player, drummer and co-producer Paul Brook, a strong influence on its sound, has lost his battle against cancer.

"Paul was very easy to relate to," says Yussef.

"Before he passed away we did quite a lot of other recordings as well. We still have quite a lot of unreleased tracks with him.

"He worked with Coldcut and many other professional bands. He was a master drummer as well, and we knew him because we rented one of his kits when we recorded our first album, Love of Life."

The aim with this album, he says, was to get "a bit more of a dance feel", and there was also a more fluid approach, with some of the tracks being written in the studio.

"Poetically Correct is something I'd written before as a poem, but Aboriginal Dreams - that came without writing the words. With the previous albums I wrote all the words before, but on a lot of this album I didn't have the words until we were in the studio.

"So basically the structure was done without having the words. You would have, say, 16 bars and you knew you would have to fit the words into it. Aboriginal Dreams is quite a strange pattern, and it was done with military precision.

"On What More Can a Poet Say? we didn't have the words, just the chorus, 'Open the door and let me in...'."

With a new drummer and a replacement also having to be found for the former bass player, who had moved out of the area, it's a new-look MY5.0 which will take to the stage in Coventry on Friday. But two stalwarts remain in guitarist Mel Jones and backing singer Shaz Akira.

"When we do unplugged gigs, the three of us do them," Yussef explains. "We played a lot of acoustic events last year, so when we came to do a session for the BBC it was quite easy to do it.

"Mel Jones has worked on all three albums. He did less on this one, but he is on most of the tracks. If I've got an idea most of the time I will go and talk to Mel. It's poetry but I seem to be more like a songwriter - I'm thinking of verse and chorus, and I play some guitar as well.

"Everybody in the band comes from all over the Midlands, from outside Birmingham, and we all work and do other things."

He is hoping the band will tour in October but meanwhile there are a handful of dates, including Friday's at Warwick Arts Centre and one in Bath two days later which will be recorded live.

"I've got a couple of new tracks for that. Once we've got this live recording we'll get it back up to Leamington to edit it and maybe do a single or EP and then a full album.

"Audio is a way we've been exploring ourselves more, but at the same time we've been considering visuals. We've got a video on YouTube and we're thinking about doing more.

"My stuff is a bit like story-telling. When you listen to folk musicians in this country, for instance, they tell stories and they just use an acoustic guitar. So in this country you have a great tradition, like in Ireland. You go to West Africa and they have folk music with a kora or drum.

"Hip hop is an artform that started in New York, but before that it took a lot from DJs in the West Indies. So what I'm doing is nothing new. People do lots of stuff, there's so many different artists, but they all tend to go back to the tradition."

Yussef Ahmed and MY5.0 play Warwick Arts Centre on Friday at 7.45pm. Rejuvenation is available through the website, yussef.com

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