Handsworth voice of reason- 18. 06. 04

HeadLine Culture: Handsworth voice of reason
Sub-Heading Terry Grimley is mightily impressed by Birmingham poet Yussef Ahmed.
Publication Birmingham Post Date 18/06/2004, By Terry Grimley


When I first put on Yussef Ahmed's new CD Against All Odds, I was emptying the dishwasher. It's probably just as well no one was there to see what happened next.

Suffice to say that this record by the Handsworth-based black Muslim poet (the artist previously known as Muhammad Yusuf) has the mysterious power to make old white blokes dance in their kitchens. As he aptly sums it up: 'We make music to keep your feet moving and your mind working.'

How would you describe the style? There are elements of dub poetry, rap and hip hop, but the music evolved by Yussef and his remarkable band, MY5.0, tends towards funk, delivered with the sort of panache you would once have associated only with New York or Los Angeles. But this record was made in Leamington.

The odd-track-out, recorded at Birmingham Conservatoire, revives that dodgy 1950s idea of juxtaposing poetry and jazz, with a pick-up group led by pianist Mark Lockett. And it comes off.

'It's easier to call it world fusion,' Yussef concludes. 'Rap is just a branch of roots, and roots come from the Griots of West Africa.

'Years ago I used to listen to folk music. Whenever Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson and people like that came to Birmingham I would go. Any of those people, before they did a song, would explain where it came from. Basically my oral tradition came from a different line.'

Born in London, Yussef grew up in Trinidad, thereby being exposed from an early age to a heady mix of cultural traditions, including Islam.

'We had the camboulay torchlit processions, the Calypso tradition, and then reggae is very important. There's Spanish folk music -we were only seven miles off Venezuela -and of course American soul. 'Poetry came to me much later, when I had been living here.'

Events during the 1980s like the US invasion of Grenada and the inner city riots in Britain helped give his work a political focus.

'My father was a very political and socially-motivated person. I've been involved in a lot of pressure groups -People Against Deportation, Greenpeace groups,the struggle in Nicaragua, Chilean Solidarity.'

Recently he paid a visit to Gaza with a group of Birmingham trade unionists, and photographs of him with some of the local youngsters in the Beach Refugee Camp adorn the packaging of Against All Odds. He was singled out for particular scrutiny by the Israelis and for a while doubted that he would be allowed in.

'We spent 11 or 12 days in Palestine, and we had a wonderful trip. We were able to make contact with a lot of wonderful people, some Palestinian groups and some Israeli groups as well: there's a group that's against the demolition of houses in Jerusalem. It's a harsh reality, but it was great being over there.

'It reminded me of when my father used to take us to a museum in Trinidad. We heard about the Caribs who were there before, but the only Carib you find in Trinidad now is a beer.

'I've been to places that were Palestinian places, and there's nothing left. Everything has been taken away from them.'

For a while in the middle 80s Yussef was half of a duo called The Flaming Crescent, and his solo career started in 1990.

'I used to go to a lot of schools, going round beating drums and storytelling. I had an album, Rootical ties Of Poemology, released on a Manchester label, but it was shortlivedthe company went bankrupt.

'Then they had this competition to select artists for a Young Gifted and Black tour. They had auditions in London and Sheffield and to my astonishment I was selected. I did a demo and we had a tour right round the UK.'

During the 90s he went to university, 'went in and out of a marriage' and travelled extensively.

Love of Life, his debut CD with the current band, with its tight nucleus of guitarist Mel Jones, bass player Carlos Dadawah Adley and drummer George Walker, came in 2001. Though slightly less glossy than Against All Odds and showing his work at an earlier stage of evolution, with more reggae and calypso influences, it is another thoroughly impressive album and Yussef plans to re-release a revised version in October.

'A recording is only a documentation of where you're at at a particular time and space,' he says, adding that he tries not to write too directly about political events now because the results are likely to date (having said that, his track about Iraq from 2001, Mr Baddad, sounds bang up-to-date three years on).

For Against All Odds he invited well-known jazz singer Helen McDonald to help out on supporting vocals: 'She has this wonderful jazz voice, a wonderful, heavenly voice. I thought 'Wow!', I called her up and she did it in two sessions.

'This album came from many years. It's a whole journey of me trying to find my roots.'

Absurdly, he hasn't yet been able to find a distributor. He seems to be a victim of something he despises: the easy categorisation of music.

'I've had people say 'We don't do any reggae'. Because it's a black guy from Handsworth they think it must be reggae. I'd like to be in a place where people are less dogmatic, to take the whole thing to a different stage and not have any boundaries to say you can't do this.'

It's a bone of contention for him that younger black audiences don't get exposed to the full range of their heritage by the radio stations which supposedly exist to serve them.

'Everything is categorised -reggae, hip hop, urban . . . especially in Britain. What happened was we lacked information. Musically we heard what was coming from America, or we would have Jamaican stuff. Most African music comes to England but it goes to festivals and arts centres.

'Because I travel my record collection has a wide range. I'm very interested in West African music, but I also have a lot of traditional English music, Kirsty Moore, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Because they've corrupted the scene for so long, even if distributors were pleased with the work, they would say 'How do you market this?' 'But I've got no fear for it. When we tour we'll sell it, and we'll sell it on the website.'

Yussef's live appearances in Birmingham have been strangely scarce recently, though he has just played Warwick Arts Centre for the third time and is playing at Cox's Yard, Stratford-upon-Avon, tonight.

'What we're doing is clubs, arts centres, universities, festivals,' he says. 'We'll be touring again in October, playing mostly universities. I would definitely like to take the band over to Europe.'

He is already thinking about the next stage of musical development, moving more towards dance music but retaining the poetic roots.

When not writing poetry or performing, Yussef likes to look after his garden.

'I like to watch things grow,' he says. 'From the band's perspective, it's like nurturing it from a small plant. It has to be nurtured and it has to take time. It's a very hard journey. You don't have to like me, but you have to respect what I've tried to do.'

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