A Palestinian Musician Thrives in France: Yousef Zayed’s Journey

22 August, 2022
Pales­tin­ian oud­ist Yousef Zayed (cen­ter) with the Liouane ensem­ble (cour­tesy Liouane).

 

Melissa Chemam

 

Sum­mer in France offers near­ly unlim­it­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties to hear live music from the four cor­ners of the earth. This sea­son was for many musi­cians a wel­come return to form, after the dis­rup­tions of Covid-19 over the last two years. In fact, July and August 2022 saw a won­der­ful series of con­certs play out for France-based Pales­tin­ian oud­ist, per­cus­sion­ist and music teacher Yousef Zayed.

In an inter­view we did the oth­er day, he not­ed that he had “per­formed a lot around the city of Poitiers, at fes­ti­vals in Gen­nevil­liers [near Paris], where I’m based, as well as at Fes­ti­val Rhi­zomes, in a gar­den inside the Insti­tut des Cul­tures d’Islam.”  

The Rhi­zomes Fes­ti­val offers free con­certs across Paris’ parks, gar­dens and oth­er out­door spaces through­out the month of July, such as Parc Flo­ral, canals, and the “Petite Cein­ture,” on the out­skirts of the French cap­i­tal. With 10 dates on 14 sites, it helps to dis­cov­er about 90 artists, from mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions and styles, via open air free concerts.

Born in Jerusalem in 1982, Yousef start­ed play­ing dar­bu­ka as a child, soon tack­ling dif­fer­ent instru­ments, includ­ing oth­er Arab per­cus­sion and the oud. He stud­ied per­cus­sion with Youssef Hbeish and oud with Khaled Joubran and Ahmad Al-Khat­ib at the Edward Said Nation­al Con­ser­va­to­ry of Music, in Jerusalem, Pales­tine, then worked between Beth­le­hem and Ramallah.

“I start­ed play­ing dar­bu­ka very young,” Yousef said. “I even built my own instru­ments with some of my par­ents’ pans and pots…I cried to them so I could play the drums. Then I learned more Pales­tin­ian music, but also had a rock ’n roll phase. I came to oud a bit lat­er, and start­ed play­ing Arab music, tra­di­tion­al Pales­tin­ian music, and influ­en­tial Ottoman rhythms. Then I joined the con­ser­va­to­ry as an oud and per­cus­sion play­er. I had won­der­ful teach­ers, espe­cial­ly the per­cus­sion­ist Youssef Hbeish. He became a friend and we lived very close­ly with our group of close musi­cians for years.”

 

 

Yousef soon began to per­form all around the coun­try. “It all hap­pened very nat­u­ral­ly for me, even if look­ing back, I real­ize it was an amaz­ing jour­ney,” he con­fessed. “I had these amaz­ing teach­ers and train­ers, friends to sup­port me.”

Yousef remind­ed me that being a musi­cian in Pales­tine is not an easy trade. There are few music venues, scant oppor­tu­ni­ties, and very small bud­gets, as well as all the admin­is­tra­tive obsta­cles, not to men­tion the ongo­ing Israeli check­points that ren­der trav­el ardu­ous. Yet Yousef made the most of it and was met with enthu­si­asm. He even per­formed in Israel, in Nazareth, Haifa and oth­er towns. “I per­formed for Israeli Pales­tini­ans or Pales­tini­ans liv­ing in Israel, whether they want to be called one or the oth­er. I’m sure that quite ear­ly on I per­formed in front of pro-Pales­tin­ian Israelis, and often the fes­ti­vals I played in end­ed up in polit­i­cal conversations…But for me, it quick­ly became point­less to argue about the future of Pales­tini­ans, while the sit­u­a­tion kept wors­en­ing. Our main pur­pose was to focus on music. We’re not solv­ing the polit­i­cal issues…”

 

 

Yousef then got invit­ed all over the Arab world, to Jor­dan, Moroc­co, the UAE and Europe, espe­cial­ly to Spain, at first, then Swe­den and France.

I real­ized that as Pales­tini­ans, wher­ev­er we are we feel dom­i­nat­ed by oth­ers any­way, even at home. I under­stood that if I want­ed to devel­op my projects, I had to live abroad.

“My first trip to Europe was to Athens in 1996, then I trav­elled to Europe for music reg­u­lar­ly, to Spain and France. I liked it but I had nev­er planned to leave Pales­tine. How I end­ed up liv­ing in France is anoth­er story…Actually, no jour­nal­ist has ever asked me about it; it’s the first time I speak about these details. What hap­pened is that my future wife want­ed to apply for a grant to work in Paris as a teacher, in 2008. She had stud­ied French at the French Insti­tute of Ramal­lah for four years. She kept encour­ag­ing me to apply, too…

“But I had spo­ken Ara­bic all my life and was an Anglo­phone as well. I wasn’t sure it would be the right move. Then I real­ized that as Pales­tini­ans, wher­ev­er we are we feel dom­i­nat­ed by oth­ers any­way, even at home. I under­stood that if I want­ed to devel­op my projects, I had to live abroad. And I want­ed to make my love hap­py, too. So, I final­ly applied, and we got mar­ried in 2008. A few months lat­er, I received a grant, yet she didn’t.”

Erwan Hamon and Yousef Zayed, 2022 (cour­tesy Yousef Zayed).

Nonethe­less, Yousef’s wife couldn’t be hap­pi­er for him. “She encour­aged me to go — she said she would con­tin­ue to try and join me. So, I arrived in 2009 and, by chance, I found the con­ser­va­to­ry in Gen­nevil­liers, where I’ve been teach­ing ever since. I worked very hard to learn French as I knew I need­ed to speak the lan­guage real­ly well to move for­ward and devel­op my music. The Eng­lish lan­guage had already been a key for me, it helped me so much. But French was essen­tial to liv­ing here.”

Yousef speaks near­ly flaw­less French, with almost no accent. Luck­i­ly, his wife, whom he met in Pales­tine when he was 12, man­aged to even­tu­al­ly join him.

As an expe­ri­enced Pales­tin­ian musi­cian, Yousef was quick­ly invit­ed to give mas­ter­class­es in oud and Pales­tin­ian per­cus­sion, as well as con­fer­ences. And he start­ed play­ing with fel­low musi­cians, form­ing dif­fer­ent musi­cal projects. Liv­ing in France helped him to earn a liv­ing, as a teacher, and to trav­el and per­form widely.

“I worked with the Alger­ian vio­lin­ist Rachid Brahim-Djel­loul and his sis­ter, Amel, who’s a singer,” he told me. He has also played and record­ed with var­i­ous artists includ­ing Le Trio Joubran, L’Orchestre 2E2M, L’Orchestre Diver­ti­men­to, Tunisian singer and musi­col­o­gist Dor­saf Ham­dani, the Hamon Mar­tin Quin­tet, and Sis­ter Marie Key­rouz, a catholic Maronite Lebanese reli­gious singer.

More recent­ly he per­formed with the Bre­ton flautist Erwan Hamon, and with a quar­tet of musi­cian friends he found­ed the Liouane quin­tet, with which he per­formed at Rhi­zomes Fes­ti­val in Paris in July.

 

  
Liouane is an ongo­ing project, even though we haven’t man­aged to release an album yet, because we’re still pro­duc­ing our­selves inde­pen­dent­ly. But we’ll be per­form­ing fur­ther in the autumn with Erwan,” Yousef explained. “And I have anoth­er project of tra­di­tion­al Arab-Andalu­sian music, with a show in mind to be titled ‘Being,’ on the theme of exile, which will include text from philoso­phers, from Han­nah Arendt to Edward Said, to be read by actors on stage. We’ll play music by Bach, Bar­tok and Ottoman composers.”

Mean­while, he con­tin­ues to hap­pi­ly teach Pales­tin­ian music in the depart­ment of Ori­en­tal music at the Edgar Varèse Con­ser­va­to­ry in Gen­nevil­liers. “The depart­ment has expand­ed since 2014 and we now have 75 students.”

Isn’t impart­ing the beau­ty of music via teach­ing, at the end of the day, one of the best ways to pro­mote Pales­tin­ian culture?

 

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