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Brother and sister musicians, Rowan and Tamsin Elliott, stand with Egyptian maestro, Tarek Elazhary in a misty field.

Tamsin Elliott & Tarek Elazhary – the interview

Tamsin Elliott and Tarek Elazhary sit down with Jon Wilks to talk through their fascinating new collaboration, combining Egyptian and English folk music.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have seen Tamsin Elliott and Tarek Elazhary at Sidmouth Folk Festival or FolkEast already this year. Perhaps you’ve come across the pre-released tracks from their sublime new album, So Far We Have Come. It’s possible you’ve seen the FolkEast X Tradfolk Squash Court Sessions video they filmed for us mid-August in Suffolk. Whichever way you tripped over their music, you’re no doubt pleased that you did. They’re one of this year’s best-kept secrets, after all.

You’ll have heard of Tamsin before, especially if you’re a regular Tradfolk reader. She is, hands down, one of our favourite British folk musicians – an astounding performer, whether she’s playing the accordion, the harp or the penny whistle. If Tarek is a new name to you, take note. Not only is he an oud wizard, he’s also one of the most expressive performers you’re likely to see this (or any other) year – a joy to watch. Their union in music seems an obvious one; in spite of the fact that they live so very far from one another, it feels like it was meant to happen. Together, they’re simply enchanting; attend one of their gigs and be carried away yourself. In these troubled times, their chance meeting may be a sign that the universe quite likes us after all.

Before Tarek arrived in the UK for their current tour and album PR, we caught up with the duo via Zoom – one beaming in from Bristol, and the other from Cairo. Here’s what went down.

Tell me a little bit about how you’ve both met.

Tamsin: OK, so in 2017, I already had an interest in Arabic music and a bit of a fascination with it. I decided to go and learn more and try to meet some people to play with. I had met a few Egyptians when I was playing at a wedding in India, and I’d kept in touch with them. Only one of them was actually in Cairo when I decided to visit. He introduced me to many musicians, and he said, “You have to meet Tarek”. So, I went with a small harp, my flute, and some penny whistles. I spent two months meeting people, attending gigs, and later joining jams. Often it was Tarek and his circle of friends. Cairo has a vibrant scene with many musicians playing Arabic classical music and also fusions with jazz and other genres, and more experimental music as well. There’s a lot of hip-hop, too. Tarek’s band Dokkan is really cool, and I played with them at the Cairo Jazz Club.

What was your attraction to Arabic music?

Tamsin: At the time, I didn’t really know. But upon reflection, I think it’s the lack of harmonic structure. I’m drawn to rhythm, melody, and drone in various music genres. I also love instruments like the ney and the oud. Some elements of the ornamentation also attracted me.

Did you grow up listening to any Arabic music? Did your parents introduce you to music outside of the English tradition?

Tamsin: Absolutely. We attended WOMAD, a world music festival, as a family holiday when I was a child.

Tarek: Was it in England?

Tamsin: Yes, the one in the UK. They host them in various places, but I’m not sure if they do them in any Arab countries.

I was involved in WOMAD when they held it on the beach in Abu Dhabi for two summers about 13 or 14 years ago. I remember watching performances from bands like Tinariwen.

Tamsin: That sounds amazing.

Yes, it was. It’s a shame it didn’t continue. So WOMAD was your introduction to other music from around the world?

Tamsin: Yes, I was exposed to diverse music as a child, not specifically Arabic music. That came later in my twenties. I listened to artists like Le Trio Joubran, Anouar Brahem, Dhafer Youssef, and Rabih Abou-Khalil – contemporary artists, mostly. Some, like Dafa Yusuf, mix experimental styles with jazz fusion.

Tarek, can you recall the first time you met Tamsin?

Tarek: Yes. A mutual friend introduced us, mentioning Tamsin was in Cairo and that she’s a musician. We immediately bonded over music, taught each other songs, and then performed at the Cairo Jazz Club. That performance led to the idea of collaborating on a project where both of us would compose and create music.

These tunes call to each other. It’s like they’re two parts of a wave.

Tarek Elazhary

Are there any similarities in the traditions? Was there a common ground you could both connect over?

Tarek: It was surprising to discover the musical similarities, actually. We found common tunes in old English folk music and classical Arabic music. These tunes call to each other. It’s like they’re two parts of a wave.

Tamsin: Nice description! You’re talking about ‘Telaet Ya Mahla Norha’ and ‘Mundesse’, right? It was a really nice moment. We were talking about how, in Arabic music, you often run down the scale – the maqam – to finish a phrase, and you hear it in a lot of popular Arabic songs and all across the genre. You probably hear it about five times on our album. We run down the scale at the end of a phrase and it signifies, I think, even to people who aren’t super-familiar with Arabic music, an instinctive feeling of closure. In English folk tunes, we often have these little phrases at the end of tune, or part of a tune, that have the same effect, that make you feel like that’s the end of the phrase. I played one on the accordion, a made-up one, and Tarek was like, “Whoa, there’s an Egyptian folk song with that exact ending!”

Tarek: Right, yeah! Exactly the same! Amazing.

So, Tarek, when you talk about Egyptian classical music, is that the same as talking about traditional music? Because I’ve noticed that you’ve used that phrase a couple of times.

Tarek: I think they are different. Like our traditional Egyptian music, it’s different from classical Arabic music. We use the simsimiyya, which is an instrument with a kind of circle box and then the strings are just coming out of the circle. Arabic classical music is a little bit wider because it has got other forms of music, like the sama’i form, for example, which is a form of music – the Arabic and the Andalusian forms. But it’s used in so many different Arabic countries. So Egypt uses this form and we have made our music often based on this sama’i. In Iraq, they use it in a different kind of tune or sound, but it’s the same kind of form as well. Turkey also uses it in a different way. They are all Arabic but I feel like each country has its specific taste.

Tamsin: Would you say that the sama’i is part of the Arabic classical tradition?

Tarek: I think it’s Arabic classical, yes.

Tamsin: But the simsimiyya is part of a specific folk tradition, I think. It’s often used in fishermen’s music.

Tarek: Fishermen’s music, right, exactly.

Tamsin: And then there’s also the Nubian music, for example, which is like another folk tradition within Egypt, which is not as broad as the classical.

Tarek: Right, exactly. If you go to Morocco as well, you will find their own musical taste. It’s Arabic, but it’s a Moroccan tradition.

Tamsin: And then within the Arabic classical, it’s sometimes performed with whole orchestras, right? But then sometimes it will be performed in… what’s the small group called?

Tarek: It’s called takt. The takt contains Arabic instruments for accompanying a singer, like the oud and the qanun, and percussion instruments like the riq. Then we have the violin, the double bass and the cello as well. So, yeah, this is a small takt. Sometimes they perform it in this kind of way and this is actually the traditional way. The classical way would be to make it like an orchestra, like the musicians that were playing with Umm Kulthum way back when.

Tamsin’s interest in Arabic music took her to Cairo, but did you have an interest in English traditional music, Tarek? Did you know anything about it before you started playing with Tamsin?

Tarek: To be fair, no. Tamsin was the gate to this for me. I think I knew about Scottish bagpipes – the normal things [laughs]. This was my knowledge. It was very little, but yeah, later on, after knowing Tamsin, I have been introduced. I’ve dug further into English music with Tamsin, and we’ve just been learning and teaching each other.

Tamsin: I remember on an early Zoom call, I think, before we even started this project, we were talking about ideas of what we’d like to do and I showed Tarek a video of morris dancing.

Tarek: Yes, right.

Jon: And what did you think?

Tarek: It was amazing. It was nice. It’s different. I remember in our residency in London at Cecil Sharp House, I was struggling with playing jigs. That was very interesting to me to learn.

It sounds like it was a real adventure of musical styles for both of you, but highly condensed. The album, So Far We Have Come, was made under a tight schedule, right?

Tamsin: Yeah, immigration logistics will do that. We had maybe six weeks, tops. We sent each other a lot of ideas back and forth in the month beforehand, but still, it’s just not the same as being in the room together. The real work began when we met at Cecil Sharp House. It was quite pressurized. I remember a few weeks into it thinking, “whoa, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do this”. And then we actually sat down and listed all the things that we’d been writing and we had so many ideas. We write together really well. So it turned out there was easily enough material. We just had to polish it to the extent that was possible at the time and get it down, get it recorded.

So, you started off at Cecil Sharp House?

Tamsin: Right, upstairs in the Committee Room. That was our research week.

Jon: And then you shifted to your studio to record?

Tamsin: Yes, in the studio in our garden.

Jon: What exactly were you researching?

Tamsin: I guess it was research in the broadest sense. We looked at tunes in the library, but we also just played together and worked on stuff.

Tarek: Yeah, we were just exchanging and looking into the ideas.

There’s quite a lot to be said for constrained creativity, I think.

Tamsin: Yeah, although my health doesn’t like that kind of thing and I wouldn’t do it like that again. [Thinks for a moment] Then again, I guess maybe I would because in some circumstances, like with immigration in mind, you can’t do things in a relaxed way. And we do tend to do it really casually under normal circumstances, which means that a few months later, you come back to it and you’ve got twice the visa costs and twice the flight costs.

Tarek: Yeah, I mean, there were times when I remember just telling Tamsin, “Hey, this is too much, this is a lot. We know this is a lot, so we have to relax about it and we just have to keep going, doing it as relaxed as we can.” Because really it was a lot of things to do and a lot of things to think about and to organize at the same time. We also had to play well! My mind should be quite empty, just thinking about only music. But I enjoyed everything and I think we succeeded in making it as smooth as we could.

Tamsin: I’d like to shout out to my brother, Rowan. He produced the album and his input was invaluable. Without him, the project wouldn’t have been possible.

Tarek: Absolutely, Rowan’s involvement was special. He helped keep us on track.

Rowan Elliott, Tarek Elazhary and Tamsin Elliott. Photo credit: Kate Griffin

Quite a lot of what you do is instrumental. How do you put across a specific theme or a feeling in instrumental music? For example, there’s something in your press release about using the music to explore women’s roles in society. How do you put something like that across without words?

Tamsin: I guess the way that I do is to distill the feeling that’s in me and then channel that into the instrument that I’m playing. It’s hard to know if that’s successful because it’s not literal or obvious. It’s more oblique or metaphorical. And I guess the way that that can be communicated to audiences is through context and through naming the track and giving some context and explanation as to what it is. Coupled with the intensity of feeling, which I hope I can convey with notes without words, that’s the way I approach it. I write my best music when I’m focused on a feeling, trying to work out how to express that, and then guiding the audience into how to interpret it with a bit of context.

And there’s also something you mentioned to me earlier about the adaptation of your accordion. In layman’s terms, what did you have to do and why?

Tamsin: It’s a normal piano accordion, which we’ve adapted. Tarek and I spoke about what the most important quarter-tone notes would be to play in the most common maqamat. So we worked on a system with Nick Hart. It was tricky but essential for the kind of music we wanted to create. I’m lucky to have a Nick Hart nearby who understands all that. But when Tarek got here, he noticed my tuning was off for certain maqams, so we had to adjust it again to make the music authentic. There’s a fine nuance in the tuning, especially when blending different musical traditions.

So Far We Have Come is an unexpected, gorgeous collaboration. When is it being released?

Tamsin: It’s out on September 21st. We have a gig in London on the same day, which will be part of our celebration.

Where else will the tour be taking you?

Tamsin: We’re going all over the place. I’ll send you a list of dates!

Tamsin Elliott & Tarek Elazhary tour dates

  • 25 Aug, Shambala Festival
  • 29 Aug, Locks Inn, Geldeston (sold out)
  • 31 Aug, Crown House, St Leonards
  • 2 Sep, Smugglers Festival
  • 5 Sep, Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol
  • 6 Sep, Cornish Bank, Falmouth
  • 7 Sep, Arts Centre, Ashburton
  • 8 Sep, British Legion, Bridport
  • 9 Sep, Somerset Jazz Festival
  • 10 Sep, The Lost Arc, Rhayader
  • 12 Sep, The Herbarium, Lancaster
  • 13 Sep, Upfront Arts, Penrith
  • 14 Sep, Cafe #9, Sheffield (sold out)
  • 15 Sep, Creative Peaks, Hopedale
  • 16 Sep, The Alfresco Spa Weekend, Bath
  • 17 Sep, Priston Festival
  • 21 Sep, St Mary’s Walthamstow, London

So Far We Have Come, the new album from Tamsin Elliott and Tarek Elazhary, is out on September 21st and can be ordered via Bandcamp.