Dr. Yusef Lateef: Hearing from the Heart

An excerpt of an interview by Gigi Brooks, radio host at WUCF in Florida

Yusef Lateef
Yusef Lateef

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Gigi Brooks: What made you gravitate to the saxophone? Where did the interest come from?

Dr. Yusef Lateef: It came from the environment that I was in. I used to live upstairs, when I was twelve years old, over a theatre and they had stage shows there, and I would sit right there and listen to the saxophone player and the trumpet player, and I became influenced.

Were you very young when you started?

I was twelve years old when I wanted a saxophone but my dad couldn’t afford it. So he told me if I saved half my money, he’d give me the rest of it. So when I was eighteen years old and I was selling papers etc., there was a saxophone for eighty dollars downtown in Detroit and I told my dad about it and he gave me the other forty dollars after I had saved forty, and I got my first saxophone when I was eighteen and I started studying it in high school.

Why are the reeds so important? Is it tone production for you, or is it for the sake of developing your own signature sound?

The saxophone reeds come already made. You can buy them already structured for the individual saxophone. But when it comes to the oboe, you have to learn how to make them yourself. It’s a skill all in its own. It takes time to develop that type of skill on the oboe. But there are no problems on the saxophone; you can just buy them already made.

I understand you spent some time over in Africa; let’s talk about that.

It was in 1981, in August, I was invited to the University of Ahmadu Bello in Zaria Nigeria; the northern part of Nigeria. I was recommended for a position of Research Fellow and I accepted it. And I did the research for the instrument called the Serewa, which was made by the Fulani herdsman who would raise their cattle there, and I did research into the instrument that they made called the Serewa. And it’s simply made from a limb from a Bogota tree. They would graze the cattle all day and in the evening for relaxation they would whittle a piece of wood from the Bogota tree, and in ten minutes they would have a flute called the Serewa. And I did research into how they structured them and I made a fingering chart for it so if someone who wanted to learn how to play it, could sit down and teach themselves even.

The Chemistry department, on my request, made a Serewa out of glass which produces a different sound than wood. And in this society, some of the musicians made them out of bicycle parts. It was just simply a tubing and it was an in-blown flute with four holes in it. But surprisingly enough, the range of the Serewa was about 7 tones wider than the Germanic Sea flute which comes from the western part of the world. And it was a grand experience just working with the drama company and the Nigerian musicians.

I worked also with African music and African instrumentation and I also taught a course in papers and letters for regional Nigerians who came from other parts of Nigeria to Zaria. They were like cultural offices and I taught them how to do research in, well, one thing was the Bori ethic. It’s a religion in Nigeria. And these Bori musicians claim to be able to communicate with different spirits, which I thought was very interesting. For example, if someone had the problem of chewing, and they were chewing some meat, they were possessed by the butcher spirit; the spirit of the butcher. And these musicians would play music to appease the spirit and induce the spirit to leave the person’s body. We used to stylize like the Bori ritual and the complications stylizations of the Bori. Also we put together a play. It was called “Queen Amina” and it was based on the life of an African queen whose name was Amina; she lived three hundred years ago.

We were invited to the Festival of Nations in Sofia, Bulgaria and there were twenty eight different nations represented and we represented the Nigerian part of the festival. And I had to go out into the bush and hire an authentic Bori musician who was a farmer in the winter time and played Bori music in the winter time. And the two main Bori instruments are called the Goye, which is a one string instrument, made out of goat skin and horse hair, and the claba which is made out of a gourd that grows wild there; it was a percussion instrument. And I hired this Bori musician for the center and we traveled to Bulgaria and I asked him, “Can you teach me how to play Bori music?” He said, “Yes.” I said “well, what should I do?” He said “Just sit beside me and pay attention.” I thought that was interesting. One other interesting thing was the Tee’s People. They sang songs that were sung and had been composed by orphans.

I found that they had a correlation to the blues that we have here in America; an observation of the roots of the blues. The orphans who composed these songs had gone on, or were passed down for generations I should say. I’d like to let you see the similarities to some of the songs. There was this one song sung by Tee’s, as you know there are over 300 ethnic groups in Nigeria. And the Tee’s people notated an orphan song that was left by a tee, a girl whose mother had died, and the words go, “Since my mother left me, I will not forget this thing until I die. My mother, oh mother, there have been people who die and come back; you should come back and see me now. I am suffering, I don’t sleep all night. Had you been alive this thing would not have happened. But anyway, when I die all this suffering will go away too. Had it been that I was beautiful, I would have achieved something like other beautiful girls. I am just feeling like the vulture had grabbed the meat from my hand and flew away just as my life in this world.” So obviously those words can be sung. It’s a very prophetic story and it’s touching.

It’s amazing, you’re a virtuoso on your reed instruments and I’m just going to mention the instruments that you play and the fact that you have created some instruments for us to play. We’re looking at the tenor sax, flute, oboe, bamboo flute, shanai, shofar, arghul, serewa, and koto. And you’ve written fingering charts for several of the instruments.

Well I wrote some for the serewa.

How does one go about writing a fingering chart?

It’s done graphically. You have a staff where you place the notes; you know the five lines with spaces that we use in western music, and you place the note there and vertically above the note you have a line, which we’ll say is C natural, and its three fingers; the first of the left hand cover the holes. And obviously there are only four holes in the serewa. There are no keys, only holes and it’s blown from the end. C is three fingers, and A may be two fingers of the left hand pressed against the open holes. And so it’s a graphic kind of notation, which has been used in western flute charts for over a hundred years.

That is amazing Dr. Lateef and thank you so much for explaining that cause I’m sure a lot of us, including myself, did not know that.

[Laughs] Oh you’re welcome!

Let me ask you a question about the recording of “Love Theme from Spartacus.” Tell me what feedback, if any, you ever got; because this is one of your most popular recordings. What feedback did you receive from people throughout the years? What were your intentions as far as the choice of playing a double reed instrument, which would be the oboe? Why did you choose the oboe in that piece?

Well this is a long story. When I was in high school my teacher, Mr. John Cabera, who was from Spain; he said to me, “Why don’t you play the oboe?” and I said, “No, I want to play the saxophone.” So nine years after I finished high school, I remember what he had told me, he had insight. So nine years after I finished high school, I bought an oboe. (Laughs) And so I studied it with the oboists of the Detroit Symphony, and I had another teacher in New York. So it was on the suggestion of a teacher who had insight; in fact, I was in the class the day that he suggested that Milt Jackson play the vibraphone and he became one of the world’s great vibraphonists, just from some suggestions from Mr. Cabera. And so that’s how that was. I went to see this picture, Gladiators I think it was called, and as many musicians we were recording themes, sometimes from movie pictures. And I thought it was such a beautiful theme that I should record on oboe, for prestige records. And I did and it seemed to be one of the favorite songs of many people. I’ve had comments like one man said, “The night that my wife and I heard the ‘Love Theme from Spartacus,’ we got married.” That was a memorable experience of course. The idea, in that particular album, which was called Eastern Sounds, was to play music from other cultures. That was obviously an eastern type of song; it induced an eastern psychological trimmer in listener’s ear. I thought it was a very beautiful song.

We all do. Now, you mentioned the trimmers in our ears; now I can go on into my next question. I believe that when you are choosing your music, you purposefully try to have that effect on your listener. You’re actually working on more of a spiritual level with your listener in your music. Am I correct?

Yes, you’re correct.

Can you explain to me how you go about doing that?

Yeah, it’s a serious affair. I hope, strongly, that I become a conduit to touch people’s hearts. Some people can hear with their hearts, not only their ears. And that’s like a very deep human relationship between hearing with the heart and hearing with the ears. If providence wills, it can happen; that type of attachment. For example, if a man or a woman hears a beautiful voice and they try to find the source of this voice and when they get to where they find a lady sing and its coming from this individual, the conclusion is that this voice is not from the lady, but is from the providence that created the lady. So another example is I wrote an essay, during the time I was in Copenhagen, I went to hear Ben Webster and he played the Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” and he played it and it came through with such deep feeling that many of the dames, about ninety percent of them, were crying. And there’s a saying in The Holy Qur’an that it is God who makes people cry, and I was one of them. So these kinds of heartfelt feelings come from deep within the reservoir of a person’s being. If it’s chosen as a conduit, it’s a transportation of this deep message.

To hear podcasts of more interviews in this series, go to the WUCF website

Interview transcribed by Noel M. King.