Ever looked at one of those intricate, multi-colored tapestries and marveled at how it was all woven together? That’s what it’s like to listen to the music of Quarter to Africa. One part African rhythms, one part funky jazz and one part traditional Arabic makam scales; frontmen Yakir Sasson and Elyasaf Bashari have put together a truly unique sound.
Beginning in 2014, they began as a duo and slowly added other musicians to create what is now a multi-artist, multi-instrument group. They released their new single “Layback” on April 11 and dropped their EP on the 20th. Yakir and Elyasaf sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss afros, Arabic quarter notes and Kendrick Lamar.
What are your musical backgrounds?
Y: I’ve played since I was 10 years old. I started to play the saxophone and I studied music. I moved to New York after my studies to pursue being a musician there. I came back in 2009 and realized that I didn’t want to be just a jazz musician. I wanted to connect all of my influences to something organic; to find a unique style. It started to happen with the fusion of world music, funk and jazz. Somewhere along the way I met Elyasaf.
E: I feel like I’ve been playing music forever.
I started off banging on tables, then I moved to playing guitar when I was 15. Being a musician is exploring all the time; exploring instruments and life. It’s a journey. Now we’re getting to some very cool places.
How did you guys come to form Quarter to Africa? E: The answer to that is it really just became. We saw each other a few times and we both have this afro kind of hair; we have similar Afro-Arab looks. Immediately we became friends and we realized that we were going to be forming a very cool band.
We knew it straight away. Ever since then, we’ve been becoming. We’ve been collaborating with Avishai Cohen and Nechi Nech, who is an Israeli rapper. They’re both feature on our new single “Layback.” It’s very groovy and refreshing.
Y: The song really characterizes our band.
It’s a laid back way of life and you can feel it in the beat of the music. This is what makes Quarter to Africa; it’s our layback.
Our musical influences from our roots and what we’ve absorbed.
What are your roots? E: I see myself as a Hebrew man. Originally my grandmother and grandfather are from Yemen. But that’s the story of Israel; all the cultures get mixed up together into this Afro-Arab sound.
Y: My mom’s side is from Iran and my dad is from Iraq. But he lived by a lot of Moroccan and Yemenite people. So the folklore music is very much in me.
What’s the meaning of your name? Y:The band is named after the quarter note. In traditional Arabic music, they have a different kind of scale system that uses only quarter notes. So the name comes from that Arabic sound. It also comes from the continent right near us that we believe is within the foundation of Jews in general.
Whatever I’m playing in my life, I feel a very strong presence of the motherland.
That’s how we feel the music.
Are there other musicians or other elements besides your roots that have influenced you?
Y: Starting from the singing of the birds, there are so many influences. In terms of musicians, there’s Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Crosby Stills and Nash, Bob Marley, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, James Brown; all the big names. We’ve thought about it a lot. We try to take the best influences in every style from the best. We learn from the best. Since we were children, we heard them and knew that we could take from that style with respect and make it our own. We respect the main source, and that vision has been present since we were little.
E: Being open every day and learning things from everyone is important.
How would you describe the Israeli music scene? E: It’s full of super talented people, who are very high level and original. It’s one of the best music scenes for sure; it’s beautiful.
You guys are working on your debut album now? Y: With the release of the single, we decided that we have to bring something to our audience. So there will be a new EP with four songs that will be released later this month. It’s not an official CD yet, but it’s something that we can give to our audience that presents our style and our musical statement. The full album will hopefully be ready for release in six months. We’ve started working on it with Avishai Cohen.
He’ll be involved in producing and playing on it. It’s a process. We have some other big things coming like performing at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat with Avishai. It’s a big honor to us and we know it’s going to be nice. It’s an international festival.
Who are your other dream collaborations?
E: Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Stevie Wonder. If Kendrick wants to dance or do spoken word, whatever he wants to do.
Y: I can tell you one thing, that’s Elyasaf’s wish to have Kendrick Lamar collaborate with us. Up until now, all of Elyasaf’s wishes have come true.
E: It’s like that, if you want something to happen, you have to say it out loud without being shy.
Y: There is a phrase in Hebrew that thought and talking make reality. First you think, then you talk, then the reality happens.
This is the way that we live. We don’t limit ourselves.
If music tells a story. What kind of story do you guys tell?
E: It’s the story of the land and the culture of the land. It touches many places from sandy deserts to lush places. It’s vibe-full, that’s a word I invented.
Y: I think that our story is simple and fun; a story that has many layers, but is still simple.
It reaches everybody on the level that they want to take it. If you want to go deep in it, you can. If you want to see it in a flat way, you also can enjoy it that way.
What does Quarter to Africa smell like?
E: It smells like roses and ganja.
Y: Smell is the most powerful sense that I have. With the smell of our music, we use a lot of flavors, so what’s important to me is that it smells like something good cooking.
It doesn’t matter if it’s fish or meat or just rice.
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