upper waypoint

How Yassir Chadly Came to Terms With Music and Islam

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

In the past two decades, a Who’s Who of jazz and world music artists have knocked on Yassir Chadly’s door. Pharoah Sanders. Steve Coleman. Randy Weston. Omar Sosa. Stephen Kent. They all wanted to play with Chadly, a native Moroccan who lives in the East Bay and has established a reputation as a consummate instrumentalist. Chadly makes the oud and the gimbri, stringed instruments whose origins go back millennia, echo with soul and vibration.

When he’s not accompanying other musicians, or performing for dance outfits like Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Chadly is surprisingly funny onstage, prone to joking about himself or things he sees in the culture. At age 59, Chadly has spent more time in the United States than in Morocco, where he first learned the music that has defined his musical career in his adopted country.

In the Morocco of Chadly’s youth, spiritual music was so engrained in the culture that instrumentalists would go from house to house to perform and solicit alms. Gnawa music, a marriage of Moroccan and West African traditions that is designed for healing and trance, was especially formative for Chadly, who grew up in Casablanca.

“I used to look at how they played and sang, and I was happy to hear that music and learn it,” he says. “I bought my first gimbri from a guy who went from house to house. He was a wandering gimbri player.”

Besides being a professional musician, Chadly is an imam, or spiritual leader, of Masjid-Al Iman, a Sufi-oriented mosque in Oakland that welcomes non-Muslims to its services. Some adherents of orthodox Islam consider all music heretical. Chadly studied under the Naqshbandi, a Sufi order that traces its origins to the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and Chadly’s life changed several decades ago when Naqshbandi leaders told him that music of the spirit is allowed, though not music that Chadly says has its origins “below the bellybutton.”


“I found a Sufi master from Cyprus, Shaykh Nazim, and at that time I was in limbo,” says Chadly. “Sometimes you hear from extreme Muslim sects that music is haram (forbidden), and music is what I love to do the most. When I heard that, I thought maybe I should do something else, like become a butcher or a taxi driver. So I was stuck until I found my teacher, Shaykh Nazim, who’s the leader of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. He said music can be divided into sections. There’s the music from the bellybutton down, which is not acceptable in Islam, and music that can go left or right, it’s up to you. Like jazz, which can be somebody in a bar doing a strip tease or something, or the same tone can help someone work longer because he’s tired. Then there’s music that touches the heart, that can be very positive, and that’s music that goes from the heart up to heaven. This kind of explanation freed me from the limbo that I was in. I said, ‘Now, I can do music from the heart up.’ “

For his Ashkenaz concert, Chadly is billed as “Yassir & the Moroccans,” and “the Moroccans” are a group of seven young Moroccan-American musicians — most in their 20s or 30s — who Chadly is mentoring into a bona fide group. Chadly will perform on strings, the rest on qarqaba, which collectively produce a mesmerizing rhythm that is almost hypnotic. The concert will feature qnawa music, which, like American blues music, is based on a five-note structure, and also Arabic music. Some of the audience at Ashkenaz will dance to Chadly’s songs. Others will stay seated and close their eyes, reveling in the music’s spiritual dimension. However they react, the audience will hear Chadly orchestrate sets that he says are designed to keep the musicians — and the audience — riveted.

When he’s not performing or functioning as a religious leader or teaching introduction to Sufism at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, Chadly is a swim instructor in Berkeley; during his youth in Morocco, he made the Moroccan national swim team, and is still adept in aquatics. Having his hands in different areas gives Chadly perspective on reaching different audiences. He immigrated to California in 1977, and his first job was working at a San Francisco restaurant called Agadir, on Polk Street. Nearby was the Keystone Corner, a notable jazz club.

“We used to finish at 11 o’clock, and when we’d go around the Keystone Corner, there was a guy named Walid, and he knew we were Muslim, and he said, ‘Salam Aleykum’ (peace be upon you), and we said ‘Walaikum Salam’ (peace be upon you, too). He said, ‘Do you want to listen to jazz?’ And I said, ‘What is jazz?’ He said, ‘Come in.’ And he brings us in and we sit down, and we sit watching these musicians, and it was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I started going there; I was hooked by these musicians. I said, ‘I want to do something like that with Moroccan music.’ “

And he has.

Yassir Chadly performs Friday, November 22, 8:30pm, at Ashkenaz in Berkeley. For tickets and more information,”visit ashkenaz.com.

lower waypoint
next waypoint