Sufi mystic and Berkeley Recreation aquatics specialist, master of traditional North African instruments, storyteller, and pioneering jazz improviser, Yassir Chadly contains multitudes. Over the years he’s recorded with jazz luminaries such as Randy Weston, Pharoah Sanders, and Omar Sosa, but musically he’s been sticking close to home since the 2012 death of trumpeter Khalil Shaheed. Together, they founded the Mo’Rockin Project, a band that fused traditional Moroccan songs with jazz and R&B, a repertoire Chadly hopes to revisit someday. Until he locates the right partner the Casablanca-born multi-instrumentalist can be found playing traditional music, as when he returns to Ashkenaz Friday with a group of East Bay Moroccan musicians including percussionist Mostafa Raiss El Fenni, who owns Sahara Import on Piedmont Avenue.
“I like to show the people raw Moroccan music, no preservatives,” says Chadly from his house in El Sobrante, where he and his wife recently settled after decades in Oakland. “People like to hear something authentic, as if they’re in Morocco, so they don’t have to travel.”
An informal ensemble that practices at Sahara Imports, Chadly and the Moroccans draw on a shared repertoire of celebratory wedding songs, incantatory Sufi trance music and Gnawa grooves, a tradition brought to the Maghreb in past centuries by West Africans. A skilled percussionist and string player known for his work on oud, castanet-like karkabas, goblet-drum darbuka, and frame-drum bendir, he often leads the ensemble from the three-string bass-like ginbri (or sintir).
“I don’t have a favorite instrument,” he says. “I love the oud, ginbri, the drums and my voice. All of them are different tools I use for specific music and sounds. Some of the styles are raw, like the beginning of jazz. We know the songs and you can take them and invent in the moment. Moroccan music gives you room to improvise. There’s call and response, and the Gnawa songs are close to the blues.”
Chadly has kept a much lower musical profile since the loss of Khalil Shaheed, a beloved mentor to generations of Bay Area musicians whose legacy continues in the Oaktown Jazz Workshop. A more recent transition saw Chadly ending his two-decade association with Oakland’s Masjid Al-Iman mosque over long-simmering disagreements regarding management and finances. He led Friday afternoon services at the First Congregational Church’s Loper Chapel for several weeks before the devastating fire. Now he’s an itinerant imam who’s enjoying his freelance status “not having anybody tell me what to do,” Chadly says. “Masjid Al-Iman was run by someone who became the pharaoh of the mosque. Things went to his head, and I was like Moses and had to run away.”
The Moses metaphor seems apt considering the way he seems to be called to the water. When a new Berkeley Recreation director tried to reassign his position in 2007, a groundswell of support from his aquatic fans led to a reversal, and he continues to teach the senior exercise class that he started in 1998. He was resigned to his taking his new position, which would have cut his benefits, but “Berkeley people stood up, particularly my senior exercise people,” Chadly says. “They kept on sending emails. Berkeley people know what’s right and fight for you. I can’t live anywhere but near Berkeley.”
Born into the Shadhili Tariqa order of Sufi mystics — his surname is an Anglicization of Shadhili — Chadly moved to San Francisco from Morocco in 1977 and quickly realized that the cosmopolitan Islamic culture he grew up in wasn’t necessarily shared with all Muslims in the United States.
“I was surprised when I came here and found rigidity among some Muslims, so narrow minded,” he says. “They’ve been fed by the Wahhabi school,” he said, referring to the strict and puritanical school of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia, “which teaches that music is haram, forbidden, and that a man can’t shake a woman’s hand. I’m against those people. As soon as you follow their ideology, you become under their control.”
Far from considering music forbidden, Chadly grew up surrounded by an international array of sounds, from the Beatles to the Berber blues of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. It wasn’t until he moved to the Bay Area however that he experienced jazz. Walking through North Beach with several co-workers from the Polk Street Moroccan restaurant Agadir Chadly was hailed by Keystone Korner doorman Walid Rahman with the traditional Arabic greeting “as-Salaam Alaykum.”
He Invited them inside the club “and that was the first time I saw jazz in my life,” Chadly recalls. “I thought jazz was connected with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. I’d never seen it live. But I quickly saw the improvisation, the way they musicians would create a variation and then go back to the melody. I saw Art Blakey, what a wonderful drummer! McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis when he was a young guy, so many great musicians. Walid was the one who opened this jazz world for me. Years later when I was playing at Yoshi’s, the door man is Walid. We renewed our friendship, and when he was sick last year he asked me to take care of his burial. I washed his body and buried him.”
Islam continued to play an essential role in his musical evolution. He met tenor sax legend Pharoah Sanders at the mosque, and mentioned an upcoming concert of Moroccan music he had at La Peña. Sanders came by to check it out, and ended up inviting Chadly to join him at his next performance, which paved the way for collaborations with some of jazz’s most commanding improvisers.
He continues to share a related gift from his youth with Bay Area audiences, offering classes in storytelling. Growing up in Casablanca with no refrigerator, he’d accompany his mother to the market place every day join a circle of people around a storyteller while she shopped for food.
“That was the entertainment we had,” he says. “I’d sit on a crooked rock and if it hurts my butt, the storyteller isn’t very good. If my butt doesn’t hurt that means the storyteller is good. When I came here most of the stories were on TV. I watched X-Files and Harry Potter, and I knew so many similar stories from growing up near a market.”
Recommended gigs: Howard Wiley / Layla McCalla
Berkeley-reared saxophonist Howard Wiley kicks off a new series of concerts Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory where he’s “remaking the great saxophone and vocal albums with non-jazz singers,” he says, starting with Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley’s classic 1961 album on Capital. He’ll be joined by the vivacious vocalist Kimiko Joy and bassist David Ewell (fellow Berkeley High alumni), pianist Maya Kronfeld and drummer Thomas Pridgen, a former member of The Mars Volta.
Layla McCalla, a cellist, tenor banjo player, guitarist, and enchanting singer, makes her Bay Area debut as a solo artist Wednesday Oct. 19 at Freight & Salvage, celebrating the release of her new album A Day For the Hunter, A Day For the Prey (Harmonia Mundi). Best known as a member of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, she explores American folk songs in English and Creole, originals, and Haitian Creole songs. She shares the bill with fellow Chocolate Drop Don Flemons.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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