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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Jon Balke - Siwan (ECM, 2009) ****

I'm a great fan of Arabic and Persian music because of the sound of its scales, but also for its often incredible technical skills, on voice and instruments, but first and foremost for the improvisational aspect and spiritual quality that it has. I lived for a couple of years in Morocco, in a flat almost above an audio cassette shop that played non-stop Arabic music in the street, from the most classical Oum Kalthoum over Fairouz to today's Rai music, so you either got to hate it or love it. In my case it was the latter.

Norwegian pianist and composer Jon Balke apparently feels the same, and he assembled musicians from around the world for his Siwan project, with Moroccan Amina Alaoui on vocals, Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche from Algeria on violin, further accompanied by a couple of jazz musicians and a classical string ensemble.

The band consists of :

Amina Alaoui vocal
Jon Hassell trumpet, electronics
Kheir Eddine M Kachiche violin
Jon Balke keyboards, conductor
Helge Andreas Norbakken percussion
Pedram Khavar Zamini zarb

Bjarte Eike: violin, leader
Per Buhre: violin
Peter Spissky: violin
Anna Ivanovna Sundin: violin
Milos Valent: violin
Rastko Roknic: viola
Joel Sundin: viola
Tom Pitt: cello
Kate Hearne: cello, recorder
Mattias Frostensson: double-bass
Andreas Arend: theorboe, archlute
Hans Knut Sveen: harpsichord, clavichord

It is a worthwhile album, if only for M'Kachiche's heartrending violin-playing and Alaoui's brilliant singing. They play in the tradition of the muwashah, the Arab music that has strong links with Andalusia in Spain and hails back to the time when Granada and Cordoba where among the cultural centers of the muslim world, and even the world in general. Hence a number of the compositions are sung in Spanish, a language that is still quite known in the north of Morocco. The first three tracks are excellent, with violin and voice determining the music's deep melancholy and feeling of longing. It enters a stylistic danger zone when Jon Hassell plays his muted trumpet on the fourth track "Ya Safwati", but luckily it's only an intro to a tempo increase for the string section and Alaoui's voice. And to Balke's credit, he manages to keep the whole album on a relatively high level, with not too many concessions to accessibility for western audiences. At some moments the sugar coating becomes a little too heavy, on "Zahori" for instance, on which M'Kachiche's violin is superb and it would have sounded even better without the trumpet that plays in a different scale and mood even, incapable of matching the subtlety of the Arabic music. The highlight of the album is "Tulâthiyat", on which again the long central piece of the composition on which Alaoui's singing is mainly supported by the Algerian's violin : simply staggeringly beautiful. The last track in Spanish lacks the same emotional tension, because of its more familiar European scales.

In all, a good album, and let's hope it brings more people to Arab music, and to the other albums of Amina Alaoui.

Some of the better Arabian jazz albums to recommend is Lebanese Rima Khcheich's "Falak", accompanied by a Dutch band led by saxophonist Yuri Honing. Her voice is also among the best of the Mediterranean. On another album, "Yalalali", she even has an Arab version of "My Funny Valentine", just accompanied by a bass.

One of the better albums in the real Arabo-Andalusian genre is Ensemble Ibn Arabi's "Arabo-Andalusian Sufi Songs", with Abdellah al Mansour El Kheligh on vocals.

If you want to hear more female vocal virtuoso musicianship, you should move towards Iran for Persian music. Easy to recommend are Hossein Alizadeh - Birds, Parissa & Ensemble Dastan - Shoorideh, and Parvin Javdan - Rozaneh, three albums on which the singers will bring tears to your eyes.

Watch a video clip of Jon Balke & Amina Alaoui

Jon Balke's Siwan - Live at Stavanger from RADIALSYSTEM V on Vimeo.

© stef