Jon Balke and Amina Alaoui’s Siwan

balke-alaoui-siwanPeople sometimes remark on my taste in music (as in “What on earth are you listening to now?”), and I’ll be the first to admit it’s rather broad. I figure it’s all just music, and half the fun of it is finding the places where it all overlaps — you can always worry about classifications later. (I might also mention that I find constant reinforcement for the idea that music was humanity’s first art form — all you need to do to make music is hum.) And so I find myself very happy to be discussing Siwan, a very intelligent and sensitive collaboration among a group of musicians with strong backgrounds in medieval and baroque music, the music of Muslim Iberia, and jazz.

The music of medieval Iberia reflects the cultural cross-fertilization that is one of the key elements in the development of the forms and idioms of art, particularly music. With this album, however, I discovered that this particular result of cross-fertilization has a name: it’s called “Gharnati,” and developed during the Al-Andaluz period in Spain and Portugal (roughly 730-1492 C.E.), centered in the court of Cordoba, one of the centers of learning in Europe during the Middle Ages. Jon Balke, the instigator of the project, composed the music around Spanish translations of the poems used. And then Amina Alaoui, a virtuoso vocalist and musicologist, worked with him to recompose it for the (mostly) Arabic originals.

It’s worth noting that the majority of the texts are from Moorish poets and mystics and date from the twelfth century and before. Of the few exceptions, San Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591) was the founder of the Barefoot Carmelites and is considered the foremost exemplar of Spanish mystical poetry. And while Lope de Vega is considered one of the prime examples of the golden age of Spanish literature, he is represented here by a nonsense verse. So it’s easy to see that we’re dealing with something other than standard formal structures and the accepted tropes of late medieval and early renaissance literature and music.

A word about improvisation. (You knew that bit about jazz had to fit in somewhere.) Improvisation has a long and vital history in the music of the world, from being an integral part of the formal structure of classical raga and gamelan, to its appearance in Western music as a “star turn” for soloists in the classical repertoire, to its absolute necessity in modern jazz (and rock — think about the requisite break in the modern popular song in the hands of someone such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, or Robin Trower). It also plays an important role in the music of the pan-Islamic complex, of which Gharnati is a branch. One gets a sense in this recording of the free interplay between the various musicians. Although the music was originally composed by Balke, there is a strong sense that each musician has made his or her own contribution as the songs have developed.

And, when it comes right down to it, one cannot discuss a collection like this one without discussing those who have created it. Balke himself, from Norway, is a pianist with a background in jazz and world music, which already indicates that we’re dealing with a cross-cultural outlook here. Alaoui has done extensive research on the connections between Gharnati, fado, and flamenco, as well as performing as a singer. Jon Hassell is an American trumpeter who studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen as well as Indian vocal master Pandit Prah Nath before alighting in New York minimalism. Violinist Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche hails from Algeria and also comes from the Arab-Andalusian tradition. Drummer Pedram Khavar Zamini is considered one of the foremost exponents of Persian classical music, while Norwegian percussionist Helge Norbakken, like Balke, draws on jazz and world music. Lutenist Andreas Arend is known as a versatile virtuoso musician with an extensive performance history in the music of the renaissance and baroque. The Barokksolistene under violinist Bjarte Eike is, as the name implies, a group of soloists specializing in early music.

Listening to the music, one quickly understands why this matters. Although the basis is Gharnati, with its distinctive tonal ranges and “exotic” soundscapes, other influences are readily apparent. (Keep in mind also that the title of this collection, “Siwan,” translates as “balance” or “equilibrium.”) Given the basis in improvisation, this is no real surprise. With its emphasis on the musical interchange that happens during performance, we get a strong sense in this recording of being present at the creation: there is a freshness and openness to these songs that is in itself very appealing. (And I’ve almost never heard that kind of energy come across in a recording so clearly as it does in this one.) It’s clear that Balke and Alaoui have left their colleagues room to maneuver, and the colleagues make full use of it. There are sections that break away from the overall sense of “Moorish Spain” into almost pure European renaissance, but the work is so completely seamless that you don’t even notice until you’re in the middle of it. “A la dina dana” is a case in point, followed immediately by “Zahori,” which could be Andalusian proto-fado, Nordic jazz, cutting edge-avant garde, or something else entirely: the entire album is replete with passages that are, when it comes right down to it, unclassifiable. And that’s just fine.

OK, I admit it, I love stuff like this. You can sit there listening and trying to identify the multitude of references, or you can turn that part of your brain off and just enjoy it. Your call.

(ECM, 2009)


Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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