Album reviews

Jon Balke, Siwan – ‘Hafla’

Jon Balke, Siwan – Hafla

(ECM 2726. Album Review by Graham Spry)

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Norwegian pianist and composer Jon Balke (b.1955) has an association with ECM which goes back to his teens, and has appeared on an extraordinary variety of albums on the label. He was co-founder of the Masqualero Group; he has released a series of solo piano albums; and he has led, composed for and performed with Batagraf and the Magnetic North Orchestra. It was through his study of diverse musical traditions and instruments that Balke was inspired to form the Siwan project in 2009.

In keeping with ECM Records’ long history of showcasing music that amalgamates music from very different traditions, Siwan brings together elements from both Western and Islamic musical traditions. The main inspiration for the project is Al-Andalus, the name given to the Muslim-ruled states of the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th to the 15th Centuries. These Islamic states represent a golden age of mediaeval religious tolerance in Europe in which flourished a hybrid of Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. And it is this wealth of music and poetry that has inspired Balke in his three Siwan albums: Siwan, Nahnou Houm and, the latest, Hafla.

Balke is not, however, attempting to record a faithful representation of the music of mediaeval Andalusia in the manner of Jordi Savall and his Hesperion XXI. For a start, very few of the instruments on Hafla existed at the time – neither the keyboards that Balke plays nor the string instruments. The album does feature oriental instruments such as the tombak (goblet drum) and kemençe (a bowed string instrument), and yet the music is easily accessible to the Western ear.

The appeal of Siwan for listeners is not just the innovative mix of Western and Arabic instruments, but also the beauty of the voice in most of the songs, originally sung by the remarkable Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui and, in the band’s latest incarnation, by Algerian singer Mona Boutchebak. Balke has structured the majority of his compositions around an alluring and soaring female voice. One of the songs on the album, Mirada Furtiva, is also credited to her. Along with Boutchebak, there are Derya Turkan from Turkeyon kemençe, Pedram Khavar Zaminifrom Iran on tombak, Bjarte Eike onbaroque violin, and the Norwegian string octet Barokksolistene. The use of string harmonies give the music a sonorous orchestral feel often evocative of contemporary Arabic classical music. Viola player Per Buhre sings on the final song, Is There No Way, which despite its name and being sung in Scandinavian-inflected English is actually a surprisingly gruesome love poem.

All the songs with the exception of two instrumentals, Linea Oscura and Saeta, are settings of poems written by poets from Al-Andalus and sung in either Arabic or Spanish. Fortunately for English speakers, the album sleeve prints both the original text and the English translation. The poet that has most inspired the music is Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, an 11th century Ummayad princess. There are lyrics from other Arabic poets of the time, but it is her poetry that dominates. She was by all accounts a fascinating woman who was relatively progressive in her views and attitudes and her poems may have been considered risqué at the time. The album’s most impressive track, Tarraquab, is based on her tender love poem about a nocturnal visit, which also appears in Spanish near the end of the album as the lyrics for Visita, an otherwise very different song.

There is much to enjoy on Hafla making it an album that deserves repeated play. There is also poignancy and a strong feeling of connection and relevance to our times, not least in the cover photograph showing a boy free-running about the ruined quarters of a town… that could easily be Beirut or Aleppo.

Hafla at Presto Music

Categories: Album reviews

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