Siwan’s self-titled ECM debut, released in 2009, was widely praised by the world’s press, and won awards including the ‘Jahrespreis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik’, the album-of-the-year prize of the German record critics. Now the international collective led by Norwegian keyboardist-composer-arranger Jon Balke is back, rallying its powerful instrumental forces around a new singer and oud player, Mona Boutchebak, in a revised line-up. The ensemble’s new album Nahnou Houm was recorded in Copenhagen in January 2017.
Nahnou Houm translates as “We are them”, a message of topical pertinence, in this case trailing deep historical roots. When he started this project a decade ago – in response to a commission from the multicultural Oslo venue Cosmopolite – Jon Balke’s imagination was fired by perceived correspondences between Arab music, Andalusian classical music and European baroque music. To bring these sound-worlds closer together, he set poetry of Al Andalus, reflecting upon a period of cooperation in Medieval Spain between adherents of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
In his liner notes for Nanhnou Houm, Balke writes that Siwan began with “just a musical fascination with the promising aspects of the Andalusian culture, with its huge libraries, enormous progress in science, agriculture, architecture and art.” But the project went on to consider “the devastating effect of the Inquisition, with its burning of all the literature and documentation it could find. Everything on paper was destroyed, but oral communication could not be controlled. Musicians travel and play, and faint threads leading from Spain to Napoli with the survival of forms like chaconne, folia, passacaglia etc. were central in the development of the new baroque music.”
These thoughts led to “speculation about an imaginary musical history, as well as a political imagination: How would Europe and the rest of the world have developed if the three religions had managed to co-exist in the aftermath of Al Andalus? By pointing at periods where coexistence actually happened and pushed humanity forward and by being in itself a multi-cultural functioning microcosmos, Siwan wants to investigate the idea of ‘convivencia’, as it was called, in all aspects of human life.”
On the first album and on early tours, Siwan featured the vocals of Amina Alaoui, the Moroccan-born singer steeped in the Garnathi tradition of Andalusian classical music. Later Balke invited distinguished guests including Tunisian singer Lamia Bedioui and Palestinian singer Kamilya Jubran. The challenge was to find a singer with a deep sense of Arab music history but also open to improvisation and trans-idiomatic possibilities; the search was on for a vocalist both experimentally-inclined and tradition-conscious.
“Siwan was actually put in waiting mode for a while”, Balke explains, “precisely because we could not find a new vocalist with Andalusian background who could assimilate my material and work in a more contemporary setting. It was [original Siwan violin soloist] Kheir Eddine M´Kachiche who proposed Mona, who actually is from his neighbourhood in Bab el Oued in Algiers. I invited Mona in and she immediately clicked with the group, both professionally and personally. She is a very versatile musician with a great voice that fits the group really well. And she speaks Arabic, French, Spanish and English…”
On Nahnou Houm Mona has a wonderful range of poetry to sing, with words from Persian Sufi mystic Attar, from St John of the Cross, from the great Spanish poet-playwright Lope de Vega and more. The interplay of texts, like the interplay of musical ideas, reinforces Balke’s utopian artistic vision, as if these authors from strikingly different backgrounds are shaping lyrical variations of the same yearning ballad.
Jon Balke sums up the group’s musical evolution: “Siwan has been an important project for me, both because of the statement that the group in itself makes, by manifesting the spirit of coexistence across boundaries of any kind, but also because the soundscape is a palette of rich colours spanning from deep electronics to gut strings and bright vocals and cembalo, that is very stimulating to work with as a composer. Where the first Siwan was composed in deep respect of the traditions and the soloists, treading lightly and carefully in a landscape of strong leads, the current version is a real band, a group that really communicates freely and unhindered. Even though all the musicians are masters in their traditions, in Siwan they join a unified sound and concept that has departed from references and is becoming a tradition in itself. The introduction of [Turkish kamanche player] Derya Türkan and the line towards the Far East is also a great new opening.”
Siwan launches Nahnou Houm with a performance at the World Music Festival in Oslo on November 4, followed by concerts in Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands.
For more information about Siwan and related projects visit Jon Balke’s Magnetic Music web site: www.magnetic.no
CD booklet includes liner notes by Jon Balke, and all song texts in English translation.