Luck, so the saying goes, is ninety per cent hard work, as Simin Tander knows only too well. The Afghan/German singer is currently making international waves with What Was Said
(ECM, 2016), a haunting collaboration with Tord Gustavsen
, and is enjoying a higher profile than ever before. Whilst an element of luck of the right-time right-place variety helped Tander and Gustavsen's stars align, Tander's elevation to the cover of jazz magazines and to the stages of major international festivals is much more the fruit of hard work -about fifteen years, in fact, of dedication to her craft.
With a tour to North America beckoning, following critically acclaimed concerts throughout Europe, Tander is now reaping the rewards her talent and artistry merit.
The story of Tander and Gustavsen's joint project began two years ago, when the Norwegian pianist reached out to Tander. "Tord had heard my name through common friends on the music scene and had listened to both my albums," Tander relates. Listening to Wagma
(Neuklang Records, 2011) and Where Water Travels Home
(Jazzhaus Records, 2014), Gustavsen could no doubt appreciate not only Tander's exceptional voice and her original approach to vocal improvisation, but a sensitivity in both her writing and her Pashto-sung interpretations of Afghan poetry that struck a chord.
Tander was already familiar with Gustavsen's trio, having listened to Changing Places
ECM, 2003) while studying in the Netherlands. "Then ten years later he contacted me," says Tander. "It was really beautiful."
The timing was right. As Tander relates, Gustavsen had been exploring Sufi poetry through a project with Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat and gravitated quite naturally towards Tander's Pashto-sung interpretations of Afghan poetry. "Tord has always been very connected to singing voices," explains Tander. "He's played with a lot of singers and has accompanied church choirs. He was the initiator of the project."
Gustavsen didn't as yet have a clear vision of a potential collaboration but he was drawn to Tander's Pasto singing and knew that he wanted to work with her. "That for him was a connection to the Sufi poetry, which was originally in Persian," says Tander. The idea, however, evolved gradually. "At first we just exchanged CDs and then about two months later he came with the idea of trying some of the Norwegian tunes he had grown up with."
Gustavsen recorded simple sketches of the melodies and sent them to Tander. "I remember first listening to them on the train and I was immediately captured," recalls Tander. "The melodies were really saying everything to me." A few weeks later Tander took a plane to Oslo, where she and Gustavsen began working out the music.
Initially, Tander sang in her improvised language as there were no translations at that time. It was, Tander acknowledges, Gustavsen's suggestion that she sing the hymns in Pashto. "First he translated them into English and the whole process started, talking about the content, me getting into it and really trying to know how far I can go in singing Christian-based songs, finding what felt authentic to me and in what way the songs needed to be adjusted. It was a really interesting though very intense process."
More than mere translations, the lyrics that wound up on What Was Said
were reinterpreted and moulded to Gustavsen and Tander's personal aesthetic. "That was crucial to me that I'm not singing the original Christian lyrics," explains Tander, "but that there was a very fruitful process of transforming them and leaving out some phrases that we couldn't connect to and opening them up."
The translations into Pashto were done by B.Hamsaaya, an Afghan poet living in Prague. "We wanted someone not only who can translate the lyrics but who also has a sensitivity for poetry, especially Pashto, which is a different universe when you translate. You cannot just translate word for wordyou have to get the context."
Tander discussed in some depth the meaning of the words with a Pashto-speaking friend who went through the translations and offered advice on subtle nuances of certain words. "It was a very detailed process of translation," Tander admits.
The result of such efforts, such attention to detail, is that there's is greater common ground between devotional hymns like "Journey of Life" and "Sweet Melting," and the romantic poetry of Jalal ad-Din Rumithe 13th century Persian scholar, theologian and Sufi mysticthan you might imagine. "I think in a way they are all love songs," reflects Tander, whose sensual delivery on all thirteen tracks leaves little doubt on the matter.