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Simin Tander: Daring To Surrender

Ian Patterson By

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It’s about looking for similarities, not just looking for them but celebrating the similarities in culture, in music, in languages, and not the differences —Simin Tander
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 word—you 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 Rumi—the 13th century Persian scholar, theologian and Sufi mystic—than 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.

The seamless meeting of traditional Norwegian church music and Persian poetry on What Was Said, sung in English and Pashto, with a subtle jazz syncopation, is a remarkable achievement. "It's the core of what this project is about," emphasizes Tander. "It's about looking for similarities, not just looking for them but celebrating the similarities in culture, in music, in languages, and not the differences. It's one of the beauties of this project -all these different traditions becoming one in a very natural way. It never felt like a conceptual thing," she explains.

"It feels like a natural continuation of how I look at spirituality and music. The melting is more an extension of my background," says Tander, referring to her Afghan/German duality. "You can get the music without getting the lyrics. That's also very important. If there's a message it's also transported through the music, not just the lyrics. I have never been just a lyric interpreter, it's more about harmony and melody. The words become music and when we do a concert it feels like one journey all connected. It's a lot about daring to surrender."

What began essentially as a duo project in an Oslo rehearsal room eventually made way for a third force—drummer Jarle Vespestad, Gustavsen's trio partner of fifteen years. For Tander the chemistry was immediate. "It was amazing to play in a trio where two people are a positive example of a very old couple," she says laughing. "They just feel the other, they know what is going to happen and yet still surprise each other. It felt like a very stable and deep musical connection."

Listening to What Was Said, it doesn't take too great a leap of the imagination to imagine an earthy acoustic bass or a deep arco playing sympathetic support to Tander's lyrical vocals, but as the singer relates, it was an option that didn't seem to hold any appeal for Gustavsen. "I think Tord felt like getting into something different, not with just the same trio but with a vocalist. I think he really wanted to do something else."

Gustavsen's desire to explore new avenues, new sonorities, saw him take a first step into electronics on What Was Said, with subtle impressionistic touches acting almost subliminally, while a synth bass also weaves a ghostly imprint on tracks like the caressing "I See You." "He liked the challenge of doing that," says Tander. Tander, like Gustavsen, was attracted to the idea of a bassless trio: "We liked the idea of not having a bass because it's really open. It was a challenge but it felt more like a gift to have that space."

Tander and Gustavsen are very much on the same page when it comes to the use of space. "That's very striking in Tord's music," notes the singer, "and it's something I've always really appreciated listening to his music. It's really stripped down to the essentials. I could really connect with that."

Tander is no less adept at the use of space, as her two albums as leader demonstrate most elegantly. What Was Said pushed that particular boat out even further. "It felt like a beautiful invitation for me at the right time to get into that and to challenge myself," Tander explains. And less, as on achingly beautiful songs like the sensually poetic "What Was Said to the Rose/O Sacred Heart" and the hymnal meditation "Castle in Heaven," is definitely more. "The space is not a restriction because it's very passionate music also," Tander adds.

The passion that infuses the performances on What Was Said is heightened in the live arena, where the trio has earned standing ovations night after night, and where Tander can express herself more. "Live there's more space for improvisation but it's all about sound and I'm even more aware of making choices that I really want to make," Tander explains.

"Every note has a meaning, every word has a focus, and because there are no really complex arrangements and no very difficult melodies to sing there is a lot of space you can fill. It's really thrilling for me to be there from the first moment, of really diving in to the music and still being really sharp. I have really cherished exactly this aspect in this music.

"It sounds contradictory to really be in the moment and at the same time be aware of what you do," Tander expands, "to be able to zoom out, but for me it's the most honest way of improvisation because if you just lose yourself in the moment it can get boring. You can almost play forever and think it's great," Tander laughs.

Gustavsen is a long-standing ECM artist but for Tander What Was Said was her first experience of Oslo's famous Rainbow studio and producer Manfred Eicher. Though the arrangements were practically fully realized by the time of the recording session Tander acknowledges the value of Eicher's input. "It's amazing the way Manfred listens to music, how he immediately gets its essence. He gave the sort of advice that wasn't the most obvious thing."

For Tander, who by her own admission is something of a perfectionist, Eicher's approach in the studio was an eye-opener. "Manfred is very dedicated to the music but for him the most important thing is that a story is being told and not technical perfection. If there was an occasion when I thought 'Oh, I don't like the sound of my voice there,' I would maybe have done it again and again if I had been alone in the studio. Manfred invited me to let go. That was a really beautiful experience."

Presenting the music from What Was Said in very different sorts of venues and to diverse audiences has been a rewarding experience for Tander. "On this tour we've played from concert halls and small churches to a basement smoky jazz club and it all works. Most jazz audiences are older but we've also had young audiences, depending on the venue, and not only jazz audiences. In Norway we had people who really know the songs and all of the original lyrics, so that was exciting for me. We've had Afghan refugees in Germany coming to our concerts, which was very touching."

At the Soddjazz Festival in Norway, Gustavsen and Tander were forced to play as a duo when Vespestad was unable to make the gig. "We immediately thought it's a pity Jarle was not there but we can definitely do it, because that's also how we started. It actually worked really well. We are definitely a trio," Tander emphasizes, "but it's good to know that we can also do a concert and it doesn't feel like something is missing, because we play it in maybe a slightly different way and it's so natural as well."
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