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Album Review

Jon Balke: Siwan: Hafla


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Jon Balke: Siwan: Hafla
A large appeal of ECM Records has always been its encouragement of cross-cultural collaboration. Across countries and genres, listeners and critics alike have reveled in records from Codona (1979) to Le Pas du Chat Noir (2001), Chants, Hymns and Dances (2004) and Arco Iris (2011).  There is joy in seeing musicians from diverse backgrounds come together to have their compositions treated with ECM's trademark recording quality.

Norwegian composer, keyboardist, and percussionist Jon Balke's Siwan project, now in its third incarnation, has seen multiple arrangements of performers in its ranks. First release Siwan (2009) notably featured Moroccan vocalist Amina Alaoui and trumpeter Jon Hassell; for Nahnou Houm (2017), Alaoui was replaced by Mona Boutchebak, an Algerian oudist and vocalist, who reprises her role on Siwan's latest, Hafla. The orchestra is further filled out by Norwegian drummer Helge Norbakken, Turkish kemençe master Derya Türkan , Iranian tombak player Pedram Khavar Zamini and baroque violinist Bjarte Eike.    Given the size of this ensemble, it is perhaps surprising that Hafla unfolds with such subtlety, a quality shared with other Balke releases. One has the sense of stepping lightly through an ornate palace in the Ottoman period, so profoundly do the instrumentation and timbres immerse the listener. Balke's music also has a tendency towards the cerebral and experimental (see 2016's Warp on ECM), yet it never fails to captivate. Hafla provides glimpses into his compositional skills while retaining an atmosphere of mysticism and adventure.  

A defining feature of the album is the glissando of strings in the background, which whip about as though buffeted by desert winds and bring to mind Arvo Pärt's "Orient & Occident."  Like Hafla's predecessors, the overriding moods here are of mystery, curiosity, seriousness and passion, and Boutchebak's vocals provide the album's beating heart. At times she speaks softly but firmly, as though reciting an esoteric incantation (the lyrics on Hafla are drawn from the writings of Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, an Ummayad princess and poet of the 11th century). At other times she sings lithely and surpassingly sweetly. On "Mirada Furtiva," she is more forceful and earnest, her voice sweeping atop a spare melody of oud and abstract electronic pulses until it is gradually overtaken in a roiling ambient sea (see also Being Dufay, 2009's innovative meeting between John Potter and Ambrose Field, also on ECM).

There are many moments that are in good company with the forlorn Arabic jazz of Anouar Brahem on Barzakh (ECM, 1991) or Astrakan Café (ECM, 2000), or the aforementioned pan-Mediterranean collaboration, Arco Iris. The piercing melodies of Türkan's kemençe also have a certain kinship with the lyra of fellow ECM artist, Sokratis Sinopoulis. 

Hafla is an enthralling document of cross-cultural collaboration, of distinctive artistic voices presenting a singular, compelling vision.

Track Listing

Tarraquab; Enamorado de Jupiter; Mirada Furtiva; La Estrella Fugaz; Arrihu Aqwadu Ma Yakunu Li-Annaha; Dialogo en la Noche; Linea Oscura; Saeta; Uquallibu; Wadadtu; Visita; Is There No Way.


Album information

Title: Siwan: Hafla | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: ECM Records

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