Jon Balke/Siwan: Nahnou Houm (ECM 2572)

Nahnou Houm

Jon Balke
Nahnou Houm

Mona Boutchebak vocals
Derya Turkan kemençe
Helge Norbakken percussion
Pedram Khavar Zamini tumbak
Jon Balke keyboards
Bjarte Eike violin, leader
Alison Luthmers violin
Øivind Nussle violin
Milos Valent viola
Per Buhre viola
Torbjørn Köhl viola
Judith Maria Blomsterberg violoncello
Mime Brinkmann violoncello
Johannes Lundberg double bass
Recorded January 2017 at Madstun and The Village Recording, Copenhagen
Engineer: Thomas Vang
Mixed May 2017 at The Village Recording by Thomas Vang and Jon Balke
Mastering: Christoph Stickel, MSM Studios, Munich
Produced by Jon Balke
Release date: November 3, 2017

Even when we drink entire seas, we stand amazed
that our lips are still as dry as dunes…
and endlessly we seek the sea to wet our lips, without seeing
that our lips are seaside dunes and we the sea.
–Attar Faridu Din

Divisive times call for unifying music, and that’s exactly what Jon Balke’s Siwan project has created. Taking Al Andalus and its culture of inclusion—convivencia—as inspiration, the pianist and his progressive assembly weave for us an anthem of humanity. “There is no room or time now for the division between them and us,” writes Balke in a liner note. “We are them and they are us.” Such thinking is already inherent in the instrumentation. Encompassing Balke himself on keyboards, Pedram Khavar Zamini and Helge Norbakken on percussion, and Derya Turkan onkemençe, all infused by the strings of Barokksolistene under the lead violin of Bjarte Eike, it feels alive with borderless awakening. But the light of that dawn rests surely in singer Mona Boutchebak, who joins the project in solidarity.

Boutchebak’s voice is quill to the ensemble’s paper, an artisan of a yearning so ancient that it feels immediately with us. The doorway to it all is “Duda” (Doubt), wherein poetry of Ibn Al Zaqqaq (12th century, Spain) ride a Baroque-like wave of strings and harpsichord. This transitions into a more delicate accompaniment of percussion as Boutchebak sounds the call for a sweeter love than that with which the world has become so distractedly obsessed. In response, the mournful cry of Turkan’s kemençe weeps for fallen grace.

Kindred spirits flow through the ensuing songs. Across spectrums of sorrow in “Castigo” (another setting of Ibn Al Zaqqaq), Boutchebak understands that singing is closest to speaking: without communication, it fails. And communicate she does, speaking the words of Saint John of the Cross (16th century, Spain) in “Sin Nada Querer” (Wanting Nothing) as if they were letters to be opened and read by candlelight. “To attain pleasure in everything,” she begins, “seek pleasure in nothing.” A philosophy put into practice by the musicians at hand.

Intimate details underscore these sentiments. Distant storms and rainfall trace the edges of “Itimad” and “Desmayar Se” (Swooning), each an ode to the timelessness of love, while the title track and “Del Rey” dig into atmospheric soil with crowding voices. The latter is one of a few instrumental ligaments, of which Zamini’s “ZemZemeh” is a highlight. Other remarkable amalgamations include the fluidly arranged “Aun Bebiendo” (Even When We Drink), which sets a text of Attar Faridu Din, a 13th-century Sufi mystic from Nichapur, Iran, and the Andalusian traditional “Ma Kontou,” for which Boutchebak sings unaccompanied, repeating the verse like a mantra. Because truth is always worth hearing, and must be repeated until it shines.

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