Jon Balke/Siwan: Hafla (ECM 2726)

Jon Balke

Mona Boutchebak vocals, kwitra
Derya Turkan kemençe
Bjarte Eike Baroque violin, leader
Helge Norbakken percussion
Pedram Khavar Zamini tombak
Per Buhre vocals, viola
Jon Balke keyboards, electronics, tombak
Recorded May/June 2021
The Village Recording, Copenhagen
Engineer: Thomas Vang
Recording producer: Jon Balke
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover photo: Sarah Murtaja
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 22, 2022

Hafla is the third go-around for keyboardist-composer Jan Balke and his group, Siwan. Taking inspiration from the cultural melting pot that was al-Andalus yet retying those threads into a friendship bracelet of striking originality, Balke and company retain the character of each idiom while achieving an overall design. Through the talents of Algerian singer Mona Boutchebak, Turkish kamancheh virtuoso Derya Turkan, Iranian tombak master Pedram Khavar Zamini, Norwegian percussionist Helge Norbakken, and violinist Bjarte Eike and his Barokksolistine, Balke summons the utmost familiarity from places and times that far outweigh our experiences as citizens of the 21st century. And while coronavirus restrictions prevented the ensemble from recording in the studio all at once, one would never guess the cutting and pasting required to bring the album to its present form in light of its hermetic coherence.

Balke’s compositions constitute the entire program, save for Boutchebak’s “Mirada Furtiva,” recalling a love so strong that it can never overstep the boundaries of modesty that keep it from consuming itself. Setting the poetry of Ibn Zaydun (1003-1071), the singer accompanies herself on the kwitra (Algerian lute), joined by low stirrings of wires and bows. Zaydun’s lover and the Ummayad princess of Córdoba, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (1010-1091), is the verbal force behind the program’s opener, “Tarraquab” (Visit). Its lilting character immediately transports us into a cinematic world of strings and percussion. Boutchebak evokes flowing transpositions of bodies into spirits and back again, scenting the evening air with yearnings for touch.

Other poets who find themselves redrawn beneath the Siwan overlay include Ibn Sara As-Santarini (Santarém, 1043-1123), Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi (Alcalá la Real, 1213-1286), Abu Bakr al-Turtushi (Tortosa, 1059-1126 or 1127), and Ibn Hazm (Córdoba, 994-1064), all of whom express an intimate relationship with that most sensuous interim before the dawn. Whether in the bright harmonies of “La Estrella Fugaz” (The Shooting Star) or the gentle strength of “Diálogo en la Noche” (Dialogue in the Night), we encounter selves divided by pining and expectation. And in “Enamorado de Júpiter” (In Love with Jupiter), the gloom of unrequited affections unfurls a canvas for the brush of a pained lyric:

Knowing well that I am the full moon in the clear sky,
You fell in love with Jupiter, the darkest planet.

Braiding the invisible forces of “Arrihu Aqwadu Ma Yakunu Li-Annaha” and the seeking qualities of “Uquállibu” (Absence), Boutchebak attaches threads of continuity between burning hearts that have only the moon as their messenger. Even the two instrumental interludes, “Línea Oscura” and “Saeta,” seem to communicate in verse, so that when images as powerful as those expressed throughout “Wadadtu” (Is There No Way), in which the desire to become one with another achieves fiery tension, rise to the surface, it is all we can do to hold on to the rhythms for assurance of reaching the shore. As violist Per Buhre sings this song in English against a wash of strings and kamancheh to bid us farewell, the linguistic change of clothing starches the ears, making us realize just how far our tongues have yet to travel.

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