Jon Balke/Amina Alaoui: SIWAN (ECM 2042)



Amina Alaoui vocal
Jon Hassell trumpet, electronics
Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche violin
Jon Balke keyboards, conductor
Helge Andreas Norbakken percussion
Pedram Khavar Zamini zarb
Bjarte Eike leader
Recorded September 2007 and March 2008 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Jan Erik Kongshaug and Peer Espen Ursfjord
Mixed September 2008 by Manfred Eicher, Jon Balke, Amina Alaoui, and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Jon Balke

“Siwan” connotes equilibrium. This album of the same name achieves equilibrium through many meetings and intersections: of Norwegian pianist Jon Balke and Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui (in her first ECM appearance), of Baroque and Andalusian musical idioms, of Sufi poetry and Christian mysticism, of dark ages and burning inquisitions. For this studio recording of resolutely live music, Balke doubles as keyboardist and conductor for a veritably intergalactic ensemble that includes Algerian violinist Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche, American trumpeter Jon Hassell, and Norwegian violinist Bjarte Eike’s period group Barokksolistene.

Like Alaoui’s seminal Arco Iris, this project is not a fusion of traditions. It is, rather, a deepening of common ground between them. A work of stunning originality, blending geographies into a single airborne continent, its ecosystem runs on ether. Like the solo violin buoyed by strings in the program’s introductory “Tuchia,” the whole flexes and ornaments itself organically. In that violin is a heartbreaking softness that conforms itself to all manner of densities in what follows. After such a fecund inauguration, it is no wonder that the first proper song, “O Andalusin,” should extol the natural wonders of Al-Andalus. Elegiacally described by poet Ibrahim Ibn Khafaja (1058-1139) as “the Eden of the chosen,” the paradisiacal wonders of its landscape shine forth. Harpsichord claws burrow into ocean floor even as Alaoui unfurls sails, hang-gliders, and other disembodied wings to catch every possible current. From burrowing to dislocation, traveler Abu Abdallah Al-Homai’di (1029-1095) yearns for that “faraway homeland” in his poem “Jadwa.” A filigree of percussion and lute illuminates the night as would gold leaf a sacred manuscript, audible tethers each between body and home. Alaoui’s voice wanders but holds its resolve so tightly to bosom that it slips into the ribcage, where it swings on a perch of belonging. She is positively flute-like in wordless moments, touching off M’Kachiche’s elliptical storytelling against a tense ostinato.

The words of Al-Mu’tamid Ibn Abbad (1040-1095), poet-king of Seville, strangely echo the deposition that would incarcerate him for the last five years of his life. “Ya Safwati” is a romantic verse, a profession of utter surrender to that universal captor known as love. This song fronts Jon Hassell’s signature vocality and falls like a curtain to reveal a bevy of percussion carrying Alaoui like a Sherpa across mountains of history. “Itimad” names the wife of Al-Mu’tamid Ibn Abbad, to whom he slipped this poem through the bars of the neighboring cell. “I am untamable yet you dominate me,” he professes, again echoing the power of emotion to conquer in soul what can never be conquered in flesh. Alaoui moves like a bow and finds herself accompanied by that very object, animated and free, across a burial ground of song. Troubador Martín Codax (13/14th century) is similarly lovestruck in his “Ondas do mar de Vigo,” only here the poet embodies a proto-female who laments the consignment of her loved ones to the Sea of Vigo, whose waves took many in the crusades.

Lope de Vega (1562-1635), a star poet of the Spanish golden age, delights with the phonetic play of “A la dina dana.” Here Alaoui parts the clouds by way of golden, celebratory light, setting up the instrumental contrasts of “Zahori” (featuring lyrical recorder playing in place of text), flowing with all the threat of a poisonous serpent, minus the fangs. The lute’s cross-cultural pedigree comes through most readily and beckons the singing of “Ashiyin Raïqin.” Penned by Abu Abdallah Ibn Ghalib Al-Rusafi (d. 1177), who in her liner notes Alaoui describes as a hedonistic writer, this painterly song indeed strips pleasure of its sin. “How lucky we are to find this spot for our sojourn / with doves cooing for our greater delight”: a sentiment within a sentiment, planted in a garden of mirrors.

Persian-born Sufi mystic Husayn Mansur Al-Hallaj (857-922), who suffered martyrdom on the cross for his profession of godliness and who was a beacon of inspiration for Rumi, outlines the manifold path to what Alaoui calls “a ceaseless transformation through vital alternation.” It is a state of fluctuating being in which the contemplation of silence, if not the silence of contemplation, gives way to discovery. A “stripping bare,” as the poet phrases it, an instinct without a door.

“Thulâthiyat” features Alaoui in narrative mode. She lays her speech on the sands like dry bones of an augury for the here and now. Caring neither for past nor for future, she drinks them for the illusions they are and expels them along with the sweat of the midday heat. Sunlit, too, is the verse-chain “Toda ciencia trascendiendo” (Rising beyond all science) of San Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591). This concluding piece is, in Alaoui’s estimation, one of the finest examples of Christian mysticism. Even without knowledge of text and translation, the present arrangement would have us know its secrets. Here there is a door, forged not of wood-flesh but of heart-mind, an analysis of slumber illuminated from within that records its footsteps for posterity before they are buried by wind and dust.

Alaoui’s melodic settings of these lyrics are so intuitive, it’s as if the notes preceded the words. In combination with the astonishing forces gathered around her, every turning of the tongue unspools a thread into the soul.

One of ECM’s finest releases. Ever.

(To hear samples of Siwan, click here.)

Amina Alaoui: Arco Iris (ECM 2180)

Amina Alaoui
Arco Iris

Amina Alaoui vocals, daf
Saïfallah Ben Abderrazak violin
Sofiane Negra oud
José Luis Montón flamenco guitar
Eduardo Miranda mandolin
Idriss Agnel percussion
Recorded April 2010, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Voices, loved and idealized, of those who have died, or of those lost for us like the dead. Sometimes they speak to us in dreams; sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them. And with their sound for a moment return sounds from our life’s first poetry—like music at night, distant, fading away.
–Constantin P. Cavafy, Voices

Does the incantation call or is it called? The word comes from the Latin incantationem, the “art of enchanting.” And what is enchantment but a merging of spell caster and object, of flesh and energy. And so, while the incantation masquerades as an offering to a sky we can never touch, it is a body composed of many. It shrugs off the wings sewn into its back, catching thermals of word alone. Moroccan-born Amina Alaoui understands, profoundly, that the incantation is not something one can hold or even shape but a web of moving parts on which her voice is a dewdrop poised to fall. We are accompanied, as the violin that joins her, by a butterfly of trepidation whose lilting paths of flight carve us like soapstone. An oud’s inky presence sprouts roots and calligraphy, wishing upon stars of portent. Alaoui holds the shore, touching the torches of her diction to ancestral memory, each a wad of flash paper in a trickster’s pocket. Plectrums open and close—dragonfly wings balancing on vibrating tightropes. Though we may dance to the taps of these hollow-bodied fantasies, hitting reality at 90-degree angles, we know that the variations known to open eyes are infinite. She assures us of this, appealing to the moon’s pale fire and licking our feathers clean as we grow lost and hungry for attention. We are the dream of a serpent’s unspoken prayer, waking just in time to see mountains cut the firmament with their life volcanic. Or is it the instruments that fill in those spaces, each a dervish to its own heartbeat? Bows and fingers, shifting winds and sands—all leave their fingerprints on our skin. This is how Arco Iris feels.

An album comprised of one song, drawn from fado, flamenco, and Al Andalusi currents, in addition to Alaoui’s own. We see her world for what it is, bearing as it does the mark of lived experience in a “common crucible of these styles.” One might say the Iberian Peninsula lingers in the marrow, but as she notes in the accompanying booklet, Alaoui is less interested in nostalgia than in dialogue, in how “poetic geography” communicates through openness of expression. This means not only a blurring of spatial, but also temporal borders. In so disassembling the origins of this music, she peers beyond idioms and straight into the images that sustain them. They are her shelter, her way of being in the world. This is what Arco Iris is.

(See this review as it originally appeared in RootsWorld Magazine. To hear more samples, click here.)

Amina Alaoui review in RootsWorld

The folks over at RootsWorld online magazine have just published a review by yours truly of Amina Alaoui’s fabulous new ECM release, Arco Iris. Truly one of the finest albums from the label in years. Don’t pass this one up.

For the review, click here. And while you’re there, you can check out my older review of Kuára among RootsWorld’s enviable assortment of world musics.