Hafla

Jon Balke / Siwan

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Hafla Review

by Thom Jurek

Hafla is the third ECM offering from Siwan, an international musical project led by Norwegian keyboardist, composer, and arranger Jon Balke. As evidenced by 2009's Siwan and 2017's Nahnou Houm, their evolving sound offers a seamless yet provocative meld of hybridized Baroque, Andalusian, and Arabic music joined by formal composition and structured improvisation. In addition to Balke, Siwan's consistent members include Norwegian drummer Helge Norbakken, exiled Iranian tombak player (a Persian goblet drum) Pedram Khavar Zamini, and Norwegian Baroque violinist Bjarte Eike, who also leads the chamber string group Barroksolistene who contribute here. They are appended by Swedish violist/vocalist Per Buhre -- also a member of Barroksolistene -- Turkish kemence (lyra) player Derya Turkan, and Algerian vocalist/oudist Mona Boutchebak. Virtually all this music is arranged around her singing. Balke wrote all the music save for "Mirada Furtiva," composed by Boutchebak.

The set opens with "Terraquab" and "Enamorado de Jupiter." Lyrics to both were drawn from poems by 11th century Andalusian Wallada bint al-Mustafki, who wrote about her tempestuous relationship with poet Ibn Zaydún. (The entire album is about romantic desire in one way or another.) The former offers spectral percussion, ambient electronics, and violin and chamber strings with Boutchebak subtly speaking the words. In the latter, a bevy of low strings engage syncopated percussion and handclaps, and a double bass wrangles underneath, buoying Boutchebak's accusatory voice with a solo kemence teasing the backdrop. The singer's "Mirada Furtiva" offers spectral electronics, timbak, and bluesy oud, as its lyric details the relationship from Ibn Zaydún's side, proclaiming his celibate faithfulness. Boutchebak sings in both Arabic and Andalusian Spanish on "Arrihu Aqwadu Ma Yakunu Li-Annaha." The words, by 13 century poet Ibn Sa'id al-Maghribi, reference the wind as a pimp, exposing human bodies in the street while subjugating in its embrace. Framed by double bass, droning strings, meet tombak, oud, subtle electronics as the kemence solos in the margins. "Dialogo en la Noche," another poem by Zaydún, is rendered as a minimal, mournful processional. Two instrumentals -- "Linea Oscura," and "Saeta" -- bridge the album's halves. The former offers a ghostly interaction between chamber strings, a droning kemence, cymbals, gongs, marimbas and electronics, while latter is a striking engagement with contrapuntal invention using pulsing string players as the kemence soars above. "Uquallibu" joins Arabic classical music to jazz syncopation and primitive flamenco with Boutchebak swaying between formal vocalizing and improv. "Wadadtu" weds dramatic tombak to layered string harmonics as Boutchebak sings with unfettered longing. After a brief restatement of "Terraquab" under the title "Visita," the set closes with the brief yet dramatic lament "There Is No Way," sung by Per Buhre translated from a poem by Ibn Hazam. Hafla is an unusual third chapter for Siwan. More restrained musically than its predecessors, it compensates lyrically through Boutchebak's singing -- its words drip with longing, eros, devotion, and betrayal, and are convincingly, even deliriously, framed in gorgeously applied textures, dynamics, and harmonics.

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