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Amina Alaoui – a tremendous voice on the broodingly beautiful Siwan.

So successful has been the German label ECM in finding and promoting new music – Arvo Pärt, Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek are just three of its artists – that it is now customary to speak of things sounding ‘ECM-ish’. That is: a touch new, a bit cerebral, always superbly recorded and produced. But, recording and production values apart, it’s wrong to typecast ECM’s output in this way. As Siwan – a stunningly attractive CD – demonstrates, there’s no limiting this label’s range of inquiry.

Meaning ‘balance’ in Aljamiado, the Latin-Arabic language used in medieval Andalusia, Siwan has great horizons. The work was conceived by Norwegian keyboardist Jon Balke as a project to make sonic links between medieval Spain and the contemporary world, with Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui and improvisational trumpeter Jon Hassell giving sparkling performances. Two violinists, from very different traditions (Algerian jazz expert Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche and the baroque leader Bjarte Eike), make up the whole.

Balke’s vision really works. His writing provides a structure spacious enough to house Eike’s baroque chamber orchestra, Hassell’s exquisite airy (and electronic) atmospheres and Alaoui’s tremendous voice. Over the course of 11 tracks, Siwan never errs. In particular, the setting of ‘O Andalusin’, with its 12th-century text extolling the similarities between Andalusia and Paradise, are broodingly beautiful. Other texts have similar mystic overtones. For all its ancient antecedents, Siwan is a very modern album and a joyous meditation for that.


New Internationalist issue 425 magazine cover This article is from the September 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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