Jon Balke Siwan


As a fitting opening concert at this spring’s Vossa Jazz festival in Norway, frequent Voss visitor Jon Balke was back in town, and enmeshed in one of his worldly conceptual projects. The Arabic-geared band Siwan, which Balke founded in 2007 and to which he has returned with the fascinating album Hafla this year, landed with a dramatic impact in concert.

With its innovative, cohesive mesh of ensemble parts — sinuous strings by the group Barokksolistene, multi-ethnic percussion (headed by the unique and ever-sensitive Helge Norbakken), charismatic Algerian vocalist Mona Boutchebak and Balke’s tasteful keyboards — the sum effect conjured up an entrancing pan-ethnic tapestry on stage. The magic also translates beautifully to the pristine recorded artifact on ECM Records, although recorded in Copenhagen via delayed, distanced stages and logistics vis-a-vis COVID challenges. Based on texts by 11th century poets Wallada bint al-Mustakfi and al-Andalusian poet Ibn Zaydun, Balke’s new music pays homage to multiple muses and historical and cultural contexts, to rich ends.

Vocalist Boutchebak is consistently mesmerizing and was central in the formative conceptual stages of the project: She wrote the yearning love ballad “Mirada Furtiva” (key line: “I save for you all my longing”). After the wending, interlinked trek of 12 pieces, with propulsive unison string lines and solo turns by Iranian kemençe player Derya Turkan and the percussive elegance of Pedram Khavar Zamini’s tombak, the set closes on the compact, bittersweet “Is There No Way.” Here, violist Per Buhe lends the male voice in the suite’s love saga angle.