Following a five minute instrumental introduction, the first few lines from “O Andalusin” sung by Amina Alaoui set the tone of Siwan, a very ambitious orchestral project released in 2009 under the musical supervision of Norwegian keyboard player and composer Jon Balke. The project celebrates the rich cultural heritage of Al-Andalus or medieval Muslim Iberia which, between 730 and 1492 “was a beacon of learning in the so-called Dark Ages, and unique in the degree of exchange between Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars.” ECM

Nada mas bello O andaluces
Que vuestas huertas frondosas,
Jardines, bosques, rios
Y claras Fuentes […]

Nothing is more beautiful, O Andalusians,
Than your luxuriant orchards,
Your gardens, woods and rivers
And springs of crystal […]

Jon Balke - Siwan (2009)
Jon Balke – Siwan (2009)

 “The word Siwan or Sivan is connected to the number three, triangular or equilibrium in various existing or no longer spoken languages from the Mediterranean region.” Siwan Project

If all the songs are based on existing texts “from Sufi poets, Christian mystics, troubadours and more” written in Spanish, Arabic or Portuguese, the orchestral arrangements and music compositions around the poems freely explore possible connections between the European Baroque and Renaissance tradition, Gharnati music (classical music from the Al-Andalus period) and improvisation. Siwan reflects this constant balance between composition and improvisation in the three musical traditions.

The stellar cast of musicians involved in the project includes Moroccan singer and musicologist Amina Alaoui, Algerian violin player Kheireddine M’Kachiche, 12 piece Norwegian baroque ensemble Barrokksolistene and veteran American trumpet player Jon Hassell, himself a great explorer of fourth world and imaginary soundscapes.

“Thulâthiyat” (trilogy) is a poem from 10th century Persian Sufi mystic Husayn Mansour Al-Hallaj breaking down into three phases the stages of the ascetic path. Jon Hassell’s eerie trumpet concludes the last stage of ecstasy.

Behind this remarkable musical integration is a web of philosophical, historical, and literary interconnections, as Balke and Alaoui […] – inspired by the tolerant and creative spirit of medieval Al-Andalus – ponder what was lost to the bonfires of the Inquisition. Setting new standards in transcultural music, Siwan shows what can be made today when artists of the most divergent background pool their energies. ECM