Lushly Sentimental Essence of Mediterranean Music

Amina Alaoui - Arco Iris
Amina Alaoui

Arco Iris (ECM Records, 2011)

Recently, I happened upon a BBC conversation where the commentator was discussing comments made by the Trinidadian-British writer V.S Naipaul. Mr. Naipaul, in a Royal Geographic Society interview, stated that the work of women writers were inferior to his own, noting that Jane Austen’s “sentimental sense of the world” in Pride and Prejudice served to prove her an inferior writer and unequal to himself. What stuck in my mind was the notion of sentimentality – that somehow sentimentality made a person weak and unworthy of merit.

Well, that conversation was still rattling around in my head when I sat down to listen to Amina Alaoui’s CD Arco Iris, set for release June 28, 2011 on the ECM label. As the ribbon of Ms. Alaoui’s vocals floated out of the speakers, I wondered what her vocals would be if suddenly devoid of that precious sentimentality, that inexpressively tremor of loveliness that speaks to emotional connections. Now, I do admit that there is a difference between music and writing, but it follows the same vein. There’s a reason we send babies to sleep with lullabies and not a section of Mr. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage or soothe out adult selves by wallowing in overemotional splendor of music and not the self important blatting of egomaniacal writers.

Slipping into the lushly sentimental world of Ms. Alaoui’s Arco Iris, this recording dips into the music of flamenco, fado and lyrical world of Mediterranean music, burnishing the whole with a Middle Eastern flavor, culled from Ms. Alaoui’s Moroccan roots. Capturing her own lyrics and the writings of Santa Teresa de Avila, Al Mutamid Ibn Abbad, Ibn Zaydun de Cordoba and Antonio de Sousa Freitas in music of Jose Luis Monton, Teofilo Chantre and her own scores, Arco Iris holds the listener in thrall with sleek, intricately worked compositions shot through with Ms. Alaoui’s extraordinary vocals.

Deceptively spare, Arco Iris opens with the a capella track “Hado,” a traditional Andalusian tune before moving through the violin and guitar saturated “Buscate En Mi” and the fabulously fado “Fado Al-Mu’tamid.” Joined by Aaifallah Ben Abderrazak on violin, Sofiane Negra on oud, Jose Luis Monton on flamenco guitar, Eduardo Miranda on mandolin and Idriss Agnel on percussion and electric guitar, Ms. Alaoui joins in a daf, but it is her vocals that sits center stage. The richly flamenco flamed “Oh Andaluces,” the extravagantly worked “Fado Menor and the deliciously passionate “Las Morillas de Jaen” are just a few of the gems on this recording. The title track “Acro Iris” closes out the CD with lyrics by Ms. Alaoui and music by Teofilo Chantre. This track is bold with Mediterranean passion and Ms. Alaoui’s plumy vocals and a nice close to the recording.

Amina Alaoui - Siwan
Now, for those who just can’t seem to get enough of Ms. Alaoui’s vocals should also check out Jon Balke’s Siwan, also on the ECM label. Released in 2009, and I can’t hardly believe this one got past us, is a collection of compositions in the Gharnati musical tradition, music from the Al-Andalus period of Muslim Iberia (730-1492).

Dipping into the writings of Al-Andalus poets of the period like Al-Rusafi, Al-Mu’tamid Ibn Abbad and Al-Homai’di, Siwan immerses the listener into sound that reflects the past without sounding dated. Between the rich wonders of Mr. Balke’s music and ripe with Ms. Alaoui’s vocals, Siwan is powerfully wrought and hypnotically sublime. Tracks like “Tuchia,” “Ya Safwati” and “Zahori” are lush and evocative.

Pooling trumpeter Jon Hassel, violinist Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche, percussionist Helge Norbakken, zarb player Pedram Khavar Zamini and Mr. Balke on keyboards against Ms. Alaoui’s vocals, Siwan is indeed full of extraordinary musicianship. But Siwan goes further by incorporating Barokksolistene with Bjarte Eike violin and leader of the group, violinists Per Buhre, Peter Spissky, Anna Ivanovna Sundin, Milos Valent, violists Rastko Roknic and Joel Sundin, violoncellist Tom Pitt, violoncellist and recorder player Kate Hearne, double bassit Mattais Frostensson, theorboe and archlute player Andreas Arend and harpsichordist and clavichordist Hans Knut Sveen. The combination results in a sound that is richly exotic and fascinating.

Arco Iris and Siwan pulse with exoticism and singularly striking musicianship. I believe I can now say a resounding wahoo for sentimentality, so take that Mr. Big Shot Writer.

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