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"Review: Her Eyes Illuminate"

Vancouver-based oudist/guitarist Gordon Grdina has been bending genres and creating East-meets-West contexts for his instruments for quite some time. He put his own spin on modern jazz with Box Cutter, melded outré twentieth century chamber ideals with Arabian themes with the East Van Trio and created a Persian/Arabian/Indian hybrid with Sangha. Now, Grdina turns his attention to folk themes and popular music crafted by Iranian and Egyptian artists over the past century with this exciting dectet.

Haram, which means "forbidden by Islamic law," fuses left-of-center mannerisms with hardcore jazz soloing and vocals; then, it's all layered atop a bed of percussive, Middle Eastern musical ideals. This music may indeed lack acceptance in Islamic circles, but there's nothing terribly sacrilegious on the surface. Grdina continues his long term task of promoting cross-pollination between musical cultures in his own work and he does a splendid job with his the arrangements, choice of personnel and oud playing.

The possibilities seem almost endless with a mixture of oud, trumpet, tenor saxophone, clarinet, violin and rhythm at hand. Multi-horn melodies leap forth with a semi-joyous/semi-sorrowful sound and the mixture of electric bass and drum set with the darbuka and tambourine-like riq creates a sense of rhythmic drama down below. The music balances ensemble interplay with individual space and gives everybody a chance to shine at one time or another. Frenzied front line overlapping ("En Shakawt Al Hawa") and two-man tangles ("Tilli Edhakilo") prove exhilarating, but hearing each musician in their own space is what really helps to establish their identities. The lengthy "Alf Leila Wa Leila," which continually shifts from solo spotlights to group play, provides plenty of glimpses into the inner workings of the individuals that make up this group.

Avant Arabic modernism is at the heart of this music, but Klezmer-ish undertones surface on occasion. Grdina may or may not have intended for this to happen, but the historical and geographical connections between the Arab and Hebraic cultures, complex and painful as they may be, can't be easily avoided or negated in music. Francois Houle's clarinet speaks to the Klezmer soul and Emad Armoush's vocals, while wholly connected to the Arabic world, have a slight cantorial ring to them.

Haram works in the margin that exists between boundary-pushing jazz and popular traditions in Arabian music and they do it well. Hopefully, Grdina will keep this outfit together to further explore this territory. - Dan Bilawsky; All About Jazz


Album Review

Gordon Grdina’s Haram

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

If “haram” means “forbidden by Islamic law,” Vancouver guitarist/oud player Gordon Grdina (Box Cutter, Dan Mangan) is certainly breaking a few rules with his outfit Haram’s new album Her Eyes Illuminate. Well, blurring stylistic lines may be more accurate. Over 10 winding tracks, Her Eyes Illuminate explores Arabic music territory with a streamlined jazz groove, blending klezmer, Hebraic and Gypsy influences in the mix as well. Francois Houle’s clarinet is a driving force throughout and, coupled with Jesse Zubot’s violin, gives the music a Gypsy flavour. Vocalist Emad Armoush provides a lyrical texture nestled somewhere between East Africa and the Persian Gulf. With its most accessible, melody-driven cuts at the front and near the end (Raqs al Jamal, Lktob Aourak al Chagar) and its more meandering, almost psychedelic explorations in the middle (the trippy Alf Leila Wa Leila), Her Eyes Illuminate is a deep travelogue-style journey, one that few — in these parts, at least — could pull off as successfully as Grdina and friends.

- Francois Marchand, Vancouver Sun


Her Eyes Illuminate: August 14, 2012 Songlines US & Canada release

Haram Live: 2009 Independent release



Haram is a large ensemble led by Gordon Grdina which explores the Arabic classical repertoire from a modern improvisers perspective. Some pieces start out with a traditional treatment and then morph into a modern free jazz improv. The music is delicate and melancholic one moment and aggressive and unpredictable the next. Haram is an Arabic word for forbidden or sacred at times the band is both.
Gordon Grdina - Oud
Liam MacDonald - Riq
Tim Gerwing - Dumbek
Kenton Loewen - Drums
Tommy Babin - Bass
Chris Kelly - Sax
Jp Carter - Trumpet
Francois Houle - Clarinet
Jesse Zubot - Violin
Emad Armoush - ney, vocals

"Grdina enters an exchange with the trio, plucking lyrical wafts of Arabic incense from his oud that are offset and grounded by the melodic, layered responses from the strings." - Matt Marshall, AAJ (reviewing The Breathing of Statues)

Vancouver guitarist/oud player Gordon Grdina's music is all about call-and-response across every possible artistic pre-conception. His last record on Songlines, by his East Van Strings quartet (The Breathing of Statues, 2009), included intense, concentrated avant-garde pieces inspired by Bartok, Webern and Berg side-by-side with spacious excursions around Arabic modes. Already a serious student of the oud for several years (he mentions Hamza El Din, Simon Shaheen and Vancouver's Serwan Yamolky as major influences), in 2007-2008 Grdina put together an Arabic/avant-garde band featuring friends and associates: some of Vancouver's most prominent inside-outside improvisers, Syrian vocalist Armoush, world percussionists Gerwing and MacDonald, and close collaborators Babin and Loewen (Gordon Grdina Trio, Dan Mangan band). The repertoire is mostly popular and folk music from celebrated Egyptian and Iraqi artists of the last century. The band was named Haram, meaning forbidden. Gord explains:

"More specifically, forbidden from the point of view of a dogma about how one should live or what is acceptable. I feel that any of these hindrances and outside-imposed boundaries limit the human experience. So in some circles what we do would be considered haram. Also, it is used as an exalted term by audience members during a concert to express that what someone is playing is badass. Which I dig, the turning of the phrase on its head."

This music still resonates with millions of people in the Arabic world, and what Haram brings to it is something unique "exactly because we haven't grown up with it. We hear it with different ears and with different aesthetics. It's a very simple and natural progression. I'm listening to this classic music that moves me greatly. I then hear it garbled up with everything else. I can hear how a Farid al Atrache taqasim connects to a slow, conceptually developed Chris Kelly solo, or that the open free space which Oum Kalthoum sings from could be paid homage to by JP's trumpet. Jesse is also in East Van Strings and has developed his own way of delving into some of that sonic space while maintaining the texture and colour playing that he is most known for. Conceptually I want to honour the pieces the best way we can as an ensemble. So the arrangements are built around finding spaces that can be opened up. It can almost be like a good Dj mashing up pieces together - things can take a massive left turn, or you can connect two seemingly disparate sounds seamlessly. As long as you can hear it before it happens everything is fine."

"Truthfulness and direct expression are so important. It's when you try and think your way through the concepts that you run into problems. I can't go back and unlearn all my musical conditioning. You can't pretend you haven't heard Ornette Coleman or Ed Blackwell after the fact. Things are opened up for you and everything that comes in afterwards is affected by it. So by understanding the process and realizing that you need to get out of the way of it for it to develop fully, all those things have come together to create what happens now when I play." And his role as leader? "I've always kind of conducted or moved the music when necessary through my own playing, but on the oud in this ensemble it's impossible to do that so I have had to actually conduct the band quite a bit. I'm feeling out the ebb and flow of the improvisations and compositions and then making sure that we're all on the same page. Having an amplified oud helps with this but there's no way to really put the dark subtle colour of the oud over a ripping sax."

Under studio conditions the band still finds the intensity closing in on ecstasy of its best gigs: "Everyone is serious about the music, and I trust inherently in their dedication to it, so to honour that there is nothing but space and openness in the studio. No heady trips or vibes about the work or playing correctly in any dogmatic sense of the word. That way we all had a blast, were comfortable, and played like we were hanging out in a basement. In that space is where I find people