- Gordon Grdina's Haram CD launch for Her Eyes Illuminate at The Waldorf Hotel, Thursday Sept. 20, 9 p.m. Tickets $15 at the door (cash only). Gordon Grdina, oud, arrangements; Chris Kelly, tenor sax; JP Carter, trumpet; François Houle, clarinet; Jesse Zubot, violin, electronics; Tim Gerwing, darbuka; Liam MacDonald, riq; Tommy Babin, electric bass; Kenton Loewen, drums; Emad Armoush, vocals, ney.
Excerpts of interview with Gordon Grdina conducted by e-mail during July 2012. For the complete interview go to www. songlines.com.
Tony Reif: When was Haram formed and what was the inspiration for putting together this amazing group? Also, how did you decide on the personnel?
Gordon Grdina: I started this band in the fall of 2007 after spending some time at Simon Shaheen's Arabic music retreat at Mount Holyoke College. I wanted to find a band to play all these great pieces that I'd been working on. I also wanted to put together a band that included a lot of the players in Vancouver that I love but wasn't playing with enough. Liam, Tim and I had been playing some traditional Arabic music and I always loved Emad Armoush's singing so we had been talking about doing a quartet together.
Francois had played with my group Sangha a couple times so I figured that he would be a good fit on these tunes. JP Carter can do anything and I've been wanting to play more with him since we had a short-lived project called The Throes. Chris Kelly is an amazing improviser that I'd wanted to play with in a project for a while. He had been studying the ney and already knew a lot about Arabic music so he seemed a perfect fit. Jesse had played with me in a short-lived quartet called Maqam that mixed traditional Iraqi folk tunes with improvised sections. The concept was similar but we never were able to take the music as out of the tradition as I wanted to. Jesse is also in East Van Strings where we have played some Arabic-influenced music, and he 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.
Lastly there are Kenton and Tommy who are my main collaborators musically. I can't say enough about them individually or as a rhythm section. They can do anything. I knew that they would be able to give the group the open space and chaos I was looking for as well as be able to groove really hard. They bring almost an Ethiopiques-vibe to this music that is real deep.
Tony Reif: Why did you name the band Haram?
Gordon Grdina: Well, as I understand it haram means the forbidden. 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. As for Her Eyes Illuminate she is the muse within us all that is Tarab (http: //arabicmusicband.com/articles/tarab; http: //oudman586. blogspot.ca/2010/02/what-is-tarab.html). The eyes being the prism to the inner soul, something that cannot be covered - this light from within can always penetrate the darkness that is without.
Tony Reif: The band's book focuses on popular and folk tunes from Egypt, Syria and Iraq, including pieces made famous by Oum Kalthoum and Farid al Atrache (both of whom died in the mid70s). So it's classic though not classical repertoire, which you're arranging for performers who are for the most part not intimately familiar with Arabic traditions (I'm excepting Emad of course, who is Syrian, and in terms of rhythms Tim Gerwing and Liam MacDonald, the band's darbuka and riq players.) Why this choice of material, and what concessions if any do the arrangements make for your jazz/creative music frontline and rhythm section?
Gordon Grdina: It's a very simple and natural progression. I'm listening to this classic music that moves me greatly. It moves millions of people 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. Conceptually I want to honour the pieces the best way we can as an ensemble, and I feel the best way for us to do that is through our improvisation. So the arrangements are built around finding spaces that can be opened up and not trying to recreate the pieces as they've been performed before. 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. It's when you try and think your way through the concepts that you run into problems.
Tony Reif: How would you describe the style you've evolved for playing oud? Were you more drawn to a particular style, tradition or performer, and did you try to synthesize different styles in the process of creating your own? Also, what kind of sound are you after, and how does amplifying the oud (either using a pickup and amp, or a mic?) affect your playing, especially in a group this size, when you're sometimes a soloist, and sometimes something like a conductor?
Gordon Grdina: I have a hard time talking about style and synthesis because I feel like it assumes premeditated intention, a process of thinking through something in order to come to a conclusion that you have pre-supposed. The process is simple, deliberately simple. I listen to the players that hit me deeply because if the music hits me then where that music comes from is already inside me. I then try and play it as authentically as I can in order to be true to that connection. With some things this is a very fast process, for some it takes a whole lot of time. These influences were coming from all over the spectrum but I guess Hamza El Din, Simon Shaheen and Serwan Yamolky mostly influenced me. These influences naturally combine with everything else I am into as a musician, and I had to be OK with that.
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. It's not unlike developing as a human - if you try and plan to be something that you're not life is going to be really difficult for you and you're not going to connect with people that are real.
Tony Reif: Could you maybe take a piece and walk us through the arrangement and the decisions you made along the way? I'm thinking in particular of, presumably, some kind of balance between the original performance and a 21st century world music/creative jazz perspective. Also, since I know you're hoping to appeal to a North American Arabic audience as well as world/roots/jazz fans, what do you think an Arabic audience will find interesting about a bunch of white boys creatively trashing old-fashioned music that most of them probably don't listen to anyway?
Gordon Grdina: There are a lot of assumptions in that question! I think what you're wanting to get at is the question of authenticity. I think that being authentic to oneself is the most important thing. By taking a music tradition completely seriously and delving into it as honestly and with as much fervor as you can you can get somewhere that is both true to yourself and the tradition. That said, it's subjective. Sometimes the response from people is warm and sometimes people think it's shite. Art divides people, but I think there is something of value that this group can bring to this repertoire exactly because we haven't grown up with it. We hear it with different ears and with different aesthetics.
These pieces are well known to a lot of people and are standing the test of time. I was just hanging with a new friend who owns one of the biggest hip hop clubs in Vancouver, and he was telling me how as teenagers he and his buddies would listen to Farid al Atrache tapes blaring down Robson street in Vancouver! I don't feel like we're trashing old-fashioned music. I feel like we are embracing something that is beautiful and being honest about how we hear it and feel it. Honesty and the fearless expression of that honesty are interesting. At least it's really interesting to me. It's what I look for in art - someone expressing their honest experience. Then I can see them and therefore myself.