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Qalandar taps into Persian tradition at Winterruption

Gordon Grdina band performing on Granville Island this weekend
Gordon Grdina
Gordon Grdina performs with his band Qalandar at Performance Works on Sunday afternoon as part of Granville Island’s Winterruption Festival. Admission is free.

Qalandar, Performance Works, Granville Island, Sunday, Feb. 16 at 3:15 and 4:30 p.m. All ages, free admission as part of Winterruption 2014. For music schedule visit

Musician Gordon Grdina has performed in many different contexts since graduating from Capilano College, with a degree in Jazz Studies, back in 2000.

As a member of Dan Mangan's band as well as the leader of several jazz and world music ensembles (such as Sangha, which also includes fellow Cap grads Hidayat Honari and Neelamjit Dhillon) Grdina is used to working in a wide range of formats as a guitarist and oud player.

His latest band, Qalandar, gives Grdina a chance to tap into Vancouver's Persian community for inspiration. The ensemble, featuring Reza Honari on kamanche, Ali Razmi on tar, Hamin Honari on tombak and daf, Kenton Loewen on drums and Grdina on oud, combines Arabic, Persian and free improvisation with traditional tunes and contemporary pieces.

"Every band's got its own purpose," says Grdina. "Even though how the music's made seems all the same to me the outcome of how it all comes together depends on who the musicians are and what music you're playing. Early on whatever I was interested in artistically went off in different directions. I was into a lot of stuff - Persian, Arabic and Indian music. I got into doing more specifically Arabic stuff and started Haram, a big 10-piece, but that's also influenced by all my free jazz friends in town who play that music so it's kind of a hybrid of those two things. Qalandar is really trying to delve deeper into Persian music mixing that with a more Western sense of improvisation."

Up until now Qalandar have rarely performed live although they have played a few gigs at China Cloud on Main St. while developing their sound. They initially formed as a quartet but after playing a few shows Grdina suggested bringing Loewen into the mix.

"We started talking about how we wanted to add some other things to it and move it around," Grdina says. "I kept wanting to hear Kenton, who is my favourite drummer in town, and Hamin play, because I think they are very similar. I thought, 'Man we've got to get those two together.' When the opportunity came up we added Kenton and that just fit perfectly and everybody liked it. It's another groove element and another percussive thing for them to influence each other. It really opens up the way we play which

is pretty traditional in the improvising within the stringed instruments."

Adding Loewen's drum kit definitely takes things off in a different sonic direction but Grdina says that doesn't mean Qalandar is playing free jazz. Far from it.

"I feel that often gets said just because that's what Kenton and I do," he says. "Of course that's an influence but that's just because I'm playing and that's a thing I've done a whole lot of but you would never hear anything in there that you would think sounds 'jazzy.' We're not bringing anything in there to make it sound Western. It's just the fact that it's a drum kit that makes that happen.

"We're playing Persian rhythms on a drum kit so the universality of rhythm is there. There's certain beats that are almost hip-hop beats but it's a traditional Persian rhythm pattern. It's all coming out of that. Once you're improvising it's counterintuitive to try and cut off things that you know in order to create something specific. Everything is coming out so there's stuff that we're playing that will have been influenced from listening to Ornette Coleman or something like that. Things will come out percussion-wise or in a drum solo that will sound like Ed Blackwell or something African and

that's just because of the person that's doing it. It's not something that was specifically thought or brought to the table."

Grdina says it's a testament to the sensitivity of Loewen as a drummer that he can work himself into Qalandar's sound. "His ability to play a massive dynamic scale and to intuitively get onboard with things makes it work. There's something happening and he plays along with it - he knows rhythm, he knows time, he's studied Indian music, he's got a lot of influences within him. He used to play tabla. There's all these things in him that allow him to be open to the complexities of the rhythms. He can do it on the fly and instantly recognize what he needs to do to be a part of it. It's the sensitivity of his playing that makes it possible."

As a relatively new project Qalandar is in the process of figuring out what they want to play. "We're still working on repertoire," says Grdina. "We're working on where we're going to push the direction of the band. Everybody's written stuff for the band. I have three tunes in mind that are sort of in an Arabic style with some universal things. There's nothing that is specifically Persian but it works within the repertoire that we know together and then Ali has written some tunes that are pretty traditionally Persian. I

think he's going to do some singing on it too. Resa has also written some pieces for it and then there's a piece that Neel wrote for Sangha in a Persian style. There's not really a classic repertoire that we're doing in this band - it's more of a contemporary take on Persian ideas."

- Qalandar performs two shows Sunday afternoon at Performance Works as part of the three-day Winterruption Festival on Granville Island. For more of the interview with Grdina go to nsnews. com/entertainment.



Q&A with Gordon Grdina

North Shore News: You play in many different contexts as a musician. Who were some of your influences starting out?
Gordon Grdina: I first started playing blues music when I was nine or 10 and then I got into jazz when I was around 12 or 13. I was really influenced by the major artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane and then really got into Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley and Jim Hall — a great guitar player who just died this year. Jim Hall and Bill Frisell were kind of a big thing. I went and studied jazz and it was mostly jazz but I was also interested in Indian music and Arabic music.
I went to Capilano College for a couple of years and then I went to Western Washington University for a year to study with Chuck Israels, a bass player who played with Bill Evans, who was another big influence. I came back and finished my degree at Cap and then after that I went and studied in New York with Gary Peacock, who is another major influence and an amazing individual.
I studied with him for five years — he played with Albert Ayler and Bill Evans and also with Keith Jarrett. A lot of stuff that he put out on ECM I was really interested in.

North Shore News:  You mentioned Hall and Frisell — were they the reasons you picked up the guitar or were you already focusing on that?
Gordon Grdina: Guitar was something I was already playing. Stevie Ray Vaughan was the first huge influence on me and then it was Jim Hall and then Frisell.

North Shore News: How did you get interested in the oud?
Gordon Grdina: When I was 13 my guitar teacher was great. He would bring in all different types of music to listen to. He’d bring me CDs every week to check out and brought me a CD of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Simon Shaheen. He wanted me to hear the slide guitar playing of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and the first thing you hear is Simon Shaheen’s oud and I’d never heard that sound before and it blew my mind. I loved it. It sounded amazing. There’s something about the tone, the percussive nature of it and it was so round. I just loved it. It was so dark and melancholic and there were so many different tones within that one tone.
I then started listening to Simon Shaheen and Hamza El Din, sort of the (oud players) that came over to North America. I graduated and got my degree and I felt I had more space or something so I just started looking online and found an oud and bought that and then through a friend found Serwan Yamolky who is an amazing Iraqi musician and oud player. I started studying with him and about six months after that I started a band called Sangha with some of the guys that are in Qalandar. I studied in Austin at Simon Shaheen’s retreat and then hung out in New York with his brother and then studied in Albuquerque with Rahim AlHaj a little bit, but my main teacher’s always been Serwan Yamolky.

North Shore News: You had to go online to find an oud?
Gordon Grdina: I didn’t know anybody who had one, I didn’t know anybody else who was playing.

North Shore News: Initially did you have to go outside of  Vancouver to study the instrument?
Gordon Grdina: I did. I mean the only person in town was Serwan Yamolky. I studied with him and he’s fanastic. He used to play with Jamil Bachir when he was in Iraq so he was a great musician to meet. And that was just by accident. A friend of mine worked in a music store and he walked in and was buying oud strings which is also rare, there are only so many stores that have them. My buddy said, ‘Oh one of my friends is interested in the oud,’ and he pulled out his business card and his business card just said, ‘Serwan Yamolky, oud virtuoso.’ So that was awesome. I started studying with him and I think he’d only been here a year or something like that from Iraq. What I’ve found since then is I know pretty much every oud player in town, almost in Canada, because it’s a pretty small scene once you get into it.

North Shore News: As opposed to that there is a Persian community here. How did you meet some of those musicians?
Gordon Grdina: What was it 2000, 2001, 2002? I didn’t really know that many people in the Persian community at all. But right away I got to meet Neelamjit Dhillon who was a good friend I’d been playing in a band with him where he was playing tabla and I was playing guitar. He was really good friends with Hidayat Honari so I met Hidayat through Neel and we started Sangha together. He was playing Persian tar and Neel was playing tabla and I was playing oud and then Hidayat’s brother plays tombak and daf and he started playing with us. That’s really how I got introduced to the Persian community through the Honari family. And then I started playing with their dad Resa who produced one of our records. Started adding him on gigs and then started playing with his mom Fathieh when she was singing and she would come join us. That whole family is how I got introduced to it and then through them I’ve done some concerts with other musicians but everything has been through the Honari family. They’ve been fantastic and very welcoming and taught me a lot about music. With Qalandar I wanted to delve deeper into that relationship.

North Shore News: Are you planning any releases in the near future?
Gordon Grdina: I’ve got another sextet we did with Mats Gustafsson, Fredrik Lundqvist and Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten and my trio that we did at jazz fest that I’m trying to mix. And then I’ve got a duo called Pink Brown, fretless guitar and drums which is pretty punky. Free punk is what it feels like. That kind of energy.  That one we’re going to be recording and putting out soon.

North Shore News: Are you doing anything with Haram this year?
Gordon Grdina: Yes we’e got a big Indiegogo campaign going on and we’re having a house concert at my house tonight. We’re fundraising right now to raise money to go to Kansas City. We had an official showcase with the Folk Alliance International which is a really big deal for us as far as booking shows and getting some representation internationally. Going to Kansas City that will be a big step for us I think and then we’re going to go to Victoriaville this year in May which is a festival we’ve never played and really wanted to. I’m really excited about that.


Gordon Grdina Discography

Gordon Grdina /Gary Peacock /Paul Motian: Think Like the Waves (Songlines 2006)

Gordon Grdina's Box Cutter: Unlearn (Spool 2006)

Gordon Grdina Trio: ...If Accident Will (Plunge 2008)

Gordon Grdina's East Van Strings: Breathing of Statues (Songlines 2009)

Gordon Grdina Trio with Mats Gustafsson: Barrel Fire (Drip Audio 2010)

Gordon Grdina's Haram: Her Eyes Illuminate (Songlines 2012)

Gordon Grdina & Mark Helias: No Difference (Songlines 2013)