The term “world music” is one of the most ridiculous tags ever. After all, isn’t all music world music? The implied condescension is repulsive, but thankfully an artist has arrived who is worthy of such an appellation. Amina Alaoui’s ECM solo debut, Arco Iris, is a stunningly beautiful album, filled with musical elements that really do seem to span the globe.
It all stems from the depth of musical knowledge Amina has spent her life amassing. Born in Fez, she was originally schooled in the Moroccan Gharnati tradition. She has also studied European classical music, medieval chant, and Persian song forms. One of the many brilliant aspects of Arco Iris is her ability to blend these influences into a style all her own.
The songs she has chosen are an eclectic mix; some of their texts and melodies date back over 1,000 years. Among the sources set to music are mystic poems by St. Teresa and the 11th century King of Seville, Al Mutamid Ibn Abbad.
A great deal of credit must also go to the group Amina assembled. They are Saifallah Ben Abderrazak (violin), Sofiane Negra (oud), Jose Luis Monton (flamenco guitar), Eduardo Miranda (mandolin), and Idriss Agnel (percussion, electric guitar).
Appropriately enough, the disc begins with the unaccompanied voice of Amina on the traditional Andalusian chant “Hado.” From there we move into “Buscate en mi,” with words by Santa Teresa de Avila (1515-1582), set to music by Alaoui. As is the case throughout the album, her choices are impeccable. The piece opens with a lonely violin, which is soon joined by flamenco guitar, and topped with her soaring vocals. The poems have been translated into English for the booklet, which only adds to the overall sense of wonderment. Consider the first few stanzas: “Let nothing trouble you. Let nothing frighten you. All is ephemeral. God alone is immutable.”
This is the level that Amina is working at, and every one of the 12 tracks is extraordinary in its own way. I found the nine-minute “Ya laylo layl” to be worthy of special mention, however. With words supplied by Ibn Zaydun de Cordoba (1003-1071), and music by Amina, this piece is one of the few that feature the full band playing together. A welcome twist occurs at the end, with a particularly unconventional flamenco guitar solo from Jose Luis Monton. The guitarist arranged “La Morillas de Jaen,” which is another superior track. This is the most aggressive piece on the record, and a virtual guitar extravaganza.
The final two cuts are the most personal of the set. “Que fare” was written by Amina, and features the only amplified instrument on the record. The electric guitar accompaniment is supplied courtesy of her son, Idriss Agnel. The disc closes with the title track, her song of praise to the “Arco Iris,” or rainbow.
This is a brilliantly conceived and executed collection of songs, and seems to have appeared fully-formed, and without precedent. ECM followers may have had an inkling that something like this was coming, however. Amina’s first appearance on the label came in 2009, on Jon Balke’s Siwan. It was another extraordinary blend of unexpected sources, with a sensibility similar to that of Arco Iris.
The intent was to recreate “what was lost to the bonfires of the Inquisition.” The medieval territory of Andalusia is the spiritual center of Siwan, a place where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars freely exchanged ideas. For this collection of early music, much of the poetry was composed to Spanish translations. One of Amina’s central roles was to reshape the material around the original Arabic versions, which she then sang with a deep empathy for the form.
Among the multitude of players that Balke employed for the project is the legendary Jon Hassell. His involvement would seem to signal something of a modernist approach to all of this, but that is not the case. His contributions fit perfectly with the underlying themes. Special note should also be made of the 12-piece Barokksolistene (Baroque Soloists), who add a tremendous amount of flavor throughout.
While Siwan is a much different project than Arco Iris, both contain some of the most appealingly adventurous music one is likely to hear. The glue that binds the two recordings together is the remarkable voice of Amina Alaoui. Her talent, and desire to find common ground between all forms of music is a quality that is extremely captivating. She is very definitely an artist to watch, and Arco Iris is one of the finest records I have heard this year.