The sound of the Indian slide guitar is immediately alluring—but that wasn’t what caught Gordon Grdina’s ear when he was introduced to Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Simon Shaheen’s groundbreaking cross-cultural fusion record, Saltanah. Thirteen at the time, he was already a fast-budding plectrist, and a friend had thought Bhatt’s playing would expand his horizons. It was Shaheen’s instrument, the oud, that caught his ears, however, initiating a lifelong fascination that culminated earlier this year with the release of Her Eyes Illuminate, the debut album from Grdina’s 10-piece Arab-improv big band, Haram.
“I heard the oud and just instantly fell in love with the sound,” the in-demand musician tells the Straight, on the line from his East Van home. “I kind of wondered how that was made and what it looked like, all that stuff.”
It took some years before Grdina was able to satisfy his curiosity. First, he had to hone his guitar playing to the point where he’s both internationally acclaimed as an improviser and locally revered as a sideman. On the global front, he’s recorded with former Miles Davis bassist Gary Peacock, the late drum legend Paul Motian, and Swedish saxophone powerhouse Mats Gustafsson. Closer to home, his “day job” is playing in rising star Dan Mangan’s band, along with Haram bandmates Kenton Loewen (drums) and JP Carter (trumpet).
Eventually he encountered Iraqi exile and oud virtuoso Serwan Yamolky, and embarked on an ongoing apprenticeship in the sounds of the Arab world. That initial fascination with the oud—“it just sounds so dark and melancholic,” he offers—has led to a broader interest in the music of the Middle East.
As a Canadian, however, Grdina realizes that there’s no point in simply emulating the work of Iraq’s Munir Bashir, Sudan’s Hamza El Din, or his Kurdish teacher. Hence Haram, whose mandate is to combine the expressive freedom of radical jazz with the sinuous structures of Arab composers such as Farid al-Atrash and Ziad Rahbani. The music’s backbone is traditional, but wild outbursts of free improvisation and subtle injections of noise make it quite unlike anything you’d hear in the shisha dens of Cairo or Baghdad.
On Her Eyes Illuminate, for instance, Carter’s breathy trumpet casts an extraterrestrial spell behind Grdina’s oud on “Raqs al Jamal”—a title that, appropriately enough, translates as “Dance of Beauty”. And on the 15-minute-long “Alf Leila Wa Leila”, Chris Kelly contributes a hyper-expressive tenor-sax solo that’s reminiscent, in its ecstatic fervour, of John Coltrane’s finest work. These passages of sonic experimentation, combined with beautiful playing and the strong vocals of Syrian-born Emad Armoush, helped place the new disc in this writer’s 2012 Top 10 list. But there’s more to Haram than musical excellence: Grdina sees the band—which also includes percussionists Tim Gerwing and Liam MacDonald, clarinetist François Houle, violinist Jesse Zubot, and bassist Tommy Babin—as a catalyst for growth within Vancouver’s already burgeoning improv scene.
The sheer size of the ensemble, plus the gang vocals and group clapping required in Arabic music, serve to bring the players together in new and heartening ways.
“A big part of starting this band—outside of that I was working on studying Arabic music and wanted to have somewhere I could play it—is that I was feeling that I was not necessarily as involved in the community as I wanted to be,” Grdina reports. “I had these bands, but it was always the same people, and there were a bunch of people in town that I wasn’t able to connect with as much as I wanted to. So I was just thinking that I want to get everybody into this band and get to play with them all, build on those relationships. And since doing that, it has completely brought us all really close together. The hanging out has just been fantastic, and our whole idea has been trying to keep it that way—trying to keep it loose and enjoyable.
“I guess it’s just my way of being able to pay homage to all the guys in our town whose playing I’ve loved,” he adds. “This feels like it’s something that we can all be a part of and enjoy, and then go off and do everything else that we do.”
So far, Haram remains an underground Vancouver sensation, but a recent tour of Ontario and Quebec received nothing but glowing reviews. And despite the difficulty and expense of convening 10 of Vancouver’s top musicians, Grdina has big plans for the band—including, eventually, a trip to its spiritual home.
“Getting the band over to the Middle East would be really nice,” he says, adding that though Her Eyes Illuminate cover artist Jabbar Al Janabi, he’s already got strong contacts in Jordan. “There’s quite a bit of avant-garde music there—or avant-garde art, I should say, in general.”
Haram might mean “forbidden” in Arabic, but these Canadian ambassadors would no doubt be more welcomed than shunned.
Haram plays the China Cloud on Friday (December 21).