What's 'forbidden' about this avant-Arabic ensemble from Vancouver?

The World

Haram, comprised of 10 musicians from Vancouver, got their name from an Arabic word meaning "sinful" or "forbidden." 

Gordon Grdina, the band's arranger and oudist, likes the different resonances the word has, and says they fit the way his band remixes the tradition.

"There's a part of the band that's kind of forbidden, doing a lot of traditional music in totally new ways," he says

Grdina has been exploring new ways of playing jazz for a long time, on guitar and, more recently, oud.

He put Haram together about six years ago to find new ways of approaching the Arabic music he'd been studying.

The group's 10 members come with varied musical resumes -- jazz and electronic, new chamber music and Brazilian, African and Arabic percussion are all there.

A lot of the group's exploratory nature comes from these diverse backgrounds. But Grdina says Arabic music also has some of this built in.

He cites the great Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum constantly finding new ways to interpret songs, particularly in her radio broadcasts that were heard by millions across the Arabic-speaking world. She would change instrumentation and rework different parts of the song; often she'd spontaneously improvise long passages if she and the crowd were feeling it.

One of those songs she gave this treatment to is "Alf Leila Wa Leila"--here is Haram's take on it:

"I was just trying to find a way to pay homage to her in her sense of openness and freedom within the lines she sings and how she phrases them, and just focus on different musicians in the band," Grdina says.

The band works hard to get this openness into their performances. Grdina says that doesn't always come easily when you're playing this material.

"Because the music is so subtle and can be so difficult, sometimes there's a massive focus on that, and you lose this sense of openness and freedom and fun that can happen, that looseness with tightness which is like Led Zeppelin," Grdina says. "That's a thing you only get in a band that is comfortable with each other, open, and willing to risk everything all the time."           

Sometimes the risks are built into the song. For example, in another song on Haram's album "Her Eyes Illuminate" called "Sama'i Farahfaza." it opens on an introspective, twisting melody. A few minutes later, things get dissonant--risk is happening.

"We kind of had just two warring sections of the band happening," Grdina explains. "All the band's playing the piece pretty much straight, and then the drummer and violin player improvise against it. They're playing all this crazy stuff and the band's just playing and I wanted this sound to overtake the melody. And then we'd all play together, which kind of happens at the end. "

Among other things, it's a great example of a looseness-with-tightness that Oum Kalthoum and the guys in Led Zeppelin could probably get behind.