An Interview

Gordon Grdina (III)

This interview with Gordon Grdina was conducted by email during July 2012.

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.

TR: Why did you name the band Haram?

GG: 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 [;]. 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.

TR: 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 mid-70s). 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.) So, why this choice of material, and what concessions if any do the arrangements make for your jazz/creative music frontline and rhythm section?

GG: 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.

TR: What’s your own background with Arabic music? How and when did you get interested in it and how did you go about studying it?

GG: I started studying the oud seriously about 11 years ago. I first heard the oud when I was 13 and instantly fell in love with it. I had no idea where to get one or how to play it and I was so entrenched in learning jazz guitar that I kind of kept it at bay while I pursued jazz improvisation in university. I was listening to people like Simon Shaheen, Hamza El Din, Munir Bashir, and Anouar Brahem the whole time though so I still had an interest. After graduating I started looking online for an oud, got a cheap one and started teaching myself. Then probably six months later my buddy got given a card at the music studio he worked at that said Serwan Yamolky: oud virtuoso. Turns out he was! I studied with him for a long time, working on taqasim, maqam development and Iraqi folk music. We also got into the Turkish samaa’i’s too. He is an amazing, lyrical, beautiful player who always stays true to the spirit of the pieces he is playing. Not a flashy player at all, he just plays the music, which is something that I am always looking for in musicians, teachers, and in life really – truthfulness and direct expression are so important. I then hung out a little with Najeeb Shaheen through a great friend and oud player named Brian Prunka and got to study with Bassam Saba and Simon Shaheen a little at his Arabic retreat. I also spent some time in Albuquerque with Rahim AlHaj, who is a great modern exponent of the Iraqi oud tradition.

TR: 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?

GG: 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.

Amplifying the oud sucks. You always lose some subtlety. But there are pay offs for doing it. Like I can play in a 10-piece avant-arabic ensemble with my friends and can be heard. It makes me play harder and more because there is a lot of sonic space to deal with. I have always kind of conducted or moved the music when necessary through my own playing but on the oud in this ensemble it’s impossible to do that so I have had to actually conduct the band quite a bit. That is a very big part of what I do in this group. I’m feeling out the ebb and flow of the improvisations and compositions and then making sure that we’re all on the same page. Having an amplified oud helps with this but there’s no way to really put the dark subtle colour of the oud over a ripping sax.

TR: 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?

GG: 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.

TR: What’s the most fun you’ve ever had onstage with this band, and how did you try to go about achieving that in the studio?

GG: The most fun gig with this band would be playing the hottest night of the year at Nuba downtown, in the basement, with no air conditioning, a packed house and everyone having been given fans. There was a small fire and everyone had to exit to the sidewalk till the firemen came. All of those extremes built up an intense excitement and I thought the band played exceptionally. Maybe that’s not all that fun though…I guess then the outdoor stage at David Lam park at last year’s jazz festival with a huge crowd clapping and dancing along to the music was pretty damn fun. To achieve that vibe in the studio we just all kept it light. This band has a great hang. Everyone is serious about the music, and I trust inherently in their dedication to it, so to honour that there is nothing but space and openness in the studio. No heady trips or vibes about the work or playing correctly in any dogmatic sense of the word. That way we all had a blast, were comfortable, and played like we were hanging out in a basement. In that space is where I find people play the most free.

TR: How are plans coming to tour the band outside of the Vancouver area, and eventually outside Canada? What kinds of festivals and venues are picking up on the music so far?

GG: We are doing a tour of eastern Canada, well not fully East; we’re hitting Toronto, Guelph, Ottawa and Montreal in September. We’re playing at the Guelph Jazz Festival and the Ottawa Folk Festival and then La Sala Rosa in Montreal and Tranzac in Toronto. So far we’re looking at a mix of jazz and folk festivals that want to book the band. Both of those audiences are perfect for what we do. I have plans to do a more thorough tour of Canada next year through the festival season and then plans to go overseas the year after. We are hoping to go to Jordan, Turkey and most of continental Europe.