“Houle’s incomparably supple (and subtle) clarinet playing combined in the most artful way with Koushkani’s tar and Ferreras’s drums….Music like Safa’s ties together every heart, any heart, so long as it is human and its busy brain tunes in to that magnificent remoteness.”
—Halifax Chronicle Herald
Although the 2400 series is Songlines’ occasional world-music line, Vancouver’s Safa make music with the open, improvisational approach and energy of jazz. Collectively its members have experience in many musical styles, including classical, new music, improv, and various Asian, European and Latin traditions. Safa was formed in 1999, a year after the release of Amir Koushkani’s highly regarded debut CD, Quest (**** “a very fresh-sounding and rewarding take on a musical idiom that has been around for centuries” – Alex Henderson, allmusic.com). Quest is a personal interpretation of the classical and folk music of Iran, Amir’s homeland, and Alight too is largely based in Persian idioms, but with an exuberant new-world edge to complement the old world’s passion and melancholy. From an improvised dialogue for clarinet and kulintang (Philippine gong row) to arrangements of four Sufi poems (sung in Persian), Safa display a love of musical exploration and expression across cultures.
A brief note about Sufism, a mystical tradition whose roots go back more than a thousand years in the cultures of the middle east: Sufi-inspired poems, or couplets from poems, are often used as texts in Persian classical music-making. For Sufis the ultimate goal is to lose one’s separate, ego-identified self in the love of God, and intoxication through wine or the contemplation of earthly beauty is a way to this ecstatic state. Music, especially extemporized music, can also be a way into the eternal moment; as Amir writes in the notes to this disc, “A music that can be nourishment for the soul was my first priority.” (Safa means “inner purity, sincerity, sincere affection” in Persian.)
Amir Koushkani was born in Tehran in 1968 and from the age of 13 studied tar at the National Iranian Radio and Television’s Centre for Preservation and Propagation of National Music, completing a four-year apprenticeship in the performance of tar and setar in 1984. Subsequently he became an instructor of tar at the Centre. In 1991 he emigrated to Canada, and since then he has concertized in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, as well as creating and performing the music for two plays on Sufi themes. He currently teaches and studies music and performs with his Moshtagh Ensemble. He has released duet CDs with violist Eyvind Kang and Iranian vocalist Khatereh Parvaneh (www.koushkani.com).
Born in Quebec in 1961, François Houle has built a body of work that, as Art Lange has written, “hovers unselfconsciously above categories and styles.” He leads the François Houle 5 and other jazz/creative music groups, and has performed and/or recorded with Marilyn Crispell, Dave Douglas, Myra Melford, Wayne Horvitz, Joëlle Léandre, Georg Graewe, Evan Parker, and the NOW Orchestra, as well as performing in ensembles under the direction of Kagel, Takemitsu, and Xenakis. Houle is intimately involved in the development of contemporary Canadian music as a member of Standing Wave and the Vancouver New Music Ensemble, and also performs classical chamber music and klezmer. He has appeared at festivals across Canada, the U.S., and Europe, and his CDs are on Songlines, Between the Lines, Spool, Red Toucan, and other labels.
Sal Ferreras was born in Puerto Rico in 1954 and emigrated to Canada in 1974. As percussionist, teacher, artistic director, bandleader, and composer, he draws on a truly comprehensive musical knowledge and experience ranging from Latin-American to new music and classical to Balinese gamelan. He currently performs with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, Vancouver New Music Ensemble, Viveza, and his own world music quintet Southern Cross. He has produced and participated in many international percussion events, including his ongoing series of Drum Heat concerts, and his recordings are on Skylark, Aural Traditions, and Miramar.
**** “Challenging and beautiful might seem like contradictory descriptions, but in the case of Safa, they’re perfectly apt. With a strong root in Persian music, the trio explores improvisation with clarinet, percussion, tar, and setar, and takes its sound to some very interesting places. What’s particularly apparent isn’t just the fact that they can all play with wonderful invention, but that they listen, too, and depend on each other to focus a piece of music like the fairly epic ‘Whisper of Love,’ where answering phrases lift the mood higher and higher. Putting the music into a pigeonhole isn’t easy. Amir Koushkani’s Iranian roots might be the heart of it all, and is the basis of three of the tracks here (another, ‘Nihawend Lunga,’ is a traditional Turkish piece). The other seven come from the bandmembers and aren’t world music, jazz, or anything readily definable. They can work happily in duos – as on ‘Aurora,’ ‘Shadi,’ and ‘Epilogue’ – or together, such as with ‘Navae.’ And certainly they set out their stall on the opener, the demanding ‘Chahar Mezrab,’ where virtuosity is the key, especially Houle’s ecstatic clarinet solo. All this record proves is that when you’re making intelligent music, there’s nothing wrong in demanding a lot from the listener.” — Chris Nickson, Allmusic.com
“Safa make unusual, challenging music, much of which is heady, complex, and wonderful. The interplay between the musicians is telepathic, even when there’s nothing to follow, and they work perfectly off each other. Persia, really, is just a jumping-off point – from there they travel everywhere, and much of the journey is inside the head. But it’s well worth the trip.” — Chris Nickson, Globalvillageidiot.com
“…this unusual trio reminded me of the several meetings of East and West recordings on the Water Lily Acoustics label…The variety of drums from many musical cultures adds to the exotic musical mix as much as the front line melody instruments.” — John Sunier, Audiophile Audition
“Safa mixes traditional Persian themes with jazz improvisation in a combination that sounds like it should have been obvious all along. On Alight, Iranian expatriate Amir Koushkani shares his wealth of experience: a classically-trained master of tar and setar (lute-like instruments), Koushkani has a firm grasp of his native music. Clarinetist François Houle and percussionist Sal Ferreras join Koushkani to create a stew of styles that also includes significant elements of Turkish, Latin American, and North African music…The group’s name means ‘inner purity, sincerity, sincere affection’ in Farsi–and while its approach is anything but pure in the stylistic sense, there’s a strong sense of sympathetic meditation. The fact that these three players have conjoined so effectively to realize this project reflects a fundamental attribute of good music everywhere: musicians must rely on each other to reach a shared plateau. The bonus, of course, is that we get to share the experience as well.” — Nils Jacobson, AllAboutJazz.com
“Musical worlds often collide when musicians from different cultures try to work together, so it’s a pleasant surprise to hear how well these three interact and communicate. Who would have thought that batá drums would sound so compatible with clarinet, accompanying the singing of a classical Persian poem?…All three musicians have their special moments….But it’s the terrific sound quality, gorgeous songs and rapturous interplay that makes Alight stand out.” — Larry Applebaum, Jazz Times