Two days ago, I wrote about Kevin Whelan who has a high profile job at Johnson & Johnson while simultaneously producing magnificent indie-pop music with Aeon Station. Yesterday I wrote about the intricate prog rock of Emerson Lake & Palmer. Houeida Hedfi manages to combine these two elements into a wonderful album of Arabian music.
Houeida Hedfi is a Tunisian musician who only started playing music at the age of 27. Up until that point, she had established a reputation in the field of economics and mathematics. The album was produced by Olof Dreijer, who is a Swedish musician and DJ, who has achieved success in his own country as half of The Knife, an electronic music duo he formed with his sister Karin. In 2011 Olof Dreijer produced a song performed by Houeida Hedfi on a compilation of female musicians from Tunisia. They began a musical relationship which resulted in him playing flute in Houeida Hedfi’s band Hiya Wal Aalam in 2015. At this point, she was mainly playing percussion and created her own form of “stambeli”, Afro-Arab music which used rhythms to create a unique style of sufi trance. While she enjoyed this style, she wanted to introduce more melody into her creations. Tunisian violin player Radhi Chaouali and Palestinian bouzouki player Jalal Nader joined her and over the course of the next six years, they travelled between Tunisia, France and Olof Dreijer’s studio in Berlin to make this album.
Each of the nine tracks on the album is named after a river and there are no vocals apart from a sampled voice on “Namami Gange” and some spooky sounds on “Appel de Danube”, both of which are sung by British musician Jam Rostrom (otherwise known as Planningtorock).
This is not progressive rock although I would like to draw comparisons between “Tarkus” and “Fleuves De l’Ame”. The experience of listening to both of these records is constantly stimulating and never boring. I understand that many people may not like the showmanship of Keith Emerson on an ELP record, but there’s always something happening. The musicians are always moving the song forward and rarely repeating themselves. Phil Spector took credit for extending “I Me Mine” (on “Let It Be”) from its original length of 80 seconds to 150 seconds by repeating a chorus and verse. So what we hear on this song for the last 70 seconds is exactly, literally, the same as what we heard in the first 80 seconds. There is no repetition on the overblown, pretentious, egocentric, tour de force of “Tarkus” (which I happen to love) and, similarly, nothing gets repeated at any time on the 57 minutes of “Fleuves De l’Ame”. Even (or especially) on the last track, the 18 minute “Cheminement du Tigre”, my attention is maintained throughout as new sounds, new melodies and virtuoso playing combine to produce a wonderful collection of sounds. The main ingredient of each track is melody but the wonder of the music is achieved by layers of influences. It’s possible to determine ambient soundscapes, electronica, modern classical music and free jazz in every track but this is a gentle, calm, graceful record with occasional blasts of unpredictability. There are 17 different instruments on the album, played by 15 different musicians. Radhi Chaouali and Jalal Nader are prominent (on violin and bouzouki).
There is no other music like this. The assortment of musicians from different nations and backgrounds, combined with a focussed determination to create melodious beauty from Houeida Hedfi, is irresistible.