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Simin Tander: No Looking Back

Photo credit: Matthis Kleeb

Ian Patterson By

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I like to play with concrete images in my lyrics and also have this evocation of mystique, which invites the imagination. I like to play with these two different poles.
—Simin Tander
When an album receives widespread critical acclaim, generating extensive touring in its wake, the temptation must be to repeat the formula next time around. Especially for artists operating in the niche world of jazz/improvised music, where a sure gig can be something of a holy grail, it would make little sense to fix what ain't broken.

True artists, however, rarely tread water for too long. Simin Tander, singer, composer and improvising vocalist, is one such artist.

German born and of Afghan descent, Tander scored a notable success with What Was Said (ECM, 2016), a sublime trio outing with Tord Gustavsen and Jarle Vespestad that wed Norwegian church music with the poetry of thirteenth century Persian Sufi mystic, Jalal al-Din Rumi. The trio toured the music far and wide in 2016 and 2017, gracing some of the world's most prestigious jazz festivals and venues.

"Especially the first year was really intense," says Tander via Zoom. "There were a lot of concerts and lots of traveling. I have always been someone who only does things 100%, indulging completely in something I love, or feel in some way will be right for me. So to say, I definitely enjoyed this heavily busy period immensely and at the same time faced challenges when feeling my body and mind was tired or overwhelmed. I think in that period I learned even more on how to re-connect to myself and what my exact needs are when performing and traveling that much."

On top of all the touring, Tander was also juggling her teaching job at a conservatory in northern Germany, doing her level best for her students.

"Yes, all in all it was absorbing in the best sense of the word, on different levels. But most of all, it was exciting, inspiring and very meaningful for me to perform music I love with two incredible and immensely experienced musicians in the best jazz venues for really listening and rewarding audiences."

In spite of the success, Tander had little intention of just sticking to the treadmill. For even while on the road with Gustavsen and Vespestad, Tander sowing the seeds, in a quite organic way, for her next project.

"I remember backstage having some loose ideas of new songs—something that happens probably naturally when one plays every—or almost every night—of course, one gets new musical ideas," says Tander. "I already had the desire to do a solo album under my own name after the trio project with Tord and Jarle."

Four years would pass between What Was Said and the recording of Tander's solo album, Unfading (2020). "For sure, it was not a short time," concedes Tander, "but for me it feels like the time that was needed to go into the next phase of choosing the line-up, and of really shaping the songs and my vision. Plus, I have been working, playing concerts and recording in other musical projects as well and have been, so to say, actually very active."

The easy option might have been to reconnect with her regular band of Jeroen van Vliet, Cord Heineking and Etienne Nillesen, with whom Tander recorded her first two albums as leader, Wagma (Neuklang Records, 2011) and Where Water Travels Home (Jazzhaus Records, 2014). As Tander explains, the decision she eventually took was far from easy.

"It was quite a process for me because after twelve years I decided not to continue with my former quartet. We had released two albums and had played together in total for twelve years, touring through Europe and Asia. The question whether or not to continue the path with this beautiful band was quite a time-consuming one. It was definitely not easy in the sense that we had shared a big musical journey, and it felt like a musical family, especially as it was the band that I had started with, after my studies."

In fact, Tander describes conducting one or two rehearsals with her band to try out some of the new songs, and admits that she felt "a bit stuck in between." But in a way, her mind was set.

"Back then I already felt that recording again with this quartet would have somehow felt in a way like going back. I really appreciate them, personally and musically, a lot, but I felt that if I recorded these songs with these musicians, it would naturally sound similar to my former records and it wouldn't have that freshness that I needed right then," Tander explains.

"With big decisions in life I can be slow and thorough. I don't make decisions lightly and easily," she expands. "I wish I could be a bit more like that, but it was a big thing for me. When I finally made the decision, things were very clear to me and everyone understood and felt also that our journey had come, at least for now, to an end. There were no hard feelings, it was just very logical in a way, especially after all the concerts I had played with the ECM trio which had shaped me also musically."

In seeking the "freshness" Tander refers to, she tried out the new material with various constellations, sometimes meeting with just one musician in the hope of discovering someone inspirational who would possess the sound she was looking for.

Initially, Tander was once more drawn to the sound of the piano. "I have always loved the elegance, refinement and power of this instrument. I tried out my songs with two different pianists, really good, fantastic players, but then felt the wish for a different, new sound, and I realized it could only come if I made the choice to have a band without a piano," Tander relates.

"These days it's really not such a wild choice to record without a piano—but it was for me since I compose my songs on the piano, singing along, hearing the sound of this instrument along with the rest and my voice."

The absence of a piano on Unfading is perhaps the single biggest change in approach that Tander took with the music, but no less significant in shaping the sounds are the contributions of electric bassist Björn Meyer, drummer Samuel Rohrer and viola d'amore player Jasser Haj Youssef.

Tander knew Rohrer through the Wolfert Brederode Quartet, a band she admits to being a big fan of when she was studing in the Netherlands in the early 2000s.

"What I like a lot about Samuel is that he has, on the one hand, the freedom and creativity to just play a whole, freely improvised concert, which he also does a lot, but he is also extremely good at playing grooves, going into depth with just a pulsating rhythm to have this almost tribal effect. That combination is, I guess, the main reason I wanted to play with him on this album."

Meyer had come onto Tander's radar through his work with Nik Bärtsch and also Anouar Brahem, although it was Meyer's solo album, Provenance (ECM Records, 2018), that really caught her attention.

"I listened to it in the car, which is a really immersive way to listen to the music if you turn the volume up, and was really intrigued by his rich, beautiful, light and darker soundscapes and his musical ideas. It took a while before I made the connection that he could be someone for my band."

It certainly didn't hurt that Meyer and Rohrer had often played together in a variety of settings. "Having an already experienced rhythm section, for sure, is a big plus when starting a new band," Tander recognizes.

Three quarters of her band were now in the frame, but she was still searching for another element.

"I knew I wanted a fourth instrument to echo a little bit my Afghan heritage, without going the typical ethnic way. I didn't want to have a typical, World Music-sounding band, but just to have someone, who in a subtle way, brings that Oriental quality."

An important reference point for Tander was Jan Garbarek's album In Praise of Dreams (ECM, 2004), which featured the renowned violist Kim Kashkashian.

"I remember listening to that and just loving how the warm sound of the viola merged with his [Garbarek's] jazz sound, his universe. Then I had the idea of maybe a string instrument, a violin or a cello," Tander explains.

"After that I heard Nils Økland, a fantastic Norwegian fiddle player. He's a master. He plays the viola d'amore, and I discovered and fell for that instrument."

Tander was closing in on the fourth element she was searching for to complete her band. "And then the Googling started! I was fascinated by this instrument. It's a special baroque instrument and I wanted to find someone who would add a warmly exotic, Oriental or also Arabic phrasing to it. And I found Jasser Haj Youssef."

Tunisian-born, Paris-based Jasser Haj is a versatile musician with Arabic, Indian, Persian and classical music studies under his belt. His collaborations include the likes of opera soprano Barbara Hendricks, jazz violinist Didier Lockwood and African singing legends Youssou N'dour and Cheika Rimitti. "I contacted him, hopped on the train to Paris and we just improvised for an hour," relates Tander.

The next step was to bring the musicians together for a day of rehearsal, in Oslo. At first, Tander and her new recruits only improvised together, before addressing some of her songs. In the back of her mind, however, something was still nagging Tander.

"Back then a part of me still thought to maybe add a piano," says Tander, laughing. "After rehearsals I asked them, 'Guys, what do you think?' Their responses were very clear, all really felt that this band sound had something very special and did not need a piano. Well, right they were and that´s what I felt, but it felt good to rule that piano-option out once more."

Almost inevitably, given the input of three highly indiviual and distinctive musicians, Tander's songs developed in a slightly fifferent direction than first envisaged. "The bass was, in a way, replacing the piano. Bjorn was responsible for all the harmonies, the fundaments, in a way bringing the core of some my compositions to life," acknowledges Tander.

"Most of my songs are rather small compositions with melodies which are very tied to the rich harmonies under them, meaning that the chords are an essential part of my songs. And since his role was the one of the bassist and also of the harmony instrument, it was a challenge to translate them to his instrument. We wanted to translate them in a way that he was definitely not imitating a piano but instead bringing them to his universe, or better said, bringing his and the songs' universes together."

For Tander, something clearly clicked in the first rehearsal. "Some of the songs immediately went in a direction where I felt, 'This is what I wanted!' It was only possible with this line-up, I guess."

The title of the album, Unfading, hints at the poetic essence of the songs within. "It came during a voice workshop for improvisors that I participated in and I suddenly had this image of an endless sound that instead of fading out is never-ending and is always reopening again," Tander explains.

"It sounds very abstract, but it was an image of a soft movement forward. It was symbolic of the kind of music and the kind of album that I wanted to make. I knew I wanted to have some sort of song-cycle feeling where the order of songs was also very important."

Compared to her previous albums, the songs on Unfading are shorter, and consciously so, according to Tander. These self-contained universes of particular atmospheres—dark on one hand, ethereal and light on the other— are peppered with short poems by female poets. Underlying the songs is a unifying thread, a story that reveals itself in a gradual wave across the album's length and breadth. A story of subtle shading, beautifully narrated by Tander's unique delivery.

"I like to play with concrete images in my lyrics and also have this evocation of mystique, which invites the imagination," Tander explains. "I like to play with these two different poles. That is something I have always liked but I wanted to go a little bit further with it this time."

Poetry has always played into Tander's music, to greater or lesser degree, but on Unfading the singer delves even deeper into this world.

"I knew I wanted to write music to existing lyrics, besides writing my own. I love reading poetry, and the first poem I found was "I Am Vertical" from Sylvia Plath, a poet I have been a fan of for many years. Trying out this poem I realized that there was something else resonating in me and that was probably connected to the fact that it was written by a woman. I cannot say this is a female way of writing—that would be very limiting, because women of course write in all kinds of styles, but it resonated with me in a different way... "

As her vision for the music coalesced, Tander decided to use poems written only by women.

"It was an intriguing process and as I started looking for more poems I found myself focusing just as much on the characters, the personalities. Of course, everyone is unique, but I wanted to find women who were, or are, strong personalities and who have their very own voice in their time and to kind of unite them with my voice, and with my background in music."

On several songs Tander sings in Pashtu, something that she began doing on Where Water Travels Home, and that she immersed herself more deeply in on What Was Said.

For Tander, singing in Pashtu is one more essential element of her artistic expression, "at least for now," she states, but finding female poets writing in Pashtu proved to be challenging. "There are many Afghan women who write living in Afghanistan, but they mostly publish anonymously, so finding something on the internet, or through someone was, at least as far as I can say, really difficult."

On "Nargess," by Nazo Toki, a fascinating 17th century poetess-cum-warrior, Tander's aching interpretation serves the beauty of the Afghan language well. "I think that many Afghan people who are into poetry know that poem. It's also the only poem that is really know by her. It's from the 17th century and I really liked the fact that it is that old, to have a female voice from Afghanistan, from a far away time but at the same time connecting to the other voices."

One of those voices is that of contemporary Afghan poetess Sohayla Hasrat-Nazimi, who wrote two poems for Tander to interpret. "Sohayla is a journalist and poet who fled from Afghanistan to Germany," Tander relates. "The special thing is that the way she writes is, for an Afghan woman, unusual, because there is a sensuality to her poetry that is quite taboo in Afghanistan."

Tander's juxtaposition of Nazo Toki and Sohayla Hasrat-Nazimi emphasizes the historical continuum of Afghan poetesses through the ages.

Tander admits to being nervous at the prospect of singing Hasrat-Nazi's poems in Pashtu, as the poetess stressed the importance of accurate pronunciation.

"The way I usually like to play, stretch, color language in a super subtle way when I sing is limited when I sing in Pashtu," admits Tander, "because I am not free in this language, so I don't naturally change intonation the way I would in a language I speak. The meaning changes if you play too much with the pronunciation, so I had to be extra careful."

As is her wont, Tander committed fully to the task. "As on my other albums I had lots of help because I still don't speak Pashtu. A good former friend of my father, Naqib Zermelwall, helped me a lot with the pronunciation and with understanding the meaning and different nuances of this rich language."

The process posed a technical challenge, but one that Tander worked to her advantage.

"At first, I felt it as a limitation but then I kind of found it really cool to still capture something, to still find my way of singing, while pronouncing it in the right way. Singing in Pashtu somehow opens another way to to a differently nuanced creativity in me and I´m deeply enjoying that. I knew Sohayla would hear it of course; and so I really wanted to do her poem justice."

Happily, for all concerned, Tander passed Hasrat-Nazimi's litmus test, who responded with warmth and enthusiasm to Tander's interpretations. "I think she was very happy and a bit proud that her poem was presented in a good way. Anyway, Sohayla said I had a very good and clear pronunciation and so did my friend and teacher Naqib—that made me really happy and relieved!"

One of the outstanding songs on Unfading is "Yar Kho Laro," Tander's passionate reworking of a famous old Afghan song. "A friend of mine had once mentioned this singer Gulnar Begum, and I remembered suddenly that my mother had told me that my father was a big fan of this actress/singer in films—she's very famous in Afghanistan," notes Tander.

"This song is from the film Baaghi. It's very slow with this repetitive melody. It's maybe a couple of years that I had wanted to interpret it. I found it very nice and daring to keep the seductive quality yet go for a very different groove—to make use of a very down-to-earth bass playing and an almost rock kind of sound. Live, it could go much further, freer and wilder."

With its contemporary feel, Tander's powerful interpretation of "Yar Kho Laro" seems to have the potential to appeal to the Afghan youth of today. "You never know," says Tander, optimistically. "The reactions I have had from Afghan people have been very positive about this song because many know it. They appreciate it."

Does Tander harbor any ambition to play in Afghanistan one day? "Ambition sounds like it is a plan...." replies Tander, choosing her words carefully. "Of course, it would be a dream of mine to share this music in Afghanistan, but right now, I wouldn't dare. In order to perform there, the way I perform, so much would have to drastically change. In Iran I wouldn't be allowed to perform, as a woman. You can perform as a woman, but not as a singer. It is important that on stage men are more ´important,' Tander explains, matter of factly.

"In my concerts I sometimes ask if there are any Pashtu-speaking people in the audience and it happens regularly that there are a few. There have also been small groups of refugees, mostly young teenagers, guys from Afghanistan, at my concerts in Germany and I have received the warmest responses from them afterwards—that was very touching for me. Extremely respectful teenage guys, most probably happy that someone shows something of their rich culture of Afghanistan, something other than war and destruction. It means a lot to me when that happens, and I go home with a very warm feeling."

Due to COVID-19, the Unfading release tour was limited to just one concert, but Tander has had other matters at hand to divert her attention.

"Last year in May I gave birth to a child, so for a few months, of course, I was not performing. I have naturally been totally immersed in the best possible way with my child. It is anyway, of course, a blessing, but for me, on a personal level, it has been a blessing to have a baby in this crazy year, because even though the frustration and sadness about all the cancelled gigs was there, I had much less space to dwell in that than I would have without a baby."

Work-wise, Tander had been far from idle, collaborating with film score composer and musician Rauelsson for the Italian Sky original series Ana, a dystopian tale of a viral contagion that kills all adults on the island of Sicily, broadcast in Spring 2021. Tander was also one of several vocalists involved in a live-streamed project led by pianist/composer Hans Lüdemann and his Trio Ivoire—her only live streamed performance in this extraordinary year.

Actual gigs before an audience are finally making a return. This May, Tander gave a solo voice performance in a medieval, 12th century church, not far from Oslo, as a part of Dype Åndedrag—a unique festival dedicated to genre-diverse meditational music. And coming up on the horizon are gigs with pianist Florian Weber and vocalist Rabih Lahoud, and once more with the ECM trio of Tord Gustavsen and Jarle Vespestad, at the Oslo Jazz Festival in August.

For Tander, however, perhaps most eagerly awaited are the rescheduled gigs with the Simin Tander new quartet, scheduled for July and November 2021 and spring 2022, which will finally allow her to present Unfading to the wider world. "I can't wait to play these songs and finally start developing them live more," she enthuses.

And as Tander develops the songs through repeated live performances, doubtless she will be planting the seeds along the way for new songs, new ideas and for new musical adventures, as yet undreamt of.

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