In a thoughtful article published last year, memoirist and novelist André Aciman explored the “pathless Odyssey” around the Mediterranean taken by the song “Naci en Alamo.” Musicians of many different languages and ethnicities, including Yasmin Levy, have taken up this so-called “Song of the Gypsies,” whose origins are disputed and elusive. For Aciman, the ballad epitomizes themes of “displacement, exile, memory, and cultural miscegenation.”
Similar concerns underpin a ravishing new CD by Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen, “Hirundo Maris” (ECM New Series). The name of the disc and the five-person ensemble it features is Latin for “sea swallow,” the bird whose migrations away from northern lands herald the coming of winter and echo the leave-takings of seafarers, pilgrims and lovers.
The songs that make up “Hirundo Maris” meander in time and space. Most are traditional ditties, though a few are newly composed. Their texts are in Catalan, Ladino, Norwegian and English, but one instrumental piece, “Le chant des étoiles,” jettisons words and other earthly things to wander among the stars. The album’s genre is blessedly indefinable: classical? folk? world music? The spare, haunting arrangements make use of harps, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, percussion and related instruments. And the musical and poetic motifs that the songs share hint at meetings and common cares among the explorers, merchants and exiles who sailed the Mediterranean and the North Seas in ages past.