Hiya wal Âalam: Olof Dreijer's new group goes beyond The Knife's edge

After the Knife called it a day last year, Olof Dreijer teamed up with Tunisian composer Houwaida Hedfi and swapped four-to-the-floor for the flute

Olof Dreijer’s instrument of choice for his latest project might come as a surprise to fans of The Knife – his recently disbanded duo with his sister, Karin Dreijer Andersson – which melded electronic pop with gender theory. Fans of Oni Ayhun, Dreijer’s understated techno alias, may be equally surprised that with his newest band – Hiya wal Âalam – he plays the flute.

Understandably for someone of Dreijer’s background (the last time he spoke to the Guardian he declared: “I believe that it’s in the music where you can really try out political alternatives and utopias”) the flute’s sound is not straightforward. Instead it is manipulated and filtered in an unconventional way.

“We have this effect that pitches it down, a bit like the voice of Karin,” the Swedish musician says via Skype from Berlin, where he lives and has a studio. “So we use these kind of effects that make it sound like something in between acoustic and electronic.”

In this way, Hiya wal Âalam shares the same experimental ethos as the Knife, though the music sounds different on the surface. “It’s very different music,” Dreijer says – a bold statement from a musician whose band transitioned from indie hits, like 2003’s Heartbeats, to a 2010 opera based on Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

“It’s instrumental, melodic and percussive music, and The Knife is more like pop music,” says Dreijer. “But I think we share a lot of similarities.” There are sparks of familiarity in songs like Circle, which includes smatterings of electronic toms that are reminiscent of those that were the foundation of Tooth for an Eye, the danceable first single from The Knife’s last album, 2013’s Shaking the Habitual. The band is a collaboration between Dreijer and Houwaida Hedfi, a Tunisian composer who first learned to play music on the drums, as well as three other musicians (Jalal Albess, Anissa Hammami, Radhi Chaouali and Taha Ennouri) from Tunisia and Palestine.

But really, the biggest similarity was the writing process and the focus on the overlap of electronic and acoustic elements. Dreijer and his sister recorded a zither (a percussive instrument made famous by ambient Brian Eno collaborator, Laraaji) and a bedspring before processing the sounds through a synthesizer to come up with songs for Shaking the Habitual. Dreijer and Hedfi would start with Hedfi’s compositions on piano and African percussion instruments, recorded where she lives in Tunis, and take them to Dreijer’s studio in Berlin to add the electronic elements.

“Houwaida and I both have this curiosity for exploring sound in different ways and trying out things in ways that we haven’t heard them before,” Dreijer says.

Dreijer and Hedfi met three years ago, when a German organization called Media in Cooperation and Transition went to Tunisia to make a record featuring North African musicians, many of them women, and asked Dreijer to mix the album. The two collaborated on a track called Janna, using Hedfi’s composition on acoustic instruments and Dreijer’s synthesizers. Afterward, they decided they should continue writing music together, and now plan to release their debut album internationally in early spring on The Knife’s UK label Brille Records. “I thought it was so great to just be inspired by the way Houwaida was working and also by the rhythms that Houwaida is using,” says Dreijer. He says Hedfi’s songs “feels like they tell a story with different parts, almost like a short film every song. And I think that’s at times also how we’ve been working a bit with The Knife”.

In addition to being an intersection of musical styles, Hiya wal Âalam’s music is also a distinct coalescence of cultures. “Olof is Swedish and living in Berlin, and I am Tunisian,” says Hedfi, who joined the Skype call from Tunis. “It is something that is not common – that a Swedish musician and Tunisian musician meet.” They’re touring the US with Swedish electronic multi-instrumentalist Amina Hocine, who will open their shows. The band plays instruments like the bendir and djembe, two different types of hand drums, the bouzuki, a Greek instrument similar to a mandolin, and the guembri, an oblong three-stringed instrument commonly used in Sufi rituals to cure illnesses. As with the flute, many of the instruments are filtered with electronic effects. But they also utilize rock staples, like electric guitars and keyboards. Hedfi says the rhythms are inspired by North African music, while the melodies are more Middle Eastern. And the electronic elements are … Swedish?

“I don’t think it’s something Swedish,” Dreijer says. “I just try to make the sounds fit as much as possible to what we already have.”

“It’s a big mixture of many influences,” Hedfi adds.

Hiya wal Âalam doesn’t fit neatly into the realm of electronic pop – or any other specific genre – but Dreijer and Hedfi’s goal with the music is less about politics and more about the joy of absorbing music that’s so diversely woven. If The Knife was pop with a purpose, Hiya wal Âalam is a world music hybrid without one – at least politically.

“I think that the simple presence of North African and Palestinian musicians in Europe or the US becomes politicized,” says Dreijer. “But the attempt with this music is more emotional. A central goal is that it should be moving, and also that it makes us move – that it makes us want to move and dance.”

“I know that Olof has, especially on the last [Knife] album, a political side,” says Hedfi. “I really want to avoid all the political side. I just want to just make music as an expression for what we are as humans. I just want to enjoy the moment with music and have a smile, and maybe people will dance. Just this. It’s joy.”

Hiya wal Âalam play The Middle East, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 22 November; and the Knitting Factory, Brooklyn 23 November.


Caitlin Curran

The GuardianTramp

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