Struggle as a metaphor is something every human can relate to. One of the most prolific and challenging forms of struggle in the world today is the plight of ethnic and religious minorities, which is the topic of Niyaz’s third album, Sumud (pronounced soomood) forthcoming on Six Degrees Records. Translating from Arabic as ‘steadfastness,’ lead singer Azam Ali chose this philosophical term as a symbolic reminder that, as she explains, ‘every human being should inherit the right to live with dignity and freedom upon the land on which they are born.’
Niyaz, which means ‘yearning’ in Persian and Urdu, was formed in 2005 by Ali, multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian and two-time Grammy nominated producer and electronic musician Carmen Rizzo. The band borrows from an historic lineage of Middle Eastern poets setting verse to music, perhaps most famously known today through the work of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi and the endless barrage of quotes attributed to him on Twitter and Facebook. While the immediate goal of Niyaz was to explore the music and identity of Iranians living in exile and struggling to maintain their cultural identity in the modern world on their first two acclaimed records, Niyaz and Nine Heavens, the band has expanded that theme with Sumud.
In its short history, Niyaz has garnered an incredible amount of media attention, including features on NPR and PRI, with the Huffington Post declaring the band to be ‘an evolutionary force in contemporary Middle Eastern music.’ Their second album, Nine Heavens, topped both the iTunes World and CMJ World Music charts, while a number of songs from the two-disc set found their way onto television and the big screen. Tireless performers, Niyaz continues to tour internationally, while each member has released at least one solo album since Nine Heavens’ 2008 release.
‘We have now travelled across the world, and those experiences have affected the journey that we are on and the direction we’ve taken on this album,’ Ali says from her new home in Montreal. ‘We’ve performed in the Kurdish parts of Turkey during times of major conflicts, as well as other parts of the Middle East. Obviously that has affected this project. We wanted to focus on the ethnic and religious minority groups in these regions, because they have really struggled to maintain their identity. It started from us wanting to tell our story, and it has evolved into this humanitarian social message, embracing regions around Iran.’
Over the last seven years, the band has spent a lot of time touring the world, playing numerous shows across North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. A major source of inspiration has always been Afghanistan, and the folkloric ‘Mazaar,’ an ode to the holy city of Mazar-e-Sharif, captures the beauty and depth of this trio splendidly. Fans of Indian music may be surprised to find the extraordinary Oscar-winning Indian composer, musician and singer AR Rahman singing exquisitely alongside Ali on this stunning homage to a war-torn region.
‘I’m a long-time AR Rahman fan,’ Ali says. ‘I grew up in India, so I have a great passion for Bollywood music, which has influenced the way I compose. The theme that AR wrote for the 1995 film Bombay has to be one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, so I was honored to have him on this album.’
‘Mazaar’ was, as Rizzo says, an ‘11th hour’ occurrence. After performing a number of shows together, Rahman ended up in Rizzo’s Los Angeles studio. He noticed a Niyaz poster and expressed his love for the first album. Rizzo later mentioned that the band should invite a guest of some stature to perform. After Ali suggested Rahman, one of the most renowned producers and composers in the world today, Rizzo put in the call, and the response was positive.
Like all of the album’s ten tracks, ‘Mazaar’ features a punchy low end and a strong emphasis on percussion. Electronic elements abound on Sumud. At the beginning of the process of recording, a collective decision was made to give the kick drum more kick after the acoustic-minded Nine Heavens. It also marks the first time that the band recorded the majority of the album together, starting in Montreal and putting the final touches on in Los Angeles.
‘By ramping it up sonically and musically from an electronic perspective, it opens up an entire range of possibilities for the live performance,’ Rizzo says. ‘The new show is going to have a lot more electronic elements and textures, and be a lot more beat-driven. The songs are going to be arranged and performed a lot differently than the record.’
For Torkian, the approach involved less multi-layering and more effects on his instruments, predominantly the Middle Eastern stringed instruments kamaan and robab. The effect is hypnotic, with melodic waves erupting between the precise stabs of Rizzo’s cutting-edge production aesthetic. ‘By recording in a less acoustic manner,’ Torkian says, ‘the instrumentation merges into the electronic music in a different way. With less multi-layering, there is more room to process and treat the acoustic sounds.”
As with any Niyaz record, however, Ali remains the central focus, with her love for Middle Eastern poetry and her dynamic vocal performance; she has been featured in a number of movies, including ‘Matrix Revolutions’ and ‘Prince of Persia.’ Sumud features new creations of Turkish, Afghan, Palestinian, Kurdish and, of course, Persian folk songs. Two songs, ‘Dertli,’ the album’s most upbeat and danceable track, and the closing, ambient ‘Arzusun’ were written by 17th century Alevi-Bektashi poets.
‘Loga and I listen to so much Alevi music,’ Ali says. ‘No other music has had such an impact on us. I really wanted to record ‘Arzusun,’ which was based on an old poem by Kul Nesimi and made a song by Muharrem Temiz. We reached out to him and he gave us his blessing. It’s based on divine love, like Sufi poetry, it is about yearning to be reunited with the beloved.’
In an age where conflict regions are tearing up areas of the Middle East, as well as completely fracturing the understanding of Arabic culture in America, Niyaz is presenting the most groundbreaking marriage of ancient, ecstatic verse with 21st-century dancefloor kinetics. Ali and Torkian were both born in Iran, though Ali was raised in India; this connection is extremely personal. Their music applies to every global citizen, however, not only those with Persian blood flowing in their veins. As Rizzo explains, the human element is deep at work here.
‘When I heard Azam explain what sumud means, I had a lump in my throat. It’s very powerful and meaningful. Understand the meaning of the album makes the music even better. It’s not just ten songs. It’s an entire concept of this work.’