Niyaz, a blend of Sufi poetry & folk songs from Mid-East
I had the opportunity to see the recent concert by Niyaz in the San Francisco Bay Area (at Yoshi’s Oakland in September), as part of their world tour. After performances in Oakland, LA and Vancouver, their tour went on to Tunisia, Turkey and Slovenia in October and they have concerts in NYC, Toronto and Philadelphia in November. For details on their upcoming performances see the event calendar.
I have seen Azam Ali perform since her pre-Niyaz days in late 1990s. Every time I’ve seen her, I have enjoyed her music more, and this last one was the best I’ve seen of her and of Niyaz. They performed Persian, Turkish, Kurdish and Palestinian songs, some of the old favorites as well as a number of new ones.
But there was something heartfelt, sweet and personal beyond just the music in this last concert that has stayed with me. She spoke of the importance of the humanity of music that cuts beyond race, nationality and religion; of her childhood in India in a boarding school away from home and family; the diaspora and life as an immigrant, that in turn her own son is now subject to. She performed a number of lullabies that they have arranged for her son. As she says in this 2008 interview with NPR, her “life’s work has become about [creating] something that transcends religion and culture and show people that at the core we are all the same.”
Azam Ali was born in Iran but lived in India from the age of 4 to 13 and then along with her mother emigrated to USA. Initially she started learning and playing santur (Persian hammered dulcimer) and she moved on to voice lessons and started singing in her late teens. In 1996 she started the band Vas with the percussionist Greg Ellis in LA. Their music was primarily Indian and Tibetan influenced spiritual fusion music. They produced four albums together and then separated in 2004. Azam’s years in India have certainly influenced her early music career and she still does Indian and Urdu songs.
In 2005 Azam Ali teamed up with Loga Ramin Torkian, a multi-instrumentalist and composer from the Persian fusion band Axiom of Choice, and Carmen Rizzo, electronic musician and record producer, and started Niyaz. Their music falls in the genre of world fusion music based on sufi poetry, and Urdu, Persian, Kurdish, Turkish and Palestinian folk songs. Ramin primarily composes the music and Azam arranges and sings the songs. Ramin also plays several instruments including “kaman” a modified string instrument that he’s created. So far they have had two recordings. Their 2008 Nine Heavens, a double CD compilation is a nice work.
Azam’s partnership with Ramin is beyond just their music and Niyaz. They are married and have a lovely 4-year-old son, Iman, who travels with them. They primarily live in Montreal, Canada.
In their current tour there are also a couple of other musicians who are collaborating with them — an old friend of Azam, Naser Musah, a Palestinian who plays Oud, and an Iranian guest musician, Habib Meftah Boushehri on percussion and drums.
Niyaz is working on a new album which will be out in Spring 2012. This new song primarily won’t have any Urdu songs and instead will include Iranian folk songs from Azarbaijan, Khorasan, Kurdistan, Boushehr, as well as some Palestinian music.
For more info on Niaz, visit their site NiyazMusic.com. They also have a Facebook fan page. The photo essay, “Niaz, the Autobiography” by Nazy Kaviani has recent photos and an interview with Azam and Ramin. You can hear samples of their music on their site and on Youtube.