Record Review: Niyaz – Sumud (2012, Six Degrees Records)

Niyaz return with a more electronic sound, yet their work is deeply acoustic, well-researched based on age-old Middle-Eastern folk songs and poems. In ‘Sumud’ they also expand their universal message, their one-world vision beyond divisions, wars and grievances.

niyaz sumud

Genre: World Fusion / Oriental / Downtempo

Region: Montreal, Canada

Artists’ Website: http://www.niyazmusic.com/

Label: Six Degrees Records

Niyaz deliver spiritual folk music primarily from Iran and the Middle East as fused with electronic music and a lyrical descent based on age-old poems. Their sound is emotive, intricate and intriguing – expanding our mindset beyond social fragmentation, forging a vision of a borderless and unified world. But who is behind Niyaz?

niyazNiyaz is the musical vehicle of three renowned artists: singer and dulcimer player Azam Ali, multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian and music producer Carmen Rizzo. All three musicians have a rich history in music with other groups, various collaborations and personal albums.

Azam Ali was co-founder of the ethnic crossover band ‘Vas’ which was active between 1996 and 2004. She has produced three albums with Vas as well as three solo albums. Torkian has been involved with Axiom Of Choice and he released his first personal record in 2011 (‘Mehraab’) while Carmen Rizzo has many collaborations under his belt (Seal, Paul Oakenfold, Huun Huur Tu etc.) as well as three personal albums. Moreover, all of the artists’ music has been featured in numerous films, compilations etc.

Another defining point, which is also reflected in the music of Niyaz, is transmigration. For instance, Ali was born in Tehran, Iran, grew up in India and ended up in USA and lately in Canada. Relentless touring with Niyaz and especially playing in tense regions like the Kurdish parts of Turkey, shifted their focus from one being more personal, centred around the condition of being Iranian expats to a more universal one in support of ethnic/religious minorities. As Niyaz themselves stated “We wanted to focus on the ethnic and religious minority groups in these regions [Middle East], because they have really struggled to maintain their identity.”

The album’s title, ‘Sumud’, can be translated as ‘steadfastness’. It directly refers to the Palestinian notion of persistence and non-violent resistance, their version of Satyagraha, which emerged as a response to the invasion of Israelis in Palestinian lands back in 1967 and the ongoing occupation ever-since. It is the constant struggle of people to live freely in their own lands and it extends to the right of minorities to maintain their culture wherever they are.

It aligns with Niyaz’ one-world vision – their humanitarian message. They believe in a world that can rebate discords, a truly integrated society receptive to difference: “And as the world becomes smaller, as is happening with technology, and so many children nowadays born to parents from very different cultural and religious backgrounds, more of this will happen until it becomes one thing.”

niyaz aleviNiyaz play music with similar qualities: border-defying and forward-looking highlighting spirituality and our shared human bonds. From the rhythmic opener ‘Parishaan’ to the ecstatic ambiance of album’s closer ‘Arzusun’ (based on an old sufi poem of Kul Nesimi about divine love) one can hear Niyaz’ characteristic world fusion with Carmen Rizzo’s eclectic electronics, Torkian’s oriental melodies played with an array of Middle Eastern stringed instruments like the Turkish Saz, the Robab and the custom-made Kamaan (designed in cooperation with Jonathan Wilson) and the luscious, cultivated singing of Azam Ali. Sumud is based on Turkish, Afghan, Palestinian, Kurdish and Persian folk songs as well as on a lineage of Alevi-Bektashi and Sufi poets.

The electronic world fusion of Niyaz is more concise without any dubstep acrobatics for instance or any heavy trance/electro leanings. Their sound is not boasting, trying to impress with subbass heaviness or other trends – it is rather atmospheric  and subtle capturing the imagination in a musical journey to the heart, soulful and meditative.

Their electronic sound, although evidently more pronounced than in their previous album (2008’s Nine Heavens) is still focused on building subtle atmosphere, providing a rhythmic pulse and accentuating the emotive textures of each song. In that way it is likely that the more electronic sound of Sumud will not turn off the ones familiar with their music. However, one could argue that at times their acoustic work is slightly buried underneath the increasingly-dominant, thick electronic layers.

According to Carmen Rizzo that was a conscious decision for the band with new potential: “By ramping it up sonically and musically from an electronic perspective, it opens up an entire range of possibilities for the live performance.” Anyway, Niyaz are not hesitating to experiment with technology albeit they do it in a way that their deep roots in culture are not severed. They believe indeed that modernization does not necessarily bring westernization. Nonetheless, Niyaz are not your average dance act with exotic melodies. Their music is well-researched with deep roots and primarily acoustic arrangements with Torkian’s instrumentation.

Although Sumud is a very coherent and tightly-knit album that can be heard like one composition or a contemplative mantra there are some highlights like the astonishing ‘Mazaar’ – an ode to the holy city of Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan- which also markes their cooperation with Indian musical guru A. R. Rahman. Another standout track is ‘Sosin’ which perfectly balances all elements of Niyaz.

niyazNiyaz means ‘yearning’ and probably represents their desire to maintain their culture and be able to live dignity beyond the ‘arabophobia’ campaign of the media (That was actually a reason for them to move from USA to Canada). Sumud is a well-crafted album and a shift to a more electronic sound for the band. However, what still sets them apart from other world fusion acts is their rich acoustic base – electronics are just added to enrich their version of ethnic music not the other way around.

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Dive into world fusion with Freegan Kolektiva:

Jef Stott – Arcana (2012, Six Degrees Records)

Celt Islam – Baghdad (2012, Ajnavision records)

Novalima – Karimba (2012, ESL Music)

Vieux Farka Toure – The Secret

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