By Alex Nagler
They say music and math are the universal languages. This was evident on February 25, when the Persian world music ensemble Niyaz played a sold out show at the Charles B. Wang Center. A fusion of Middle Eastern poetry and contemporary electronica, the group seeks to elevate the standing of Middle Eastern music and culture by raising the public’s awareness of what exists and what can be created out of it.
Niyaz started as an outlet for lead singer Azam Ali and multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian. It was a safe space for them to share the music of their native Iran. But Niyaz is more than just Iranian music. Ali was born in Iran, but grew up in India before moving to the United States as a teenager. Oud player Naser Musa is a native Palestinian who grew up in Jordan. Their cultures blend together with contemporary music to produce something uniquely new. Ali feels that their music is “the story of our generation, of immigrants.” She noted that those who live outside of the West “often confuse modernization with westernization” and that it was their goal to “create something modernized without it being labeled westernized.”
Niyaz achieves just that. Even though it is heavily influenced and enhanced by technology, Niyaz cannot be mistaken for western music. Western music does not use the tabla (played masterfully by Gurpreet Chana) or the oud. Western music does not incorporate the poetry of the Sufi mystic Rumi. Western music does not use Turkish hunting on how a hunter is reminded of his love in everything he sees and finds himself unable to harm anything as the basis for songs. Western music does not create chants songs that feature oud players with fantastic voices doing solos in the distinct melisma, the singing of a single syllable while moving between notes in rapid succession, of Middle Eastern music. Western musicians don’t have a tendency to revive 16th Century instruments like the GuitarViol, a bowed guitar that died off in the 1800s due to the popularization of the violin family, but Torkian did just that.
And yet, during the question and answer session, all the musicians spoke of familiar themes. The desire to belong, a bridge to connect one’s past self with who he or she is now, music as a sense of identity—these are the musings of each person. As the token white guy, Jess Stroup joked, “Different cultures can like each other.”
There was one somber note in the evening; during the question and answer session, Ali was asked how she felt about the fact that she would never be able to perform her music in her native Iran. She was saddened by what she knew to be true. It would be impossible for her ever to perform publically there. She had given up on any hope of ever performing at home.
But, she noted that there was one positive thing to come out of the Iranian political turmoil of the last generation. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, all western music was banned. What followed was a renaissance of native Persian music. But following that, there was another crack down.
This momentary lapse into discussions of censorship and the longing to go home was interrupted, however, when an adorable child walked onto stage. The boy, Iman, was the son of Ali and her husband and band-mate Torkian. The Q&A session ended when Ms. Ali stated that she had to go, as her son wanted someone with whom to play with his trains.
As for Niyaz, they’re not sure what they’ll do next. They’ve already put out two albums. (The more recent, Nine Heavens, came out in June 2008.) Whatever their next work is, it will focus on cultural commonalities—like the fact that everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, can find small children, playing, to be adorable.