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No New Abnormal

Tag: azam ali

Two of the Most Compelling Frontwomen in Middle Eastern Music at the Global Beat Festival

That Emel Mathlouthi could sing almost entirely in Arabic to a mainly English-speaking audience, hold them spellbound and then earn a roaring, standing ovation from a crowd of maybe a thousand people in the financial district last night testifies to her power to communicate and transcend boundaries. That, and her charisma. There’s nothing like leading a revolution to boost your confidence: the Tunisian-born Mathlouthi’s self-assurance resides in her power to move people and, maybe, effect change. She did that on her home turf, where her hit Kelmti Horra (Freedom of Speech) became an iconic anthem in the early days of the Arab Spring. And she took a mighty stab at it yesterday evening at the Global Beat Festival with music that was relentlessly dark, and heavy, and anguished, aching to break free.

Mathlouthi’s Arabic lyrics are crystallized but allusive and heavy on symbolism. Her tempos are slow, her ambience swirling and stormy. Her most recent album blended levantine sweep, alienated Pink Floyd grandeur and icy gothic production. Her set this time out was similar, heavy with new material from a forthcoming release. Mathlouthi likes her vocal and instrumental loops, nebulous atmospherics and a tapestry of textures. Over that somber backdrop – provided mainly via live syndrums and multiple layers of synthesized orchestration, much of that seemingly from pedals or a mixer – she sang with a white-knuckle intensity, holding back just thismuch from a fullscale wail. With that wounded delivery and a withering, dismissive stare, she projects a fearlessness largely absent these days: think Patti Smith, Penelope Houston or Siouxsie Sioux (or, for that matter, Umm Kulthumm). She underscored the unease and tension of several numbers by turning her back on the crowd as the music wound down, striding impatiently to face the rear walll of the stage, hands on her hips, defiant and resolute and very much alone.

Themes of homelessness, exile and an interminable wait pervaded the material. Even the calm of the title of Houdou’On was cut loose in waves of syndrums pounding at an invisible, all-encircling wall. Her voice became a bitter stained-glass tableau amid the funereal, cathedral-like sonics, witness to the world of turmoil and torment that she’d addressed head-on early in the show.

Niyaz frontwoman Azam Ali is no less charismatic, although her music is considerably more kinetic. The five-piece Persian-Canadian trance band’s forthcoming album The Fourth Light takes its inspiration from eighth century mystic and poet Rabia Al Basri, who is ironically an underrated figure in Sufism, the movement she created, simply because she was a woman. Ali explained that she and her group have always focused on music of minorities and opppressed peoples from Iran and the surrounding areas, so it was no suprise to find that the new album – much of which the band played – is dedicated to “The world’s greatest minority: women.”

Ali also tackled the issue of how much music sung in an unfamiliar language could possible resonate with a crowd that doesn’t speak it, reassuring them that ultimately, it makes little difference, to simply focus on the melodies. And the audience responded vigorously: by the end of the show, a circle of dancers had taken over the roped-off area in front of the stage. Ali varied her approach from song to song, from delicately soaring to forceful and resonant, especially when she dipped to her lowest registers over the wash of otherworldly textures from Loga Ramin Torkian’s stark kaman fiddle or electric oud, or the keys and mixers of Gabriel Ethier. This was the group’s first show with new tabla player Vineet Vyas, who built a groove spinning pointillistic trails of notes that mingled with the rippling, often ecstatic kanun of Didem Basar. When Ali wasn’t swaying and intoning in front of the group, building a dynamic that was equally mesmerizing and pulsing, dancer Tanya Evanson brought to life the figure of a woman straining against her chains and, at least it seemed, gaining her freedom. Is it ironic that women from some of the most misogynistic places on earth also happen to be some of the world’s most potent voices for freedom – or is that simply a consequence of the natural human reaction to tyranny and oppression?

The festival continues tonight, May 9 at 8 with a rare Honduran twinbill: surf rocker Guayo Cedeño & Coco Bar  and then Garifuna guitarist/songwriter Aurelio & the Garifuna Soul Band. The concert is free, but getting there early is a good idea. Logistically, your best and fastest bet is to go straight down Vesey St. and hang a left into the World Trade Center Path station, take the escalator down, follow the corridor around the bend under the West Side Highway and then up again into the “winter garden” across the street with its stage in the center of the building’s west wall.

Another Haunting Album from Niyaz and a New York Show on April 25

Caadian Middle Eastern band Niyaz put out one of last year’s most gorgeous albums, Sumud, a shout-out to the heroes of the Arab Spring. setting classical poetry  to the band’s signature swirling, enveloping, haunting soundscapes. They’ve got a new ep out that’s just as enticing (and somewhat mischaracterized as “acoustic” since the majority of it, at the very least, features electronic keyboardist Carmen Rizzo at his most opaque and hypnotic). They’re playing the Cutting Room on 32nd St. east of Park Ave. on April 25 at 8; standing room tix are $22 and still available as of this writing. This is a good band to get a standing room ticket to since most of their music has a lusciously undulating dance gorove.

The first song on the ep is Sahar, a characteristically enveloping Arabic theme that layers an elegantly galloping blend of lutes and frontwoman Azam Ali’s vocalese over echoey ambience. Nalona, an otherworodly, droning tone poem features long, sustained atmospherics from co-leader/multi-instrumentalist genius Loga Ramin Torkian’s processed guitar lute behind Ali’s hauntingly melismatic, carefully ornamented vocalese.

Three of the tracks here were first released on Sumud. Mazaar, an update on an old Afghan folk song, precisely and plaintively calls for an end to suffering, Ali singing in the Afghani Dara dialect. Parishaan illuminates the lyrics’ lovelorn angst via a slowly crescendoing vamp juxtaposing stark fiddle and spiky lute melodies. The most anthemic, and genuinely acoustic track here, Vafa, has Ali singing low and suspensefully against echoey percussion and layers of richly ringing lutes. The final track, Naseem, a free download, features incisive, intense  flute cadenzas from Habib Meftah Boushehri . Just like Sumud, this is one of the most richly captivating albums of the year, further evidence of the brilliant collaborations that continue to come out of the expatriate Persian community.

Niyaz Brings the Persian Party to Drom

“It sounds like there are 14,000 people here!” Niyaz frontwoman Azam Ali told the audience at Drom Sunday night, and she wasn’t being sarcastic: the club was packed, and the crowd responded ecstatically. Playing swirling, hypnotic original arrangements of classic melodies from Iran, Afghanistan and across the Middle East, Niyaz elevated those tunes with an orchestral majesty and an intoxicating, hypnotic beat. What was most impressive is how organic the music was. Although there was a laptop onstage, with Carmen Rizzo reaching from his keyboard to a series of mixers with split-second precision, it was clear from the first resonant booms from Habib Meftah Boushehri‘s drumkit that this wasn’t going to be karaoke. While a supplementary lute track or wash of ambience would occasionally waft into the mix, this was definitely live. Both Ali and her husband Loga Ramin Torkian have put out excellent albums under their own names over the last year or so; this time out, their set included most of the tracks on the new Niyaz album Sumud (Arabic for “resilience”). Torkian played tersely incisive, often haunting quartertone melodies, switching between jangly Turkish saz lute and his own invention, the kaman – a hybrid cello and kamancheh fiddle with a guitar-like body – while Ali took a turn on frame drum as well as electric santoor. Her two elegantly rippling, eerily reverberating solos on that Iranian instrument – her first love, even before she became a singer, as she reminded the crowd – were among the night’s most mesmerizing moments.

“Habib comes from Bushehr, in the south of Iran where people really know how to party!” Ali remarked as the drummer came out from behind the kit and added his powerful baritone to an animated duet, Rizzo running a loop of his beats so that the undulating rhythmic waves wouldn’t waver: the crowd loved it. Yet as much as this concert was a dance party, the music was serious. Ali stood immobile and waiflike as the show began, stark and atmospheric, but then began to sway and then loosened as the songs picked up. In the studio, whether singing in Farsi, Arabic, Turkish or an Afghan dialect, her vocals have a minutely nuanced microtonal intensity; onstage, she relied on the understated power of her lower registers, mingling hypnotically and occasionally soaring over frequently ominous, shifting sheets of melody. Rizzo, as it turns out, is an agile keyboardist, his echoey, oscillating chords contrasting with eerily pinging righthand motifs. The songs on Sumud, notably the bouncy title track, follow a common theme of resistance and survival under duress. Ali took care to explain that what she was trying to communicate is that peace begins at home: who are we to criticize other nations or cultures for the strife that’s occuring within their borders when we don’t have equality here? She emphasized that everywhere on the globe, it’s always the religious and ethnic minorities who get the short end of the stick.

After almost an hour and a half onstage, they ended the concert by encoring with the same song twice. Despite the high-tech sonics, improvisation is what this band is all about, so it was no surprise that both versions were just as intriguing. The first featured Torkian playing tensely insistent riffs on his kaman; the second time around, he switched to saz and the song relaxed, taking on an irresistible sway over the pulsing drums, enveloping keyboard swirl and Torkian’s understatedly fiery crescendos. Niyaz are currently on national tour: the schedule is here.

Haunting, Hypnotic Middle Eastern Sounds from Niyaz

In the era of the Arab Spring, it’s become clear that the people of the Middle East have not suffered gladly. As the revolution that spread from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Syria and Greece and soon these shores gains momentum, we owe a debt to its freedom fighters for jumpstarting the movement as it spreads around the world. Canadian ensemble Niyaz celebrate those heroes’ resilience – “Sumud” in Arabic – which is the title of the band’s hypnotically intense, melodically rich new album. The band’s multicultural viewpoint reflects its members’ diversity. Frontwoman/santoor player Azam Ali came to the United States as a refugee from India in 1985; multi-instrumentalist/composer Loga Ramin Torkian originally hails from Iran; keyboardist/drummer/effects wizard Carmen Rizzo is US-based. The rest of the group here includes Habib Meftah Boushehri on percussion and flute, Ulas Ozdemir on saz, Naser Musa on oud and Omer Avci on percussion. Rizzo’s signature sonic manipulation layers the organic textures of Torkian’s jangling, clanking, plunking lutes – rebab, saz, kamaan, djumbush, lafta and also guitar and viol – within a dense, chilly, endlessly echoing wash of drones, percussion loops wafting through the mix with a distant, muffled pulse. The effect is hypnotic, to say the least. The rhythms often give the songs a trip-hop or downtempo electronic lounge feel, albeit with dynamics which leave no doubt that this was created by musicians rather than by a computer.

Whether singing in Persian, Arabic or Turkish, Ali’s nuanced vocals span from longing, to rapturous beauty, to raw anguish: for those who don’t speak those languages, the cd booklet provides English translations. Most of the songs are new arrangements of traditional melodies, often with additional music by the band, which makes sense: in the countries where these tunes come from, improvisation rules. Ironically, the catchiest, most pop-oriented one here, Musa’s Rayat al Sumud (Palestine) is also the most lyrically intense: “No matter how many borders you create, no matter how many soldiers you line up, we will always fly the flag of resistance,” Ali sings in Arabic with a steely resolve. They follow that with another brisk anthem contrasting spiky lute textures with echoey, twinkling keyboards.

Many of the cuts here employ the haunting chromatics of the Arabic hijaz scale: a majestic Afghani folk song sung in Dari (a Persian dialect spoken there), whose message of peace has particular resonance these days; an almost imperceptibly crescendoing Persian love song; a steady, tiptoeing Kurdish tune and a duet by Ali and Torkian over a slinky Ethiopian-flavored triplet groove. A strolling, pulsing song by Ozdemir has echoes of gypsy rock; other songs here sound like an Iranian version of Portishead. The album ends with a gorgeous, longing Turkish epic that slowly comes together after a long, apprehensively crescendoing introduction. Sometimes solemn, sometimes soaring within Rizzo’s signature swirl, it’s the kind of album that sounds best late at night with the lights out.