July 15, 2005


Niyaz Group Blends Sufi and Western Musical Styles

Music performance combines ancient Sufi poetry with modern beat

By Mercedes L. Suarez
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The traditional sounds and instruments of Persia, Turkey and India were intertwined with modern beats at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery on July 14. The unique multi-cultural sound was created by the musical group Niyaz in a concert billed as “Sufi Fusion.”

“We are bringing something ancient into a modern form,” said lead vocalist Azam Ali, who sang the words of great Sufi poets. Ali also played the hammer dulcimer and performed complicated rhythms on finger symbols.  Loga Ramin Torkian contributed eastern melodies on the guitar, Turkish saz, and the electric guitarviol (a 14th century European bowed guitar). Two-time Grammy nominee Carmen Rizzo provided the beat, sometimes subtle and slow, other times upbeat and pulsing, using a laptop and soundboard. The trio was also joined by Greek musician Dmitri Smakhlis, who played the oud and electric guitar.

The performers said their cultural heritage was the reason behind their blend of styles. Ali, who was born in Iran but raised in India and the United States, sang in both Farsi and Urdu. In the song “Golzar,” the lyrics came from popular 13th century poet Rumi. Other classical Sufi poetry from great Urdu poets provided the words for songs like “Dunya.”

Though Ali is not Sufi herself, she said Sufism is an important part of the cultural heritage of Iran and said she was drawn to the mystical and spiritual aspect of the religion, considered to be a more inner-directed dimension of Islam. Torkian, also an Iranian-American, explained that Niyaz means “yearning” in both Farsi and Urdu, a word he said described his feelings of being caught between two cultures.

They want to make music that is accessible to traditional Turkish, Persian and Indian listeners as well as to a larger audience, said Torkian. For that reason, they invited the acclaimed Rizzo to add his stylish beats and producing expertise to the more intimate style of traditional music. “Our hope is that this music will transcend boundaries,” said Torkian.

Niyaz’s music not only blends East and West but also reaches across the centuries, using both modern and ancient lyrics and instruments. Ali said many young people in Iran have a strong traditional heritage but wanted to incorporate new influences and technologies into their lives. “Our music represents people who want to be part of the modern world but don’t know how,” said Ali.

A diverse crowd, including many young Iranian-Americans and older Iranian immigrants, packed the gallery's Meyer auditorium to hear the group. Almost 100 people who had showed up in hopes of getting tickets to the sold-out concert were turned away at the door.

In the audience, toes were tapping and heads bobbing to the music, which would have been just as comfortable in a swank lounge or club setting as it was to the concert venue. Most songs began with a flurry of strings, increasing in intensity before they were joined by Rizzo’s rhythm and Ali’s ethereal eastern-style singing.  The drifting melodies of voice and strings, with their mystic echoes, wound above the constant rhythms.

For the final song, the group chose a traditional Iranian folk song that Ali dedicated to her mother. Older Iranians mouthed the words while younger audience members tapped their feet to the beat. At the end, the crowd gave the group a prolonged standing ovation.

The newly formed Niyaz group has just released their first, self-titled album. They recently participated in an international Sufi festival in India and will continue traveling and performing in the United States.

An interview with Niyaz - DW Persian
Niyaz: Blending Ancient Poetry with Electronica - NPR
Niayz Concert (Gallery)

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