Album review – Sumud by Niyaz
Niyaz are a band that fit into no marketing category, that are absolutely brilliant and that are loved here in the Secret Archives of the Vatican. They make music that embodies all that is good: Persian traditional modes and tunings, complex yet funky ancient rhythms, finely crafted electronica, stunning vocals and masterful instrumental skills, all combined with fine production values. Their albums have very nice artwork too!
Niyaz, (which means ‘yearning’ in Persian), was formed in 2005 by vocalist Azam Ali, multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian and producer and electronic musician Carmen Rizzo. Their new release is called Sumud – an Arabic word ( صمود) meaning steadfastness or
steadfast perseverance. This is a philosophical term that first emerged among the Palestinians in the wake of the Six-Day War. Azam Ali chose this philosophical term as a reminder that, as she explains: ‘Every human being should inherit the right to live with dignity and freedom upon the land on which they are born. We have now travelled across the world, and those experiences have affected the journey that we are on and the direction we’ve taken on this album. We’ve performed in the Kurdish parts of Turkey during times of major conflicts, as well as other parts of the Middle East. Obviously that has affected this project. We wanted to focus on the ethnic and religious minority groups in these regions, because they have really struggled to maintain their identity. It started from us wanting to tell our story, and it has evolved into this humanitarian social message, embracing regions around Iran.’
Sumud features reworkings of Turkish, Afghan, Palestinian, Kurdish and Persian folk songs. Carmen Rizzo explains: ‘When I heard Azam explain what sumud means, I had a lump in my throat. It’s very powerful and meaningful. Understand the meaning of the album makes the music even better. It’s not just ten songs. It’s an entire concept of this work.’
So, how does Sumud sound? Well, there is definitely more of an emphasis on the electronic side of their sound – this album has a less acoustic sound than the previous two.
The opener, Parishaan, features a pulsing bass and sparse frame drum outlining a 12/8 time rhythm. Azam Ali’s voice is as mesmerizing as ever. Sosin sets itself in a cavernous sonic space. Once again the rhythm is tight and controlled. The acoustic instruments lock in with the understated electronic instruments to keep the driving feel all the way to the end of the track. Shah Sanam wraps itself in delay and reverberation effects which fade away at the end to lead us into perhaps the album’s star track. Mazaar features a special guest vocal appearance from Oscar-winning Indian composer, musician and singer AR Rahman. The song is a folkloric ode to the Afghan holy city of Mazar-e-Sharif. AR Rahman’s vocals are a perfect fit with Azam Ali’s – an awesome piece of music, with (to me at least) a qawwali feel, with superb percussion.
‘I’m a long-time AR Rahman fan,’ Azam Ali says. ‘I grew up in India, so I have a great passion for Bollywood music, which has influenced the way I compose. The theme that AR wrote for the 1995 film Bombay has to be one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, so I was honoured to have him on this album.’
Vafa starts quietly, and features multi-tracked vocals which remind me of some of Niyaz’z earler work.
Two songs, Dertli and the final track Arzusun, were written by 17th century Alevi–Bektashi Sufi poets. Dertli is uptempo with a four-on-the-floor kick drum giving it a slight house feel – I can hear remixes working well for this tune.
‘Loga and I listen to so much Alevi music,’ Ali says. ‘No other music has had such an impact on us. I really wanted to record Arzusun which was based on an old poem by Kul Nesimi and made a song by Muharrem Temiz. We reached out to him and he gave us his blessing. It’s based on divine love, like Sufi poetry, it is about yearning to be reunited with the beloved.’
We’re back in a very Persian 12/8 time for Masooz – it grooves along in fine style – and then Rayat al Sumud takes us elsewhere. It sounds Bollywood influenced to me and the heavy kick drum keeps it in head-nodding, foot-tapping, almost danceable territory.
Mahtaab sounds like much of what we’ve already heard (and that’s a good thing!) and then we reach the chilled-out finale, Arzusun, which is the second of the songs with texts written by 17th century Alevi-Bektashi poets, and which eases us, satisfied, back into the world around us.
This album is beautiful from beginning to end, exemplifying all the values I mentioned in the opening paragraph. It’ll certainly be getting plenty of time in my listening devices and I’ll play a track or two in our podcast – the world needs to know about Niyaz!