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- Posted on Jul 1st 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
"It's great that people are creating this kind of music out there," she says of the proliferation of artists blending elements from many different cultures. "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."
So why did Niyaz, the Los Angeles-based group consisting of her, musician Loga Ramin Torkian and electronics specialist Carmen Rizzo, make its new album 'Nine Heavens' two things? The release from Six Degrees Records is split up into a pair of discs, the first utilizing Rizzo's electronic touches, the second strictly acoustic. But both sport largely the same material, even the same basic performances of music rooted in Persian, Turkish and South Asian elements, all played sparklingly by a very versatile ensemble with Ali's stunning, rich voice offering lyrics drawn from classical Urdu and Farsi poetry. The electronics-enhanced version of 'Ishq – Love and the Veil' is a good example of how the different elements are blended into an arresting experience. But the acoustic performance of the same song is no less striking, even while offering an entirely different atmosphere. (You can hear a clip of the acoustic version, as well as bits of all the album's tracks, here).
It's simple, both Ali and Torkian say: The two approaches can help draw more people into their one world. "A lot of people who love world music cannot get past the electronic sounds," Torkian says. "So providing something more acoustic would allow them to appreciate the music. And a lot of people on our first Niyaz album were not realizing how much acoustic work we were doing to create the music. It was standing on its own and we felt compelled to include it."
Don't make the mistake of thinking that the two approaches divide neatly down clear-cut lines, though. It's not a matter of one disc being modern and the other traditional, or Eastern and Western.
"Our work includes elements that is still more traditional, but it includes original material that is not traditional," says Torkian about the pieces in both the electric and acoustic settings. "It is done in such a way that I like to call the sound of immigrant artists. We do come from a very strong tradition of mystical poetry and traditional melodies. But we're exposed to a lot of different sounds that become part of us. So in that way, this is not traditional but a portrait of ourselves."
The "ourselves" in question make a pretty complex bunch. Ali, born in Tehran but raised in India and then the U.S., emerged as a leading world-fusion voice (literally and figuratively) in Vas, her partnership with musician Greg Ellis. (She's also been a go-to singer for film music composers looking for a certain air, with her work including a prominent role in the score of '300," which, due to its controversial portrayal of ancient Persians, got her in considerable trouble in Iran.) Torkian, also born in Tehran and moving to the U.S. with his family following the 1979 revolution, showed his mastery of various Eastern and Western instruments and styles in the similarly oriented Axiom of Choice (not to mention getting a math degree from UCLA). Both groups drew comparisons, if only superficially fitting, to Dead Can Dance, and their intersecting musical and cultural circles led to a partnership, both artistically and romantically (they're now married, with a young child). Together they've made several wide-reaching albums under Ali's name and now two with Rizzo (whose many production, writing and remixing credits include work with Seal, Coldplay and Prince, as well as his own releases) as Niyaz.
What they believe sets them apart, and what the 'Nine Heavens' twin set illustrates, is that they are not engaging in juxtaposition of different styles, nor in borrowing from folk or traditional music to lend exotic character to dance tracks, as it seems many acts have been doing. In creating their hybrids, they start with the acoustic performances and build the modern sounds to fit, whereas it seems many others start with electronic beats and then edit and mold the "ethnic" music to fit that structure.
"Some people make a collage, but for us it's never a collage," Torkian says. "Even when we were writing, we were very careful about what spectrum of sound is taken, literally, in terms of frequencies to leave spaces for Carmen so we don't step on each other. It allows everything to fall into its rightful space."
Adds Ali, "As we recorded, we found it was so rich on its own, and as we incorporated the electronics we had to take some things out. Once we started taking things out, I told Loga we should consider releasing the acoustic versions, as well. We were concerned about it sounding redundant. Then when we finished the electronic version, we had a chance to listen again and agreed it was different enough."
The revelation of this exercise, though, may be that while the sounds are different, the essence, the emotions conveyed, stay the same.
"It shows that for all the marvelous technological advances we've made, we're still pretty much where we were in the 16th century," says Torkian. "Nothing has changed, humans desire to have an understanding of the divine, the heart shapes personal and cultural experiences. It's constant, not changed a bit."
And that constant that transcends the specifics of the contrasting musical settings gives the artists a sense of stability and meaning in the modern world, a way to keep their one-world vision in sight even when circumstances block the view.
"To maintain our cultural identity in the world we are living in as immigrants is a day-to-day struggle for us," Ali says. "Something seems to happen every day that reminds me I am an immigrant. That will play out in my expressions, but the music is such honest music. It really is who we are."