Calming Sounds from the Middle East

Instanbul, not Constantinople? Not this time. This time Iran, not Persia. It’s not as musical a phrase and it doesn’t have an accordian-laden cover by They Might Be Giants. Still, the product is pretty cool, if, by ‘product’ you mean Azam Ali or Niyaz.

I’ve never been to Iran. I’m not an expert. I’ve barely read about Iran. I am really not an expert. I have listened to some music by some people who left Iran. That’s ‘some’ and about people no longer there. I am not an expert, only a selective listener. So, why read further? Why not, it’ll be fun.

Here’s all the facts I have:

A hammer dulcimer, not an Azam Ali

  • Azam Ali was born in Tehran
  • She plays the hammer dulcimer
  • She moved to Los Angeles as a teenager in the mid-1980’s.
  • She’s performed variously under her own name and with the band Niyaz.
  • That’s it.
  • Really, that’s all I know.
  • Or at least all I’ll tell in list form.

Let’s take a tour, shall we?

Niyaz by Niyaz

In 2005, her band Niyaz put out their first album titled, fittingly, Niyaz. The album cover art is devastatingly compelling and, in a way, tells the story of the album itself. Everything on the cover is familiar, in general, but there’s something a little different. In the album, Ali’s voice is slightly separate, mystical, and sounding like someone approaching or just leaving the brink of wonder. Behind/below her voice is a persistent, not annoying rhythm of Persian percussion, a hollow resonant variant on bongos. As the percussion pulls, the synth bass pushes, subtly. As with much of her work, it sounds a little like Dead Can Dance and Enya, not imitated, but invented independently. It’s an intriguing, mostly acoustic album that achieves a more organic version of electronic meditation music.

Elysium for the Brave by Azam Ali

Elysium for the Brave by Azam Ali

In 2006, Azam Ali put out her second solo album, Elysium for the Brave taking the meditative ethereal state of the debut Niyaz album adding more trance-inducing electronic sounds. Even more Dead Can Dance, she adds more synthesized sounds, stringed instruments and high over-dubbed harmonies. Opener “Endless Reverie” is, if you can believe, at a kind of floating horse race trance. Other songs following a more drifting almost new age (did I say that?) sound. Where the self-titled Niyaz album sounded organic, this one tends towards a heavenly sound, like movie shots from airplanes moving through cloud strewn mountain ranges. The English language lyrics add/subtract another element. The lyrics work, well, but since I can understand them directly, I can’t get quite as lost in the music.

Nine Heavens by Niyaz

Nine Heavens by Niyaz

In 2008, Niyaz’s second album, Nine Heavens, comes out and, interestingly seems like a combination of both of the above-mentioned albums. Like the first album, there’s the organic combo of soaring voices, over natural percussion, and the push/pull percussion/music. If you don’t like that, then rest assured, the whole album is repeated with modern, sometimes electronic instrumentation, sounding like Ali’s solo album. Personally, the acoustic versions work much better for me, mostly because of the sonic imperfections that the acoustic instruments bring. The difference seems more pronounced when the instruments are not the familiar guitar/bass/drums I’m used to. My advice? Stay acoustic! They don’t need the advice, thought, they’re doing fine!

Niyaz and Azam Ali continue beyond these three albums, including, believe it or not, a collaboration with Buckethead. Yes, Buckethead. I’m holding out for their GWAR album, if they ever venture so far.

2 thoughts on “Calming Sounds from the Middle East

    • This crazy snow storm. Yuck! It arrived just before a bike ride. Niyaz, on the way to the grocery store made the difference.

Am I wrong?