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With 'Sumud,' Niyaz is at home with a rich array of music and hopes for peace amid conflict

Laura Arwen Berg

Home is a complicated issue for Azam Ali. And despite that fact that until a couple years ago she’d lived in Los Angeles for a quarter of a century, she does not look at the concert she’ll be doing as part of the trio Niyaz on Saturday in the California Plaza’s Grand Performances series as a homecoming.

Montreal, where she and life/musical partner Loga Ramin Torkian have settled with their young son, is home, she says. Life in L.A. (where the Iranian native was brought as a young girl after a time living in India) was too full of “stress and chaos” for her as she came of age, found her artistic voice and attempted to build a full life. 

But she’s still very much looking forward to her return.

“The best part, I look forward to seeing people,” she says, her voice lightening and mood brightening. “Family, friends, people I really miss. That’s the part I’m really looking forward to.”

Those people were always the peace amid the turmoil here. And that notion, to some extent, is the thread running through Sumud, the new, third album by Niyaz, the trio of Iranian-born singer Ali, Torkian (also born in Iran and a master of a wide array of instruments both traditional and modern) and L.A.-based electronics and percussion specialist Carmen Rizzo. The album draws on sounds and guest artists from throughout the Middle East and South Asian regions, and throughout centuries of vibrant culture. 

“I am a huge believer in having a concept, a story for each album,” she says. “So the idea of sumud was just perfect, in many ways became an extension of where my solo album [2011’s From the Night] was from, which was lullabies from the Middle East and areas that are tumultuous politically and socially.”

But where that one was inspired by her motherhood, Samud — an Arabic word which translates as “steadfastness” — was inspired by her mother. In the moving liner notes she talks of the courage of the woman who “gave up her life, her country, her entire family, and started all over in a new country with absolutely nothing but a young daughter, all because she did not believe in the way of life that was being forced upon us by the religious party coming into power in Iran.”

It’s an act which “not only shaped my entire life, but it taught me about the resilience of the human spirit, about the power of our actions and how a simple act of personal bravery can create change.”

 It’s that light that Niyaz shines on what they see as the same kind of steadfastness and bravery rising in today in the region where Ali and Torkian were born.

“We felt it would be important to show that side, that there is something taking root in the worst parts of the Middle East,” she says, singling out a non-violence movement growing in the harsh conditions of Palestine. “Something beautiful can emerge like that, just like the lotus coming out of the mud. Granted, it will take a long time to grow, but in the darkest of the Middle East people are embracing this non-violence. It’s very comforting.”

The concept was played out both in the material chosen for the album and the musicians asked to join the trio for the sessions.

“It lent itself so well to all the other ethnic and religious minority groups we wanted to include in the project,” she says. 

Arguably, the centerpiece is “Rayat al Sumud,” written for the project by long-time friend, our player Naser Musa.

“He’s a Christian Palestinian, the gentlest person I know,” Ali says. “When I said we were doing this on the ideology of sumud, he said, ‘I’ll write a song.’ And he wrote a beautiful song.”

Musa has joined the group for its U.S. tour, and the L.A. show will also feature Tanya Evanson, a whirling Dervish dancer who lives in Vancouver and has been friends with Niyaz since they appeared at the same event in Germany a few years ago.

They also recruited Turkish musician Ulas Ozdemir to write a song from the poetry of Ashik Dertli, while also bringing in percussionist Omer Avci to represent Turkish Kurd music. Throughout, the traditional sounds blend with Rizzo’s subtle modern electronics, arguably even more integrated than on the trio’s last album, 2008's Nine Heavens, which featured one disc of the full arrangements and a second with just the original, pre-electronics acoustic tracks. (A second, stripped-down version of Sumud is planned for later release.)

And threading through the album are several songs Ali and Torkian composed to the words of 11th century Iranian poet Baba Taher. In the opening song, “Parishaan,” they blend the poetry with an adaptation of a traditional song from Iran’s Khorasan region.

“It’s difficult to translate poetry from any language, but it’s a song about divine love,” she says. “A lot of Sufi poetry is, even though he was not a Sufi poet. He sang about love, that kind where you don’t know if it’s divine love or love for another person. That’s what it’s about.

Sounds like home.