Azam Ali and (most of) the members of Niyaz played two shows in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving week. I left from my home in Maryland on Sunday the 20th and travelled to the northeast suburbs of Philly to visit with family. Monday afternoon I headed into the city and found the venue, Ibrahim Theatre, at International House on Chestnut St. Having a few hours to spare, I sought out the Occupy Philadelphia site to get a first-person view of the encampment, and perhaps some perspective that the media was not presenting.
Returning to the venue for the show, I was pleased to find a somewhat ethnically mixed crowd, and a dance floor! Raquy and The Cavemen, from NYC, opened the show with their energetic mix of drums, guitar and kamanche (Persian spike fiddle). Azam, her husband and co-writer Loga Ramin Torkian, and 3 others took the stage. They performed several songs from Azam’s latest release, From Night to the Edge of Day as well as favorites from the two Niyaz recordings. Azam invited the audience to the dance floor towards the end of the show, and it filled with mostly women, swirling, arms lifted, hips swinging.
Niyaz plays music that combines acoustic strings and percussion, with electronic programming and ambient textures. The lyrics derive largely from Sufi mystic poetry and Persian folk songs. The instrumentation is equally diverse. Loga Ramin plays saz and kamman, a bowed string instrument of his own design. Naser Musa plays oud. Jess Stroup plays electric guitar and programming. Percussion was provided these two nights by Mathias Kunzli. His kit included an Egyptian style darbuka, a large Cooperman frame drum, a floor tom, and various cymbals and bells.
The following day, I drove to Manhattan, and found the Elebash Recital Hall at The Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Ave. Part of my intention for the 3-day road trip was linked to visiting the OWS sites. I saw Occupy Baltimore in the Inner Harbor area – small and peaceful, mostly clean. I saw Occupy Philadelphia – much larger, a large police presence, media trucks, and a somewhat nervous vibe. I did not visit Occupy Wall Street, the ‘mother ship’ of the movement. Although I was aware that Zuccotti Park had been forcibly cleared overnight on Nov 15th, and the action there was currently diluted, I was still a bit disappointed.
As I took my seat in the warm, comfortable theatre, my mind focused on the experiences of the past 3 days. However, as Azam and band took the stage, my emotions immediately took control. The show opened with “Nour”, the first track from the new recording. Spontaneous tears began to flow down my cheeks.They continued with a set much like the night before, but there was an intimacy and emotional/spiritual depth that was palpable this night. Naser sang his gorgeous composition “Allah Alaik”, while Azam sat next to Loga Ramin and played daf (frame drum) with occasional vocal bursts in response to Naser’s calls. Jess Stroup did his magic with the electronics and electric guitar, and brand-new sit-in percussionist, Mathias filled the drumming seat with skill and flourish. Naser instigated solos and encouraged musical dialogue, and provoked broad smiles from band and audience alike.
I have seen eleven Azam/Niyaz shows over the span of the past six years. During this time, Azam has become increasingly outspoken on socio/political issues. She mentions our shared humanity, calling it equally as important as our cultural and religious attachments. I applaud her for this. We are one global family. The artists, thinkers, and leaders that promote this idea are critical to any movement for positive change. I have seen posts that mention the Arab Spring as an inspiration for the OWS movement. For me, Azam and her band mates have personified this inspiration.
As I left the venue, I followed a young woman and her boyfriend down a corridor. She was beaming, smiling and laughing with her friend, bumping into him, and singing the song “Dandini.” I left NYC to drive home, my heart filled with love and hope.