Azam Ali

Sumud

Azam Ali & Co. are back with a heady blend of Middle Eastern grooves

Staying true to the signature sounds which first got them on the radar of the world music scene, Niyaz are back again with Sumud (Arabic for ‘steadfastness’), their third studio album to date.

Though I was initially excited about the news that their third album had been released, I opened my shiny new copy with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was expecting a barrage of new material to lose myself to till their next endeavour, while on the other, I feared the album would sound exactly like their previous two. Now, don’t get me wrong – I love their unique brand of mystical electronica as much as the next guy – although I seriously believe that too much of a good thing can be bad at times.

True, the songs did sound like material off their previous album, Nine Heavens; yet, there was something different about Sumud

For one, the album features absolutely no songs in Urdu, and instead, Azam Ali and Co.’s repertoire this time features even more haunting Persian/Afghan melodies, as well as an Arabic and two Turkish songs, in addition to, refreshingly, a Kurdish folk tune. As well, on Sumud, there is much more of an emphasis on the electronic aspect of the songs, thanks to the efforts of fellow band member Carmen Rizzo. Additionally, this album – strangely enough – is actually the first where I heard the sounds of a traditional Persian instrument, for a change. I had always wondered why an originally Iranian band had never employed traditional Persian instruments, instead opting – for the most part – for their standard fare of baglama, oud, and tabla.

Parishaan, a Persian number, is the opener of an album, and it plays its part well, with its ballsy folk rhythms. The albums other Persian/Afghan offerings – Shah Sanam, Mazaar, Vafa (featuring the tar, a classical Persian instrument), Masooz, and Mahtaab are all worthy tunes in their own right, which fans of Niyaz’s earlier offerings will instantly take to. However, with the exception of Mazaar, perhaps, they’re not as memorable as one would like them to be.

True, the songs did sound like material off their previous album, Nine Heavens; yet, there was something different about Sumud

Mazaar – definitely one of the album’s best moments – features the acclaimed Indian composer/musician A.R. Rahman on vocals alongside Azam Ali on a tried and true Afghan classic. Taking its cues from the song Molla Mamad Jan – which has been covered by just about everyone, from folk troubadours to 60’s/70’s Iranian pop stars such as Pouran – the song is striking, yet subtle. Although I do think Rahman’s vocals make for a nice cameo moment, they don’t exactly fit in well with the song’s subject. While Azam sings about the celebrated Molla Mamad Jan (lit. ‘Mamad Jan the Mullah‘), Rahman instead praises the Muslim saint and caliph, Ali, making for a bit of confusion for Persian listeners.

Refreshingly, on Sosin, we hear Azam Ali singing in Kurdish for the first time on record, although one can be excused for not recognising the language, with Azam’s conspicuously Persian accent. However, the track’s infectiously catchy beats more than make up for the lack of authenticity. Dertli and Arzusun are also formidable Turkish tunes, and like Mazaar, feature melodic praise for Ali, in true Turkish Alevi fashion.

Surprisingly, it is Rayat Al Sumud, the track from which the album derives its name, that is the album’s nadir – in my opinion, at least. The fact that it is the only Arabic number on the album aside, it just doesn’t seem to flow with the rest of the songs. As well, as opposed to the other songs, which deal with themes such as mysticism, devotional praise, and love, Rayat Al Sumud is instead about the Palestinian struggle. This is not to say the song is bad in any respect – I just don’t think it belongs on this particular album.

Altogether, the album is a mixed bag of sorts. While the songs are all incredible in their own right, they’re all a bit too familiar for me. Although it is difficult to achieve the Bowie effect and constantly conjure radically new musical offerings, a bit of deviation from their signature sound wouldn’t hurt.

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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, the BBC, Forbes, i-D/Vice, The Columbia Journal, The British Library's Untold Lives, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek, The Art Newspaper, and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, the foreword to Mahdi Ehsaei's Afro-Iran, Coming Down Again, and With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes (forthcoming).