Niyaz has a sound that is both ancient and futuristic. Led by Iranian couple, Azam Ali and Loga Ramin Torkian, Niyaz incorporates Persian and Arabian folk songs with ancient poetry rooted in Sufi, an Islamic practice that focuses on an introspective pursuit of God.
The group also employs a hypnotic trance-like rhythm. But true to Ali and Torkian's Iranian heritage (and Ali's upbringing in India), there are acoustic elements like the kamaan, a bowed, string instrument, the oud, and the Indian percussion instrument, a tabla.
Since 2005, Niyaz has released five albums, including 2017's "The Best of Niyaz." Ali and Torkian, who are based in Montreal, tour internationally. It's not uncommon for their Facebook posts to be in Turkish and French, as well as English.
Before Niyaz launched their Spring 2018 tour, including a Strathmore Music Center stop this Friday, Ali and Torkian spoke with us about their enthralling multimedia concerts and cultural heritage.
How did you go on this journey of creating such a vibrant multimedia presentation in your concerts?
Torkian: We always say trying to utilize technology to enhance art and the audience experience is not anything new to our civilization. From the day we tried to build better instruments and better acoustics in a theater during the renaissance and onward, we always used what was available to us to create — and to create a better experience for the audience.
Now we have reached the age of the digital art. What we create is what we call a "Digital Scenography." It is an environment that we create to enhance the music and for the audience's experience as well as our own.
It was a dream that Azam and I had when we moved to Montreal in 2010 and it took us several years to find the right person to collaborate with. His name is Jérôme Delapierre. Of course, what we wanted to create still had to have content and its context had to be able to relate our music and our heritage as well. Therefore, we created something that is quite unique. It's interactive. It interacts with the visuals, it interacts with the music and the movement that takes place on stage so when there is a moment, the visual changes and it reacts when there is different dynamics or frequency on stage. The entire visual changes. It kind of creates a synergy. That has a powerful impact on the audience.
Sufi dancer Tanya Evanson is such a dynamic performer. Why did you feel it was important to incorporate this dancing with your shows?
Ali: What was very interesting for us is that it kind of happened very naturally. We met her, I want to say 12 years ago, when we were performing in Turkey ... it was like love at first sight. We immediately bonded and started doing shows together. There are several reasons why if you see her, it’s a life changing experience. I always say ... watching her is the closest I've come to a direct spiritual, like religious experience. It's so powerful. The other aspect, of course, is the most obvious: It hits you immediately that it's a woman that is doing something that is traditionally done by men because the Whirling Dervishes were traditionally always men. And so this is why we also really loved what she did and also because we use ancient poetry. The root of Whirling Dervishes came from the tradition of [Persian poet and mystic] Rumi. Also, there's a strong connection between whirling and poetry, so it's kind of all tied in naturally with our music. And dance is something sacred.
I read a previous NPR interview where you spoke about the negative media portrayal of Iran and how it is important to control the narrative in telling your own stories. As a team, how do you do that through your art?
Ali: I think more than any other time, right now in America, there is such a stigma and such a negative perception about people from the Middle East in general. Iran, sadly to say, has always had a very negative [perception] because ever since the hostage crisis [in 1979 to 1981], Iran has always been on the blacklist for America — but now more so than ever. For any sort of minority group, there is a need to change the narrative, change the perception and the only way you can really do that is one-on-one, like reaching out directly to communities because mainstream media is not going to do that for us. The arts, I feel, play an important role because what you do when you present your art to an audience is you humanize yourself, where you come from, and you offer people a different perspective and usually, that perspective is one that's a lot more unifying because people come and then they realize you're no different from them. This has become one of our big missions. We are both activists in that sense and sort of armed with our art, we travel around. We love to go to a lot of these small cities in America especially with kids and high school students, young students. We do a lot of outreach programs because I feel if you get kids when they're young and you expose them to something different, it can really alter their perception as they grow older.
What are your plans for your multimedia show at the Strathmore?
Torkian: The multimedia show has a very specific narrative. The show is loosely based upon the life of [Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya] who is considered the first [divinity] of the east. And we kind of go through an arc and in a very abstract way, we tell her life story — where she born in darkness and slavery and then she gets freed and kind of goes on an inner search to find her spiritual identity and eventually, she becomes one of the most prominent women in Sufidom. And there is a celebration of her teaching and the way others have referred to her in their literature. Unfortunately, not much is left directly from herself in terms of writings and we know about her through others. So our entire multimedia show follows that arch. It's not just in terms of entertainment; it has a very specific narrative.
Correction: The original article stated that the Iran hostage crisis was in 1971. The crisis began in 1979 and ended in 1981.