Azam Ali is delighted to be in Canada these days. A few months ago, the siren-voiced singer with world-music trio Niyaz left L.A. with her husband, Loga Ramin Torkian, to raise their young son in Montreal, a city they find more congenial to artists of Iranian origin.
The arrival of Ali and Torkian is excellent news for world-music fans north of the line. Niyaz is a pioneer of a new Persian music that savvily blends folk and electronica. Nine Heavens, the trio’s most recent release, richly deserves its name. One disc of the double album has arrangements with synthesizers and beats by third member Carmen Rizzo, while the other disc features the same songs in stripped-down acoustic versions. This mirrorlike effect heightens the mesmeric aspect of Niyaz’s intense and beautiful music, created mainly by setting ancient poems to original melodies by Ali and Torkian.
Surprisingly, Persian music was not the singer’s first love. Her greatest inspiration came from 12th-century German abbess and composer Hildegard von Bingen.
“I went to an English boarding school in India, and I got my basic vocal training from a woman who specialized in western early music,” reveals Ali, reached in Montreal. “Those were my first experiences of learning how to use the voice, even though eastern music was in my blood. There’s something universal about certain qualities of music that transcends culture, even language. Her music made me want to be able to sing it, and once I pursued that training things just took off.”
With Iranian family origins, Ali soon found herself exploring her roots. She learned to play the santur, or Persian hammered dulcimer, and studied the Iranian classical repertoire.
“But it wasn’t really music that I loved,” she confesses. “I found it very heavy, too dense for me, and there was no release. What I really loved was the folk music. I think that’s the richest part of our heritage.”
After releasing a solo album in 2002, Ali and multi-instrumentalist Torkian—who plays rabab, GuitarViol, saz, and electric guitar—formed Niyaz a half-decade ago with programming wizard Rizzo. The trio’s self-titled debut the same year created waves in Middle Eastern music circles.
“The idea was to do something with very traditional elements that’s really telling the story of our generation in Iran, and the Iranian diaspora,” says Ali. “I feel that we’ve been able to do that and create our own kind of music, while also reaching out to touch people from completely different backgrounds and cultures.”
Niyaz plays Performance Works on July 2.