World music ensemble Atash will be performing today in New York City along along with the St. Stephen’s Global Ensemble. Roberto Paolo Riggio, Atash’s musical director, violinist and composer discussed the project with World Music Central.
On Monday, April 23, Atash and The St. Stephen’s Global Ensemble will be performing at New York’s Carnegie Hall. How did Atash connect with The St. Stephen’s Global Ensemble?
John Moon, who is also a violinist in the group, is the Director of Orchestras at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, where he’s been for 20 years or so. Several years ago St. Stephen’s commissioned me to write some music for the group, for a European tour they were doing, which culminated in my writing a piece for oud and orchestra. It turned out to be a hit with the ensemble, and the school, and I was asked to revise it a few years later for another tour, adapting to the changing instrumentation of the group. Again the school loved the project, which brought the students into contact with concepts that they otherwise might not have gotten to explore, such as improvisation, eastern approaches to playing, and modern techniques.
After taking a chance on going in this unconventional direction at the school, we saw involving Atash as a natural progression. We’ve both felt so privileged to get to work with this kind of group for all these years, Atash is such a unique combination of talented and masterful musicians from varied traditions. John realized it was an untapped resource that could offer his students exposure to something extraordinary that would be a great experience for them. So he put me to work scoring our music for the ensemble for another European tour, which happened last year. And he was right. It was a great experience not only for the students, but also for all of us. He submitted video from the tour to Mid-America, and they wound up inviting us to play in Carnegie Hall. So, of course, it was back to writing for me, for a larger group of students this time, including several keyboard players and percussionists in addition to the strings and winds. And here we are.
What’s the concept behind Global Harmony, the work that you’ll be presenting in New York?
The concept is really an expression of what Atash itself is, at its core. We are musicians from very different backgrounds who are united by our love for music, and our desire to create. It’s a microcosm for what’s possible in the world – that is, bringing people from different cultures, different countries, different religions, different ages, different socioeconomic backgrounds, together and creating something beautiful together. Although I am the main composer, responsible for the ultimate shape and structure of the compositions and, especially, for the orchestral arrangements, every stage of the project includes collaboration, whether it has to do with other members’ contributing specific lines or melodies, or parts, or with decisions made in the execution stage. Even when I am alone writing, I write in response to input that I get from the various members of the band and from the students, and also keeping mind what I know about their abilities, capitalizing on their strengths but also looking for areas where I think they can be pushed beyond their comfort zones. While the music is structured and parts are fully written out, there are also varying degrees of improvisation involved, and some moments where I don’t write anything out but expect them to create their parts.
From a music education standpoint, the students are learning about how music is actually put together in the modern world. Instead of merely learning the mechanics of playing their instruments and reproducing what’s written on a sheet of paper in front of them, they’re learning more about how music is actually created, how it may be adapted, how they might interpret or transcend the written page. They’re learning in a broader sense what it means to be a musician. Because this music is ours, all of ours, and because of the approach we take, each participant has an ability to shape it in their own way, within certain parameters, of course. And they’re learning about how to discover what those parameters are, how to develop a sense of taste and elements of style. Global Harmony is about making music that may contain the blood of various traditions, but grows up to be its own person with its own traditions unto itself, something that everyone involved in can enjoy and feel that they belong to.
How does this project differ from Atash’s regular music?
In substance and execution, not too much. It sounds different, of course, because now we’ve got an orchestra with us. It’s more lush, more intricate. We have to take certain things into consideration that we don’t normally. When it’s just the band, one of us can veer off in a different direction in the moment, based on what he’s feeling, knowing that the other band members will not only follow him but also be able to converse musically with him, spontaneously. We’re all very used to that, and are quite good at connecting with each other telepathically in that way. Whereas, with these arrangements and the large group of students, we now need to explore what can be done within a structure that’s a little more contained. However, we still have freedom. Everytime we play these pieces, they’re different.
The students have had to learn to adapt to our approach at the same time that we’ve adapted to following a stricter form. It’s not unlike the way the Egyptian orchestras of the black and white films of the last century operated. In other words, while following a score which encapsulates an overall structure, there is still a great deal of flexibility. There are moments when the members of Atash may slightly alter the form, which the orchestra must catch and deal with in a musical way. They are learning what it means to think like a musician – like a composer, arranger, a side man, a member of a band, an improviser. And although we help guide them through doing this in the rehearsal process, a lot of what they do turns out to be somewhat innate, which is a great discovery to make for them as students, and for us as educators.
Is this a one-time project or are there plans to continue the collaboration with The St. Stephen’s Global Ensemble?
I think this is going to be ongoing for Atash, but not limited to working only with the St. Stephen’s group. We’d like to do this with lots of different groups around the country and around the world, both student and professional. Every time it will be different, it will be fresh, because the people will be different, and each group of people will leave its own imprint on the music. Every performance will be a totally unique experience.
Can you give our readers a brief history on how Atash was formed?
In a nutshell, Atash emerged from a pre-existing group that was called the Gypsies, which had been started by our singer, Mohammad Firoozi, and another great artist living in Austin, Oliver Rajamani, in 1996. Jason McKenzie and I joined the group shortly after it was formed. The group went through various personnel transformations, and Oliver left to do his own thing at one point, leaving the “musical director” position open, which I moved into. After going through a lot of changes, in 2001 a five-member core emerged which included – in addition to Mo, Jason, and myself – John Moon and Dylan Jones. At that point, around 2001, we decided to break away from The Gypsies’ mold and call it Atash and make the group more of a collaboration, with a sound that embraced more of the diversity within the group.
From that point, we have only grown in size, with new members generally being added, but none ever really leaving the group. In other words, it’s more of a brotherhood, or a family, than a musical act. We don’t play with everyone who is a member of the group all the time, but there are a number of people we consider to be members whom we play with whenever there is an opportunity that presents itself.
People like our old friend Christian Fernandez, who lives in France, or Fareed Haque, who lives in Chicago; Elias Lammam and Abbos Kosimov in California; Michael Ibrahim in Detroit. But there’s a core of around nine players based in Austin now.
What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?
The essential elements of our music are:
1.) of course, the international aspect, but also the idea of expertise. We not only have musicians who come from different cultures and traditions, but the musicians we have come from deep within those traditions. I would even say that they are masters in those traditions.
2.) The collaborative aspect. We make our music together. Sure, there are usually one or more people who can claim to be the primary composers of a particular song or piece, but it gets transformed and evolves as it gets taken up by the group. It gets “Atashified.” And many of our songs wind up having everyone’s fingerprints on the composition. We have to make music that satisfies ourselves, with all our varied tastes, so we’ll either hash things out in the writing process, or it will start to change in fundamental ways through performance, through individual members feeling something in the moment and adding it to the piece, and it winds up sticking. Really both things often happen.
3.) The sound itself, I think, is very distinct and recognizable. We’ve got Mohammad’s voice, which is a unique Persian voice. It’s not a classical Persian voice, but more a voice from the street, like a flamenco singer. Very rich, but also very primal. The strings have that sort of earlier 20th century Egyptian sound, or even old Hollywood or Bollywood sound, very lush and ornate. Sophisticated, yet sensuous.
The shimmer of sitar, and Indian elements like tabla, and the rawness of west African and Middle Eastern drums wrapped in the energy of rock and roll drums and somewhat jazzy, somewhat hip-hop upright bass. It’s a sound that if you dissect it is actually quite eclectic, but somehow comes across as very organic and cohesive, unified as if it comes out of one tradition, its own. I think this is because we meet in the mystical space of all traditions, where we have access to everything, but we let it be guided down a particular path that seems to come from a divine source.
4.) The dance of improvisation. I put dance and improvisation in the same sentence because I think they are divinely linked, especially in our music. It’s very difficult not to dance to our music. But what’s amazing is that, no matter where in the world we play, we inspire the same kind of free, individualistic and communal improvisatory dancing – because we are improvising. Every show is an improvisation, though we may play the same songs from one show to another, and it is inspired by the connection we feel with each other, and with our audience. We’re very popular with the “ecstatic dance” community, and many people have told me that they consider going to hear our music, and dance, to be a sort of ritual. And it connects a lot of people from all sorts of different backgrounds, which I love.
5.) Mystical poetry. Mohammad, our singer, is very influenced by the Sufi poets of several hundred years ago – Khayyam, Rumi, Hafez, etc. He often uses their verses or adapts them, or composes his own, inspired by these poets.
Who can you cite as your main musical influences?
This would be a very long list. I think in the beginning, Mo and Oliver were inspired a lot by groups like the Gipsy Kings, qawwali singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Rai singer like Cheb Khaled. However, we sort of opened the Pandora’s box when we turned into Atash. Ali Akbar Khan, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Ravel, Satie, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Radiohead, Bob Marley, Dimi Mint Abba, John Coltrane, Willie Nelson, James Brown, Cat Stevens, Fairuz, Paco de Lucía and Camarón de la Isla, Ojos de Brujo, Fela Kuti, Bob Dylan, Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Toure, John Cage, Shakti, Ravi Shankar, Philip Glass, John Lee Hooker, of course, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, my teachers Simon Shaheen and Pandit Ram Narayan… I mean really, I wouldn’t know where to begin or stop.
Tell us about your recordings and your musical evolution.
Our first recording as Atash was in 2003, called Republic of Love. Our next recording was a live recording from our “Global Harmony Concert Series,” and was called Global Harmony, released, I think, in 2007 or something. It’s out of print and I believe the masters are lost. Our next album, Everything Is Music, was released in 2013 or 14, I think. I think we’ve just gotten better at what we do over the years.
We’ve been together a long time. As time goes on, I think what we see is the voices of each member of the group growing stronger, in terms of writing. We’re each finding who we are more and more, and honing the craft of weaving those voices together to create a coherent whole.
How’s the current world music scene in Austin?
The Austin world music scene is small, but very eclectic and strong, and has been for decades! (Did you know that Hamza al-Din was once a part of it, back in the 1970s? And Alan Lomax was born in Austin!) Austin’s a big university town, and a big music town, and career musicians often play in a variety of genres, so all kinds of people are connected to the world scene, even if their primary scene is a different one. And people who predominantly play international music also get hired to play in a variety of different genres, some more conventional than others. It’s a very musically promiscuous scene. (I said musically!) People in Austin take live music for granted, because it’s always there, everywhere. It’s like the air we breathe. Every place of business is potentially a live music venue. Almost every local restaurant at least has a stage. You wouldn’t believe how many opportunities there are to hear live music in all kinds of places you wouldn’t expect!
I once counted that the local paper had listings for sixty shows on a Monday night, just a Monday night! And that’s just what was listed. For this reason, I think Austin musicians understand the idea that music has to move you. It doesn’t have to be pretentious or exclusive, it just has to move people. That’s what we call authenticity, whereas in other places people might think of authenticity, in world music especially, in terms of musical pedigree or purity with relation to a tradition, adherence to particular rules of style. In Austin, that is not what we mean by authenticity. In fact, that can be very inauthentic if it’s something that forced. For us, authenticity means playing music from the heart. It can be informed by tradition, of course! But to be authentic it should not feel that it’s removed from who you are. It should sound like your voice, your spirit. Music that stirs the emotions and moves the body. Rumi, the 13th century mystical poet who is one of the primary inspirations to our singer, Mohammad, once wrote, “We have fallen to a place where everything is Music!” That pretty much describes Austin.
What musical instruments do you use?
Two violins, oud, sitar, flamenco guitar, upright bass, jembe, tabla, darbuka, kanjira, congas, drumset, and Persian vocals. This is the core of the instruments we use, but anything is fair game, especially when we’re in the studio.
If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?
There are many people I’d love to collaborate with, too many to start listing, but one thing that really interests me, as someone who began working in classical music when I was very young, is bridging the gap between what we do and the classical world. Although I have immense respect for western classical music, I do think that there’s something lacking in the training. You often find musicians who are incredibly talented who are scared to death of improvisation. That was not the case for me when I was growing up, mainly because I found practicing etudes and composed pieces too boring to stay with for very long. I’d work for a little while on a piece, but then find myself improvising. I loved playing, but I didn’t love that kind of practice.
When I discovered things like Indian music and Arabic music, I wound up taking to it quite naturally, because learning the music involved a certain degree of learning how to invent, and experimentation. I’d like to help classical musicians have this experience. I dream that one day there will be trained musicians who are literate in a more broad base of styles and approaches, who can adapt to a broader set of musical circumstances, including improvisation where it is called for. I mean, I think there are already a lot of musicians like this, but I don’t think it’s yet become a part of musical training. I’d like to be someone who helps to make that happen. There’s a sound that I associate with those old orchestras that I mentioned earlier, that I’d like to try and cultivate again. A sound where the individual musicians have a bit more flexibility and freedom to be individuals while still melding their sound with the people around them in a pleasing way that works, and creates a richer sound. I’d like to do this with youth as well as professionals and amateurs, all over the world!
Do you have any upcoming albums or projects to share with us?
We’re in the beginning stages of our next album. We’re also planning a whole new set of orchestral arrangements for a tour of Spain next year. I’d like to start working with more groups, and perhaps even creating an orchestra of our own, with players from all sides of the cultural, educational and economic spectra.
More at http://atash.com