Interview with Atash: Mesmerizing, Rebellious World Music…From Texas! Playing LA Sep. 28!

atash
by Tom Nguyen

Atash, an amazing band from Austin, comes to play Los Angeles on Sunday, September 28, at The Mint, and I’ve been addicted to the music on their new album Everything is Music from first listen. They play an original blend of Persian, Middle Eastern, Indian and African rhythms that truly transcends boundaries and I was astounded such a rich, exotically vibrant sound was coming out of Texas of all places!

Well, I had a chance to talk to Roberto Paulo Riggio, the musical director of the 9 member collective and he gave me a fascinating education! Read on about how rich a musical tradition and epicenter Austin, Texas is, for attracting musicians from around the world, their long journey to forming Atash around the pivotal moment of 9/11, and how their music is anything but traditional!

Inspired by mystical Sufism, their music is uninhibited and unafraid to blend and arrange traditional music in new richly layered textures and sounds. Most of all, their mesmerizing music and rebellious lyrics are about bringing people together in the spirit of peace, love, and celebration!

Listen to the song Talangor (Flick!) as singer Mohammad Firoozi recites a poem by Sufi mystic Rumi and read our interview with Atash!

I am not white, I am not black
I am not a follower, I am not a leader
I am not a slave to religion
      I am not as they have said I am
      I am not as you have heard I am
You are the one
You have been seeking your whole life
You are the world itself
You are the moment of love itself

EnClave LA: I just spent the last week listening to your CD Everything is Music everyday while driving, and I have to say, I am profoundly impressed with the music, the richness and vibrancy of it, and so many layers of different musical styles in it! How did a band like this originate in the middle of Texas of all places and how long have you been playing together?

Austin, in particular, has had an underground “world music” scene for quite a long time, in part due to the University, which attracts a lot of international students and has an ethnomusicology program. Hamza El Din, the great Nubian-Egyptian musician who later relocated to California, used to be a professor at UT, back in the 70s, and one of Ravi Shankar’s top sitar pupils, Dr. Stephen Slawek, has been a professor at UT for a few decades. It’s also a big music town, a mecca for creative people, and culturally often called an “oasis” in Texas, at least by those who get the Austin vibe! It has strong roots in blues, hippiedom, outlaw country, Irish and German music, Mexican and Latin American music — but what makes it so different from a lot of other places is that in Austin, cultures tend to blend a bit more, so fusion is more natural.

Austin has its own vibe that seems to infect all the people that come here. It’s a fun-loving place, and, generally speaking, a place of peace. It’s also a place about being authentic to yourself, and making music from the heart rather than trying to be commercial or famous. It’s no coincidence Slacker came from here — there’s a certain slackness to all kinds of business, but especially the “entertainment” profession here; I wouldn’t even call it an industry. People like to have a good time and enjoy life, and don’t quite want to grow up. You’d be more likely to become infamous than famous working in Austin! Over the years the number of bands has exploded — we have the highest number of bands and music venues per capita of any city on earth! — but you still don’t see much in the way of “mainstream” music coming from here.

We emerged out of a scene which I like to think of as a golden era in eclectic styles in Austin. I think someone at the Austin Chronicle dubbed it the “Acid Jazz” scene, which was taking place downtown, especially on Sixth Street in the mid-to-late 1990s. [Here’s an article where you can read more about that scene: http://www.austinchronicle.com/music/1998-11-20/520636/] A lot of the main music venues were all right there, downtown, and, as I’ve intimated, there was a lot of overlap between groups, and there was a real camaraderie among not only musicians, but fans and the people who worked in clubs and bars…There was a real sense of community, and everybody played with everybody, even though one person’s thing could be quite different from another’s, so you’d be exposed to a lot of different styles and really work on your improvisational chops. This also extended into other spheres…or at parties (Austin is big on house parties and barbecues), and any given party would typically erupt into jam sessions.

That’s actually how Mohammad and I started jamming together. We’d find ourselves at the house party of a mutual friend, and we’d drink wine together and just start playing, and everyone would listen. I loved his voice, and he enjoyed my violin-playing. He and this cat named Oliver Rajamani, another great world musician, had a band called the Gypsies, and he invited me to start playing with them in late 1996, and Jason McKenzie had also recently joined the group at that time. It was a great fusion of flamenco, Persian and Indian music, and I brought in a more Arabic feel, since that was a direction I had been pursuing for a few years on violin.

There were songs, but there was also a lot of jamming in those shows, and sometimes songs would be composed onstage by the collective group, which had a revolving cast of characters. There was a good audience for all this music in those days, and we secured a weekly residency at a club called Mercury Lounge, where we’d play the first couple of hours, and then they’d bring in a different band local or touring band every week, usually of a different genre, to play the last couple of hours, and we’d all hang out and watch each other. The only thing that unified the groups, musically, was that you had to make music that resonated with people and made them move. So we’d be playing music in languages no one understood, but they ate it up…We got a review in the Chronicle calling our band (The Gypsies) “Austin’s best-kept secret” and a real scene grew around those Tuesday night shows.

Mo [Mohammad] had added the bass player from Big Game Hunter, Dylan Jones, who, along with myself, Jason, Mo, and my longtime buddy violinist John Moon, would become the founding members of Atash in 2001. We reduced the number of members, and changed the sound a bit — mainly by incorporating a heavier and more rock-oriented rhythm section; up to that time Jason, despite being a fantastic drumset player, never played drums in the band, because he thought it needed to sound more traditional, so he focused on tabla and hand-drums. That wound up becoming a point of contention because the local critics assumed we were playing traditional Middle Eastern songs when we were actually doing original material — they didn’t get that it was original music, or that some of these instrument combinations were completely non-traditional!

So we collectively decided to dispense with limiting ourselves and instead embrace any and all influences we wanted to, and that’s how we made the transition from the Gypsies to Atash, which, in effect “jazzed up” the music a bit. And our first major act when we became Atash in 2001 was to do just one low-profile live performance at a coffee shop in Austin, to test out our new material, and then head to California in a used, big, grey 15-passenger van we had just bought and dubbed Ganesh, the god of new beginnings and remover of obstacles.

We booked shows while we were en route across the desert, cold-calling clubs we found in the LA phonebook (which we had with us) using our cellphones. We stayed in California for two and a half months, doing shows up and down the coast on weekends and taking classes at Ali Akbar College in San Rafael during the week, sleeping on couches and floors of friends, having adventures and really cementing our new sound.

It was a great experience! We really got to know each other well and become like brothers, and the inspiration we got from sitting at the feet of a master such as Ali Akbar Khansahib and the other instructors was a great inspiration to us. We called it the Fear No Venue Tour, and we played in some of the unlikeliest of places, like sports bars and restaurants, warehouses, just wherever we could get a gig — and every gig led to another one.

EnClave LA: It seems like every listen, I discover something new…there’s just so many layers like I mentioned…I can hear Indian tablas, Spanish flamenco guitar, violin and sitar, African rhythms and mystical Middle Eastern vocals…it’s a tapestry of music in every song that astounds me with its richness. What’s the creative process in writing music like this? How involved are each member? Is it one person with the vision or a much more collaborative process than that?

Our music is really very much a collaboration, but it varies from song to song. Usually someone will have the starting point for a song, and then other people will be able to take bits they’ve been working on and incorporate them, or things will emerge when we start playing it together. General speaking, I compose most of the instrumental melodic lines. Mohammad composes most of the vocal lines and the poetry, or adapts it from classical Persian poets. Jason often comes up with rhythmic concepts he wants to explore, and Dylan makes a lot of structural choices for the music. However, anything could come from anywhere…The newest members of the group are starting to find their voices within the collaborative process as well, Abou and José.

The thing about our process is that it’s very organic. We just make music that we would all like to hear and enjoy playing. Since we all come from very different backgrounds, and have different tastes, our own collective musical language has formed and continues to evolve. Now that we’re going to be getting on the road a lot more after a bit of a break from touring over the last few years, I’m anxious to see how our music continues to grow and what new things we’ll come up with.

We’ve got the process down to an art, and we expand it to include input from guest artists when we do our Global Harmony concerts, like we did for our album release concerts in Austin. We brought in Fareed Haque from Chicago, Abbos Kosimov from California, Sandhya Sanjana from Amsterdam, flamenco dancer and singer Pilar Andújar from Spain, Abou’s west African dance group, and our good friend Gourisankar on tabla, and we seamlessly incorporated their original material into our show, often working it structurally into the songs from our new album, which turned them into epic pieces. We love to work this way, because we learn a lot, and also connect and make friends — we expand our tribe, our family.

EnClave LA: Even if I can’t understand the lyrics, the music to me seems so mystical and spiritual. Some songs are serene and meditative like Eshq and others are so ecstatic and infectious, like the opening song, Mistereph, that I don’t want to stop dancing. Overall, the album is a powerfully uplifting collection of songs. What was the inspiration behind the songs and album?

Like a lot of songs all across the world, the main subject is love, although there’s a mystical and unifying component to it, and even a rebellious streak. Mohammad was steeped in the Sufi poetry of his homeland, cats like Rumi, Khayyam, Hafiz, and others, who often expressed mystical concepts through poetry about love, drinking, and other day-to-day subjects.

Many people may not realize that Sufism is more of a philosophy or way of being, even a sort of aestheticism, and mystic approach to life, than a religion…They were simply spiritual — seeking God, but not being dogmatic or fundamentalist about religion…They were open to the idea of mystery and seeking, and the beauty and meaningfulness of living that kind of life.

They were really rebels in a lot of ways. To be a rebel nowadays is to speak about love and peace openly. So many forces in the world — be it capital interests, politics, the media, religion. etc — seek to divide people, whereas we want to be a voice for the alternative: uniting people.

Not only is that a big influence on Mo, but he’s been an aficionado of rock ‘n’ roll since he was a teenager in Iran in the late sixties/early seventies. He also loves Bob Marley and flamenco music, and has played at various points in his career in groups of all these genres. Messages of love and peace are very prevalent in his lyrics, as well as the idea of madness, like the character of Majnun from Middle Eastern folklore, which also relates to love.

EnClave LA: Will this be your first performance in Los Angeles? Where else have you toured and how do 11 people get along during these long road trips?

We’ve played in LA many times, although it was a decade or more ago. I think the last time we played in L.A. it was at the Skirball Center in Santa Monica in 2004, as part of their Sunset Concert Series. It was great. There were over a thousand people at the show, a real melting pot of people from all cultures and walks of life, and they were all ecstatically dancing, as people around the globe always do at our shows.

In the early 2000s we used to go to California quite a bit, and we played in places like the Temple Bar, Genghis Cohen, Fais Do-Do, Tangier, the Sunset Room, the Knitting Factory, the House of Blues, and many others, even restaurants, sports bars and coffee shops. Remember that’s where we started our Fear No Venue Tour!

In fact, we did our last show of that tour at Fais Do-Do, and then crossed the desert back to Texas, where we arrived home at 6am on September 11, 2001. Within a couple of hours we were glued to the TV, saying “Holy shit!” It actually had a great impact on the direction we took with our approach to the music. It wasn’t just for having a good time anymore.

A fan, Shae D’Lyn, called us up within a few days saying, “The world really needs your music right now.” Less than 2 weeks after that she flew us back to L.A. so that we could participate in the 9-11 Disaster Relief Benefit she was helping organize at the Sunset Room, where we played alongside the Counting Crows and other great bands.

We were actually scheduled to immediately follow the Crows, who were the surprise guests, but in our naïvete at the time (or niceness as artists absent a ball-busting manager) we allowed a more savvy group to convince us to trade slots with them, thinking that closing out the night would be a better deal for us. It wasn’t! (Laughs) Everyone went home not long after the Crows finished their set. But, you have to learn in this business, right?

I often wonder what kind of trajectory we’d have taken had we not done that. But, no matter, you can only be where you are. We needed more time to mature; it probably would have been a disaster! After being together for so many years, there’s a lot of telepathic communication we bring to our shows now that we wouldn’t have had to nearly the same degree then — though we were getting there! We’ve past [sic] the tests of staying together through thick and thin, and that’s saying something in this business!

We’ve also toured all over California and the Southwest, New York (recently), Hawaii (last year), Taiwan twice, Spain twice, México, and Macau, China! And a little bit around Texas, but not as much as we should, being that we live in the state! We’ve been a little lax on our touring schedule over the past several years, but it’s picking up again, and we definitely plan to do it a lot more since the release of this album.

We usually travel with six to eight players, which is the core of the band. Anything above that usually would include guests, which [sic] are sometimes culled from the local community. Is it difficult? Not really. We are like brothers, so we’re used to getting on each other’s nerves from time to time, we just let it slide. As long as we’re playing we’re having a good time…I think our sense of humor allows us to enjoy our experiences, as well as the incredible feelings we get onstage when we communicate musically. And another thing that really helps is that we’ve got great chefs in the band! Mohammad and Indrajit are both amazing cooks, and they keep us happy in the panza. But it’s hilarious to watch them in the kitchen together, bickering over each other’s cooking methods! We really do have a lot of fun and laugh a lot, as well as bicker.

EnClave LA: I’m certainly looking forward to your show! Just to let you know, LA can be a notoriously difficult place to get people to let go, drop their inhibitions and dance! I have no such inhibitions and will be on my feet moving! How have your shows been received in Austin and elsewhere? Do you encourage audiences to dance? (Please say yes!)

I don’t think it’s so much that we encourage audiences to dance as that they just can’t help it. People start moving during our first song, and it just gets more and more intense as the set continues. For nine years, from 2002 to 2011, we had a weekly residency in Austin on Wednesday nights where crowds of people used to come to get their dance fix, at a Moroccan-themed bar and hookah lounge downtown called Red Fez, which suddenly closed without warning in 2011. (I think it was because someone complained about the shisha smoke, which is pretty lame, if you ask me!)

When we do our Global Harmony Concerts, which generally take place in sit-down theatres, audiences love the multimedia, multidisciplinary performances which involve dancers and video projections, lighting effects and set design. However, we have heard often that people experience a bit of cognitive dissonance because they can’t dance as easily in those settings.

In fact, without fail folks often wind up dancing in the aisles, or in the back of the auditorium, or in front of the stage. Occasionally they even join us onstage! We’ve never had a problem getting people to dance, even in New York, where people don’t dance as freely, perhaps owing in part to the history of cabaret laws in the city (which imposed fines on clubs if they were not licensed for dancing). I don’t know if it’s really why, that’s just my theory! But everywhere we go, it brings out the dancer in people, and it’s a freer sort of dancing than people normally do, I think.

In fact, I swear I’ve seen the same odd dance moves all over the world where we’ve played! Even in Taiwan! People just let loose and explore their bodies. We get the comment a lot that it’s a sort of spiritual, ecstatic experience, and people really do lose all their inhibitions. I love it when we do family-style venues, because then you really see what an elemental force dance can be when you observe all the kids and toddlers getting down to the music, and interacting with each other for the first time! That’s really a lot of fun, and so encouraging.

EnClave LA: Any last words on what people can expect at your performance?

I guess one of the important things I’d want to mention is that we are all part of a community, and we are playing our music to bring people together. I would encourage people to make friends at our show. We have many stories of husbands and wives meeting for the first time at our shows, and then we wind up playing for their wedding!

If you look at our audience, it’s extremely diverse. So, I think what really these people have in common — our demographic, to use the current terminology — is something that can’t be measured externally. It’s something on the inside. We also want people to know that we’ll be coming back, and we’d love to really connect with the local community ourselves.

We also have an educational component which we’d love to bring in the future to kids in the area, involving music students, and talking about our approach to collaboration. Life is one great collaboration, and we are so grateful to be a part of it and to get to share in that process with our fellow human beings!

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