The fourth light
Electro-acoustic outfit Niyaz breaks new ground with “The Fourth Light,” a far-reaching album that defies most standards of “world music” and makes a bold statement to a global audience. On the heels of three successful albums which have topped the world music and radio charts and placed them in front of international audiences around the world for the past decade, Niyaz has created what is arguably their most mature work yet. Mixed by Grammy nominee producer/ electronic musician Damian Taylor (Bjork, The Killers, Arcade Fire), the album unveils nine compelling songs featuring exotic rhythms, outstanding acoustic performances and the bewitching melancholy of front woman Azam Ali’s voice, all seamlessly blended together into a sleek production of richly textured arrangements, sweeping choruses and electronic beats that make their music both authentic as well as unimpeachably original. Yet with all the mysticism and allure of the East which is dominant in their musical heritage, these are musicians not limited by geographical and cultural boundaries. Niyaz offers listeners, with a convincing truth, a bridge between the East and the West- a sanctuary in the modern world of polarized ideologies.
On The Fourth Light, lead singer, co-composer and co-producer, Azam Ali, for the first time takes on the role of electronic musician and programmes all the beats for the album. This is, in and of itself a towering achievement for a woman who is mostly recognized for her spellbinding voice which has been featured in some of the biggest Hollywood film and television scores. “It was a tremendous challenge,” Azam explains, “to take on what is generally a very masculine role. People know me as a singer, not an electronic musician and there was an initial fear that I would not be taken seriously. But once I freed myself up mentally from that self-imposed limitation, I discovered a whole new world inside myself, a world that led me to my greatest personal triumph on this album, which was transcending the role that had come to define me as being just a singer.”
In can be said that The Fourth Light is in many ways a feminist album. The central figure who served as the main source of inspiration for the music is the first female Sufi mystic and poet Rabia Al Basri, who was born in the 8th century in Iraq. She was a woman born into extreme poverty during a time when women’s rights were severely constrained. Sold into slavery at a young age, Rabia defied the odds and managed to find the inner strength and resolve that would eventually lead to her liberation both as a woman as well as a spiritual figure. “Rabia’s struggles even in the 8th century,” Azam adds, “remain quite relevant to our time when women continue to strive to rise above the status of inferiority placed upon them by many patriarchal societies around the world.”
Rabia is credited with the creation of the concept of “Divine Love,” which, today lies at the heart of Sufi Mysticism. Though only fragments of her poems have survived the ravages of time, the words that do remain served as the building blocks with which Azam and co-writer/ multi-instrumentalist Loga R.Torkian, would skillfully architect three of the most potent songs on the album “Tam e Eshq (The Taste of Love),” “Man Haramam (I am a Sin),” and “Marg e Man (My Elegy).”
To further drive home the cry for gender equality is the song “Aurat (Woman),” based on a visionary poem by Kaifi Azmi, one of the greatest, most progressive Urdu poets of the 20th century. The poem composed for his wife in the 1940’s, called for women to stand shoulder to shoulder with men, during an ear when women lived in very traditional societies in an India that was still not independent.
There is undeniably a deep social conscience woven into the music of Niyaz. Though many of their songs are original compositions based on or inspired by ancient poetry of the great Eastern mystics, a large part of their repertoire is derived from traditional folk songs of ethnic and religious minority groups in the Middle East who have suffered great oppression. The new album features five folk songs, “Shir Ali Mardan (Song of a Warrior),” from the Bakhtiari region of Iran, “Yek Naza (A Single Glance),” from Khorassan, Iran, “Eyvallah Shahim ‘new rendition’ (Truth),” from the Alevi- Bektashi tradition in Turkey, “Sabza Ba Naz (The Triumph of Love),” and “Khuda Bowad Yaret (Divine Companion),” from Afghanistan.
The message of hope against oppression and the need for unity remain pivotal to the band. Their sublime, ever-evolving mix of poetry and song is delivered through music that is both uplifting and transformative. Niyaz revitalize history in an effort to restore a severed bond between the past and the present, that perchance through this restoration, there can be a renaissance and revolution of ideas. “It’s a daring task to try and bridge the chasm between peoples,” says Azam, but if we can make that happen even for the one hour that people are there just to listen to our music, then who’s to say we did not triumph in our goal?”