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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Singer Azam Ali was born in Iran, raised in India, and now lives with her Iranian husband, Loga Ramin Torkian, in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Their journey across oceans can be heard in their music. With producer Carmen Rizzo, they created a group called Niyaz, which means "yearning" in both Farsi, the language of Iran, and Urdu, the main language in Pakistan.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Niyaz released it second album, "Nine Heavens," this year. It begins with a piece called "Beni Beni," which combines a mystical 18th-century Sufi poem with a traditional Turkish folk song and electronic music.

(Soundbite of song "Beni Beni")

HANSEN: Azam and Loga are in our studios at NPR West. Thanks so much for coming to the program. Welcome.

Ms. AZAM ALI (Singer, Niyaz): Thank you so much for having us. It really is an honor to be here.

Mr. LOGA RAMIN TORKIAN (Singer, Niyaz): Yes, thank you so much for having us.

HANSEN: This is an interesting blend of modern electronica with a traditional folk song and sufi mysticism. Remind us briefly what Sufi mysticism is.

Mr. TORKIAN: Sufi mysticism came from Islamic tradition. It essentially developed in (unintelligible) in Iraq, about something around like 11th century.

Ms. ALI: If I may just add to that, one of the elements that's very appealing to us about Sufi poetry is that it does transcend cultural and religious specificity, because it really is more about the struggles of the human soul, the struggles of the human experience and something that we all share. It really is a universal struggle.

HANSEN: What does "Beni Beni" mean?

Ms. ALI: It means, to me, to me.

HANSEN: To me, to me.

Ms. ALI: Yes.

(Soundbite of song "Beni Beni")

Ms. ALI: "Beni Beni" is really about man struggling with his soul, and he's asking God, well, you put me in this world with all its beauty and yet all I want is to find my way back to you. So you have put me here, and you have not shown me how - how I can find this way back to you. So just please show me, give me some sign, show me how I can find my way back to you.

Mr. TORKIAN: And if I may add, you know, even today, in a lot of Sufi gatherings is always complemented by rhythm and dance. And in fact, the most revered Sufi poet, Rumi, composed his poetries most of the time to the rhythm of what was being played in the gathering along - when the dancers were dancing.

(Soundbite of song "Beni Beni")

HANSEN: Loga, let me ask you, because the instrumentation on this album is really impressive. Some of the instruments, what are we hearing?

Mr. TORKIAN: For example, I used saws. I used the (unintelligible). Saws is a Turkish instrument. I used the lafta, which is also a Turkish instrument. Then from Iran I used the sitar, and also I have created a new instrument called kamman, which is - comes from the family of spike fiddles, and a lot of the bold or the legato sounds were created by that instrument. And then, you know, we've had Indian instruments, the bansuri, which is a flute instrument, tabla, which is a percussive instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Azam, I understand you trained with a Persian master and you're an accomplished hammered-dulcimer player.

Ms. ALI: Yes. Thank you.

HANSEN: Well, this is an instrument that many know because of its use in American folk music. You know, it's essentially a stringed instrument, and you play it almost like a Marimba with four small covered sticks. Is there a difference in the playing or the instrument itself when you play this music on the hammered-dulcimer?

Ms. ALI: Well, the technique is very different, and you know, almost every part of the world has a different variation of this instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALI: The Persian style of playing is very much - you know, we mute the mallet, which, you know, trying to get the sound more softer and almost - if you open a piano, it looks identical, you know, it has the muted mallets. So in Persian classical music they try to make it sound more like a piano, but I prefer the bit more folky, sort of rough sound, so I just play it with the stick side.

(Soundbite of song "Feraghi - Song of Exile")

HANSEN: Let me read the English lyrics, too.

Faraghi, the separation has caused me immense sorrow. Destiny has me chained to this state. O beloved, release me from these chains for I am bound with the dust in this estranged land. What is it you seek from me that you cast your chains upon a free man?

Ms. ALI: It's very, very easy talking about a physical exile of being far from your homeland, or is it just the exile of a soul being separated from its creator?

(Soundbite of song "Feraghi - Song of Exile")

HANSEN: Both of you are Iranian and you now live in the United States. Azam, you were raised in India. Can you just tell us a little bit about yourself because on the cover of the album it looks like Los Angeles meets New Delhi meets Iran.

(Soundbite of laugher)

Ms. ALI: Yeah, well, you know, my mother send me to India when I was four years old to study in an English boarding school, and then one the Revolution happened, I was pretty much stuck in India. My mother was in Iran, and I didn't see her for a good six years. And then my mother escaped after, you know, during the Revolution, and she came to India. She lived there for two years. And when I was 15 years old, we came to the U.S. under political asylum because my mother didn't want to go back to Iran.

So, you know, I've been here since 1985, you know, just trying to do the best that I can. It's very, it's been very challenging. I came during a difficult time, you know, soon after I was here, you know, Desert Storm. I mean, since I can remember, you know, always, there is so much negative media around Iran and especially nowadays. It's virtually impossible to turn on the news and not hear something negative about Iran. And it's really a struggle for, I would say, every Iranian. You know, in many ways my life's work has become about this. You know, create something that hopefully transcends religion and culture and show people that, you know, at the core, we are all the same.

(Soundbite of song "Feraghi - Song of Exile")

Ms. ALI: I tried so hard to just be American and just sort of almost reject my heritage. And it got to a point where I realized, you know, I'm never going to be 100 percent American. I'm never going to 100 percent fit in. So then I began to process within myself of sort of going back and learning about my own culture, embracing my culture. And once I did that, you know, I began to feel much more, sort of, whole. This music is an honest, honest manifestation of who we are as Iranian immigrants.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Azam Ali and her husband Loga Ramin Torkian are members of the ensemble, Niyaz. Their recording, "Nine Heavens," is available on Six Degrees Records. They spoke to us from our studio at NPR West. Thank you so much.

Ms. ALI: Thank you very much for having us.

Mr. TORKIAN: Yes, it's our honor to be here.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: To hear full songs from Niyaz's album, "Nine Heavens," go to nprmusic.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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