A few months ago, I had the privilege of speaking to both the founder and the musical director of the Austin, TX world music collective Atash: singer/drummer Mohammad Firoozi and violinist Roberto Riggio. The group had recently given a landmark performance at the Paramount Theatre in support of their new album, Everything Is Music. Entranced by U.S. rock and roll, Firoozi arrived to Austin from Shiraz, Iran, in 1980, and his generous, universalist approach to musical collaboration and dialogue quickly attracted a veritable global village of followers, one of whom was Riggio, a specialist on Middle Eastern violin and oud. The current incarnation of Atash, distilled from a larger collective known as The Gypsies, took shape in 2001 and has since become an Austin institution, winning the Austin Music Award’s “Best World Music Band” award six times. According to Firoozi, the very name of the band, which means “fire” in Farsi, honors the individual talent, musical background, and creative spark of each band member. Besides Firoozi and Riggio, core band members include John Moon (violin), Dylan Jones (upright bass), Jason McKenzie (assorted percussion: tabla, kanjira, doumbek, drumset), Indrajit Banerjee (sitar), Michael Longoria (drums), and José Manuel Tejada (flamenco guitar). Moreover, each recording and live performance features a rotating cast of guest artists; for instance, Everything Is Music showcased Guinean percussionist and dancer Aboubacar Sylla and his west African drum and dance troupe Bramaya. Guests at the Paramount Theatre performance on March 21st and 22nd, 2014, included Sandhya Sanjana (Indian vocals), Pilar Andújar (flamenco dancer/singer), Fareed Haque (world jazz guitar), Abbos Kosimov (Uzbek doira), and Gourisankar (Hindustani tabla). As a result, Atash’s music is an enticing blend of ever-shifting cross-cultural infusions. Often, Firoozi’s use and composition of Persian poetry—based in Zoroastrianism and Sufi mysticism—and his vocal articulations form the backbone of the songs. Layers of Indian sitar, flamenco and jazz guitar, Middle Eastern violin, reggae grooves, and West African percussion are added to the mix to create a sum greater than its parts with the power to hail audiences from around the world.
Mohammad Firoozi [Rehearsal at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Austin, Texas, March 20, 2014]
Roberto Riggio [Rehearsal at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Austin, Texas, March 20, 2014]
Below are synopses of the topics covered during our hour-long conversation. Click HERE to see Mark Shapiro’s photos of the band.
As a student at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), Riggio first noticed Firoozi on the West Mall section of campus circa 1989-1992. He described him as being there “every Friday…playing the congas, [usually with] a bunch of crazy different kinds of musicians… [playing] percussion, guitar, pennywhistles… a variety of things. […] You could hear him from blocks away.” Riggio, a trained violinist, joined (and later directed) the UT Middle Eastern Ensemble, which instilled in him a love for Arabic music. He eventually started jamming with Firoozi at dinner parties with friends they had in common. Their musical synchronicity prompted Riggio to approach Firoozi about working together in the future, to which he prophetically replied, “We will.”
According to Firoozi and Riggio, Atash members adopt a flexible approach to song creation, making themselves right at home within the tension between structure and improvisation. Someone will present a musical idea—often, it is Firoozi with a sung melody—and the process continues until the entire group hinges upon an idea they like. Once this happens, they begin rehearsing it and working out its trajectory, a process that is not without its heated moments! As Riggio explained,
Sometimes we’ll even get into arguments over what’s going to happen next in the song… [Firoozi interjects] how it’s going to finish. […] But, in the end, we’re usually pretty happy. When somebody really cares enough about a certain thing within the song and they fight to keep that there, it’s usually worth it. Or sometimes somebody will fight for a certain concept within the song, and then somebody will say, “But I think the concept should be like this.” […] And then we’ll come up with something that incorporates both of our ideas that’s better than either idea was on its own. We enjoy that kind of stuff.
Firoozi described a moment when an idea appeared to him in a dream in 1991: he awoke singing a melody with vocables that sounded like “Seswir seswar.” The following day, he called his friend, a guitarist, and sang him the melody over the phone. Soon after, they played it together for awhile and recorded the jam session onto cassette. Twenty-two years later, while Riggio was playing one of his own compositions on the oud lute, the melody returned to Firoozi, and he began singing it. Firoozi and Riggio merged their ideas to create the song “Amshab,” on Everything Is Music. For the chorus of the song, one of Atash’s collaborators, French flamenco guitarist Christian Fernandez, transformed Firoozi’s syllables into the French lyric “Je suis ce soir la vie, la mort, la peur, l’espoir” [I am, tonight, life, death, fear, hope].
Riggio described the composition process as encountering a song that is already “out there,” fully-formed, and “remov[ing]…the layers…keeping it from showing its nature.” He said that, once devoid of the extraneous elements, there is a feeling among everyone of “that’s it…that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” However, a song also behaves like a living entity, continually changing after initially taking shape. He compared it to a person: you recognize them, but they always wear different clothes. As a result, Atash’s live performances always showcase compositions being taken in new directions. It is in these improvisatory moments that the band truly shines.
Austin and beyond
Throughout the band’s existence, Atash has drawn sustenance from the support of Austin musicians who perform as much as a labor of love as for money. The group forms the core of the Austin world music community and has collaborated with members of a variety of local bands, including Rattletree (marimba), Hard Proof (Afro Beat), and Rajamani (Romani-Indian). Within the “live music capital of the world,” Atash’s electrifying performances have won the band legions of fans and accolades. All of the members have been fortunate enough to be able to make a living as musicians, combining performing, teaching, and recording. For instance, violinist John Moon is Director of Orchestras and Chamber Music at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School and performs with the Austin Symphony Orchestra and Austin Lyric Opera. While Austin remains a musicians’ mecca, it has become more difficult for them to survive on their craft within the last decade. Firoozi noted that the price of gigs has not risen to match a higher cost-of-living introduced by a more corporate-driven cultural climate; the exponential growth of Austin’s population has expanded the roster of live acts for residents to choose from on any given night, capping the entrance fee for shows. In response, Moon and Riggio recently hired a world music publicist—Ryan Romana with Press Junkie PR—to promote Atash nationally and internationally. As Riggio relayed, the band was being asked repeatedly by fans and sister groups, “What are you guys doing here? Why aren’t you playing all over the country, or all over the world, in festivals?,” and they began to think, “That’s a good question. Maybe we should plan to move in that direction.” He also noted that these steps outward have positioned Atash as “the trailblazers…as far as world music in Austin goes,” who are “raising the bar for what is possible for a world music band from the middle of Texas.” Their tours have taken them to such far-flung locales as Spain, Taiwan, Mexico, and New York City.
Everything Is Music
Engineer Steve Collins began recording the album in 2010 at Troubadour Studios in Lockhart, TX. Riggio described Everything Is Music as not bound by a deliberate concept but, rather, indicative of the band’s evolution into an even more collaborative entity since their previous recording, 2003’s Republic of Love. Atash perceives it as a fitting document for exposing different audiences to their music, but also as an inevitable compromise that cannot quite harness the energy of their live sets. As Riggio put it,
Any recording is always a compromise. I’ve never had a recording that I’ve done where I’ve been 100% happy with everything. I think it’s a great recording, and I’m glad it’s getting good reviews. But there were things I wanted to put on the recording that I wasn’t able to, and I know the same is true for Mohammad. […] [But] making an album is all about stopping…at some point saying, “Now we have to stop…if we want to put something out.” For us, music never stops, so it’s really hard for us to do that, which is why it probably took us awhile [to finish Everything Is Music] [laughs].
The band began by recording whatever came to mind as they jammed together. From those exploratory sessions, they identified a group of songs for which they recorded tracks that summer. Some of the material recorded at Troubadour got erased by accident; for Riggio, however, that experience encapsulates the philosophy behind the album: “Don’t try to save this song because, if you believe in the fountain, then you’ll never be thirsty.”
Other potentially derailing circumstances ensued. A guitarist decided to move back to France without telling his bandmates that he was not planning on returning to the States. Indrajit Banerjee had to travel to India to address visa issues; when he returned, Collins had left Austin to tour with his own band. Atash resumed recording with a new engineer, Randall Squires, at a studio called The Still in southwest Austin, and completed the majority of the album there in a three-year period. Guest artist contributions were recorded last and wherever convenient: for instance, Dylan Jones recorded visiting Uzbek drummer Abbos Kosimov at home, and John Moon captured the sound of the boys’ choir Les Petits Chanteurs from his hotel room in Haiti with a small digital recorder. Despite these complications, the album was released on the Ars Mundi label on March 25th of this year to widespread acclaim for its organic integration of a multitude of musical influences, modeling a peaceful and productive co-existence of diverse cultural traditions.
The album title was taken from a line in a poem by the renowned thirteenth-century Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī that Firoozi likes to recite in English whenever Atash reaches a climactic moment in performance: “We have fallen into the place where everything is music.”
Beginning in 2001, the band explored novel ways of procuring gigs that have proven vital to their longevity. Riggio told me about a visit to UT in 1993 by a Ghanaian royal drumming-and-dance ensemble subsidized by the university. While in town, the group “drummed up” publicity for their shows by unexpectedly performing in random locales “flash mob” style. The tactic proved highly effective, so Riggio applied it to Atash performances in Taiwan. The band performed on the bus from the airport, and everywhere they could after that; by the end of the tour, their shows were sold-out. Subsequently, they played at farmers’ markets and on the beach while touring Hawai’i. In Santa Monica, CA, they obtained a permit to perform on the 3rd Street Promenade, close to the famous Santa Monica Pier. Riggio explained that the success of these events lies with their ability to unify people as participants in something special at a particular place and time.
Atash’s survival over an eighteen-year period can also be attributed to the strong camaraderie between band members and their desire to create a beautiful and lasting tapestry from the individual threads of their respective backgrounds. Riggio stressed,
Whenever people ask me, “What do you do? [as a musician],”[…] I say, “I play with the band Atash” […] that’s my first answer that always comes out. But if you look at my income, Atash is the smallest part of it. But if you look at my time and the hours that I spend on things, Atash takes up the greatest amount of time. […] [The band] is the thing that’s in all of our hearts, that we all really care about. And we all want it to succeed […], so much that we’ve stayed with it all this time. And we’ve put up with a lot of crap from each other [laughs]. […] But we’re like brothers.
As an audience member at their Paramount Theatre concert, I experienced firsthand the musicians’ love for what they do and the effervescence that can only arise from the interplay of experts. Since each member has disparate musical training, they have to create a unique musical language compelling to all members, which helps explain the band’s appeal to people from different walks of life. According to Riggio, they often encounter listeners unfamiliar with non-western music who nonetheless find something compelling about the Atash’s music, at times even inspired to undertake lessons in one of the styles they heard.
Contributions to Experience Design
The earthy, cosmopolitan feel of Atash’s multicultural sound would make a great addition to the Audio Identities of import retailers, restaurants featuring fusion cuisine, hotels located in global metropoles, and international cruise lines. It will soon be featured on Mood’s world music Core program, Destinations, which represents both traditional, well-established styles and new, inventive fusions.
Visit Atash’s website HERE.
– Submitted by Amy Frishkey, Music Design