FARSI POETRY + CHAMBER JAZZ = CYMINOLOGYby Alessandro Cassin
Cyminology is an acoustic-jazz chamber ensemble whose first ECM recording, As Ney, has the hypnotic qualities of a dream. The disc takes us on a journey which has for its compass an ever-shifting definition of song.
The Berlin-based group’s four members—led by stellar vocalist and co-founder Cymin Samawatie, who sings in Farsi—work toward a sound that is both ancient and contemporary. They sing love and they play love, in all its joy, promise, disappointment, and frailty. Nowhere is this clearer than on As Ney’s softly pulsating title track, based on a poem by Rumi, which ends with the verse:
When the pen hastened to write
On reaching the subject of love it
splits in two
The remarkable balance between the musicians allows them to create free-floating art songs of lasting impact. Piano and voice “breathe” together to such an extent that one would think they were originating from one person. I could not get this CD out of my player during a summer in which the contested Iranian election was a daily outrage. As Neda Agha-Soltan became a symbol of the protest, I learned that her name means “voice” in Farsi, and that she was taking underground singing lessons. (Women are barred from singing publicly in Iran.) In light of all this, Cyminology’s “Naagofte” (Untold), with lyrics by the Iranian modernist poet and film director Forough Farrokhzaad, becomes even more poignant:
Hang no lock of silence on these lips
For I must share my secret
And reach the ears of all the world
Singing my fiery song
At the core of Cyminology’s sound is the vibratory magic of the human voice and the beauty of Farsi, a soft melodic language in which consonants seem to roll off waves of vowels. Anyone who has ever reflected on the subtle ways in which the musicality of a language can dictate a particular kind of poetry, storytelling, and song will be captivated by the way Cymin’s vocal artistry showcases the Persian idiom. Having been raised in an Iranian family in Germany, with summers in Tehran, Cymin is now reclaiming her heritage through music. After studying classical music and singing jazz in English, she recalls, “One day my aunt gave me a tape by the Iranian singer Sima Bina that triggered my use of Farsi. The language resonated in a very profound way. I felt I had found my inner voice.” Interestingly, none of the other members of Cyminology understand Farsi. “Knowing what the words mean certainly adds something,” says drummer Ketan Bhatti, “but simply the sound of the words—their melodic lines—communicate so much.” As for the importance of the language to the group’s music, Bhatti recalls that “my challenge was to find a sound that would be specific to this band, and eventually it occurred to me that the drumming should be dictated by the sound of the Persian language.”
Cyminology’s powerful emotional impact is even greater live than on their CD. One evening last spring I squeezed into the narrow underground space at Cornelia Street Cafe for the first of Cyminology’s three New York City appearances. While freely departing from the arrangements on the CD, the band delivered lush music of transparent beauty. Bhatti, stroking the drum kit with brushes, mallets, or his palms, propelled the band forward as jazz evocations richly intertwined with Middle Eastern melodies. Cymin’s texts, addressing universal themes—love, longing, introspection, the power of words—were interspersed with those of the Iranian poets Hafiz, Forough Farrokhzad, and Omar Khayyam. Despite her use of a language largely foreign to the New York audience, the essence of each piece was clear. As she moved through the set, her voice gained in warmth and color, enhanced by creative use of the mic (from extremely close to three feet away) and subtle breath work. The band weaved around her, occasionally receding into the background to allow the voice to shine in its rich simplicity.
When I met the band for an informal talk, the four musicians radiated a sense of deep camaraderie. “Benedikt [Jahnel] and I started the band as a duo in 2002,” says Cymin, “but soon felt the need to include bass and drums.” The current lineup features Ralf Schwarz, a lanky German with a shaved head and a haunting pizzicato, on double bass; the French-born Jahnel, whose stylistic references range from Bill Evans to 20th century minimalism, on piano; and Bhatti, from New Delhi, on drums and percussion.
In 2007 Cyminology gave eighty concerts in places as diverse as Berlin, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Lebanon. Though the band prefers intimate settings, Schwarz recalls, “after some initial hesitation we performed for 6,000 people in Abu Dhabi and loved it.” Memorable moments on the road? “I remember once we were playing in the Caucasus, and after the concert three women approached us and said they got peace from our music. One of them had been sick and now felt healed!”
“Performing for different audiences is the moment of truth,” adds Cymin. “When I see people responding emotionally, I know we are doing something right.”
Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.