The Atash sound: like an instrument played by God

Austin is ever evolving and many long-time residents roll with the changes, especially those that impact experiences, places or things we have grown fond of such as beloved musicians and venues.

One such hotspot was a Moroccan-themed club in the Warehouse District, Red Fez, where local band Atash (whose name derives from the Persian word for fire) held multiple weekly residencies from 2002- 2011. Now one of the city’s most reputable musical outfits, with a weekly Tuesday residency at the Flamingo Cantina on 6th St., Atash has developed a broad range of fans helping earn them seven Austin Music Awards for Best World Music Band during the SXSW Music Festival.

The perennial fan favorite released their last studio album, “Everything Is Music,” in March 2014 with a memorable two-day, live, multi-disciplinary, multimedia theatrical interpretation of the new recording at the State Theater. Having performed from coast to coast, they’ve drawn comparisons to acts like Gipsy Kings, Cheb Khaled, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, among others.

Atash, features talented master musicians from around the world playing a rare combination of instruments. Mohammad Firoozi, Atash’s lead vocalist, poet and soul-center, began his career singing spiritual music and western rock ‘n’ roll in the Persian Gulf region in the cultural center of Shiraz. Firoozi immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s by way of Corpus Christi, where he attended Del Mar College. Atash musical director and violinist Roberto Riggio immigrated to the U.S. from his native Mexico as a child, where he grew up and began his musical studies in the lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. Atash also includes dynamic players Indrajit Banerjee from Kolkata, India on sitar; Aboubacar Sylla from Guinea, west Africa, on djembe; José Manuel Tejeda from Havana, Cuba, on flamenco guitar; Korean-American violinist John Moon; Dylan Jones on bass; and Chris Häusler on drums.

I spoke with Riggio last month about the bands’ journey and what lies ahead.

TODO Austin (TA): You have played a residency at Red Fez before and now at Flamingo Cantina. Why does having a residency at a venue appeal to your musical group?

Roberto Riggio (RR): Having a residency allows a good band to gain some traction and get more connected with their scene, for one thing. It also raises the level of the performance experience for everyone involved. When you play every week with musicians that you connect really well with, in front of people who really connect with your music, the connection just gets deeper and deeper, and becomes telepathic and even spiritual. We played weekly at the Red Fez, on and off, for nine years! It became a religious ritual for us – a chance to commune with the spirit in the music, along with the members of our community who danced in that spirit. The band starts to feel like an instrument being played by God. This has always been our experience.  The first residency we did as a band, was way back in the late 90s, when we were called the Gypsies, and Oliver Rajamani was still part of the group. We used to play Tuesday nights on 6th street in a club called the Mercury Lounge, formerly the White Rabbit, and were part of a wider scene, which I guess was dubbed the “acid jazz” scene. But so many of those clubs shut down and the vibe changed.  Flamingo Cantina is one of the last remaining clubs from that era that still has the same vibe.  It’s classic Austin, just on the edge of the Red River Cultural District.  We want to be a part of revitalizing that scene.  I think many people in the city are making a conscious effort to cultivate the music scene that was taken for granted for so long.

TA: In your opinion, should more musical groups strive to establish a residency and why?

RR: I think it really depends on the group.  If you have a community that you want to connect with and who wants to connect with you on a weekly basis, absolutely.  If there’s something about your music that will keep it interesting week after week, do it.  With Atash, there is a lot of improvisation, so every show will be different, even if we play a lot of the same songs.  The more we play, the more our music continues to evolve, and we find new things to say in songs we’ve played for years, or different directions to go into, and new songs start to develop organically.  If you have something like that to offer, I think you absolutely can benefit immensely from doing a residency.  More people can get to know your music, and, better than that, you become part of the local culture — you provide the soundtrack where beautiful moments are being experienced, and become a part of people’s lives, a part of their memories.  It’s a tremendous privilege.  But not every band is made for that, of course.  I’d say that bands should try it out, at least, and see if it’s a good fit for them, if they can get the work on reasonable terms.

TA: How has Atash evolved over the years?

RR: There are really three time periods involved in the formation of the Atash.  The band The Gypsies was formed in 1996 by Mohammad Firoozi and Oliver Rajamani. Jason McKenzie and I joined later that year. Oliver went solo in 1998, while I was living in New York for a short stint, and when I got back in 1999, the band was totally different. The only common denominators were Mo, Jason, and me. Dylan Jones had joined on bass, and I brought in my friend John Moon later that year. So, these five musicians form the core of what would become Atash, although there were also many other members that came and went between 1996 and 2001. In June of 2001, we pared the group down to this core, bought a van, and took off to California, where we played shows up and down the coastline while taking classes at Ali Akbar College in San Rafael.  We had no fixed place to stay, so we couch-and floor-surfed for three months and really got connected. This is when we started calling ourselves Atash. Since then, we haven’t had the kind of changing cast of characters we used to have in the Gypsies. We’ve got a stable core, and every member that’s been added since then has basically stayed with the band, even if just in spirit, as there are times that circumstances may prevent us from playing together all the time.

TA: There are a number of years between the two studio albums, “republic of love” (2003) and “Everything Is Music” (2014). What would you say is most different about the productions?

RR: Each album represents a different stage of our development as a collaborative band, as an organism.  It shows what we’ve been learning and discovering in the arts of composing, arranging, performing and recording together. We never stop learning, so each work just shows how our learning continues to evolve and develop. It’s still very difficult to make a recording which captures the essence of our live performances, though I think “Everything Is Music” comes closer in terms of energy. “Republic of love” was our first foray into the recording the world as a band, and it emphasized the compositional aspect. We wanted to make an album that really showcased the compositions we were creating, and weren’t thinking too much about how it compared to our live performances. However, as soon as we finished recording the album, we started doing our residency at Red Fez, and our approach to performance continued to evolve based on sharing the energy with the crowd; by the time we actually released the album, some six months or so later, we were already doing all of the songs much differently from what they sounded like on the album. For booking purposes it was difficult to use that material, as it didn’t really offer the full impact of the live performance experience.  Still, I think it’s a beautiful album, and have always been quite happy with it. But, as I said, I think “Everything Is Music” comes nearer to the kind of energy we have as a live band, while still showcasing the compositional aspect.  There’s also a wider base of contribution in the songwriting, because the group has expanded.  I think on our next album, we’ll be getting even more of that.  We’ve already gotten started on that.

TA: How has your style evolved over the years?

RR: As far as describing our music to someone who hasn’t heard it before, it’s very difficult.  I often find it works best to talk first about our instrumentation: Persian vocals, flamenco guitar, oud, two violins, sitar, upright bass, west African percussion, Indian and Arabic percussion, and drumset; and then about our process: original music created in a collaborative way by skilled and sensitive musicians who draw from their respective tastes and traditions, who want to make people feel what we feel – ecstasy – and dance. There is both well-crafted composition and spontaneity in the music. Mohammad takes many of his lyrics from the timeless mystical poetry of Persia, medieval poets like Rumi and Khayyam. It is the music of planet Earth and the universe.  It’s “old soul” and “young spirit” music.

Special thanks to Liz Lopez
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