Persian poetry from the Arabian Nights mixed with modern, urban jazz - that's the recipe behind the music of Berlin-based band Cyminology: experimental and dodging the pitfalls of the world music genre.
It all began when then-music student Cymin Samawatie discovered a CD belonging to her aunt that featured medieval verses by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Samawatie was so fascinated with the texts that she presented a version set to music to her jazz professor and then to her band. Until then, Cyminology had worked in English. But Samawatie's discovery marked the beginning of a new era for the multicultural Berlin quartet, founded in 2001.
That's when they began combining vocal chamber jazz with Persian literary texts.
"The poems are about desires and philosophical questions: Where did I come from, where am I going, why am I alive," explains Cymin Samawatie.
The singer is troubled by how much gets lost in translation, quipping, "I always say that people should just learn Persian. Goethe learned it at 60, so it's never too late."
Rich chamber music
As she navigates between Eastern and Western sounds, Cymin is accompanied by band members with French and Indian roots, who effortlessly maintain the balance between urban jazz and Arabesque flourishes. Elegiac piano passages trade off with dynamic drum sequences and pulsating bass. The exotic, mysterious instrument hovering above it all is Cymin's voice.
"For outsiders, who don't understand the words, it's more like instrumental music, like classical," she says. "You take notice of the sound and can dive into it."
After three CDs in which the quartet drew their words from the poems of old masters, 2011's "Saburi" marked the band's first album with their own lyrics. "Saburi" translates to "patience," which is exactly what singer Cymin Samawatie needs when she thinks about conditions in Iran. She grew up in Brunswick, Germany, but her parents are from Iran. She feels a deep connection to the her parents' home country. The songs take up the situation there and give expression to hope that things will, at some point, turn out for the best.
Lovers and journeys
Two years later, Cymin Samawatie and her three bandmates - pianist Benedikt Jahnel, double bass player Ralf Schwarz and percussionist Ketan Bhatti - are on a new journey of discovery.
"This time I've taken up modern Persian poetry and am getting into love songs for the first time," the singer said.
Of particular interest is the Iranian poet and filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad, who is considered a key representative of Iranian modernism. She died in 1967 at age 33 in a car accident, but in her short life, left deep marks on the Persian cultural scene.
Farrokhzad wrote about the frustrations of wandering from lover to lover and the wounds that love can leave behind. For some, the divorced poet with a Western lifestyle represented the decay of traditional values, while for others, she was the epitome of independence and self-assertion.
The band's singer is equally fascinated by another great 20th century poet, Nima Yooshij. Setting his poem "Phoenix" to song, she explained, "This image of a mystical bird that burns up and from whose ashes new things arise - that fits well with Cyminology. As artists, we are always on the search for something new, something beautiful, and that means sometimes taking leave of things that have become dear to us."
A new approach
It's less about departure and more about symbiosis in the ambitious project "Diwan der Kontinente" (Book of Continents) that will premiere in August at the Berlin cultural festival called "Die Nächte des Ramadan" (The Nights of Ramadan). For the project, Cymin Samawatie and her drummer Ketan Bhatti have assembled an orchestra of 14 musicians from Lebanon, China, Afghanistan, Siberia, the USA, Japan and Germany. The idea is to offer a musical take on the Islamic festival of Ramadan. For the occasion, the two musicians came up with a new approach to composing.
"Most projects like this just make use of cultural cliches," says Bhatti. "We're trying, on the other hand, to cross into experimental music that goes beyond being a kind of world music."
Bhatti adds that the Germany of today is reflected in the project. He sees Germany as a place influenced and enriched by immigrants from widely varying cultures.
"A new identity is emerging," he concludes.
Giving 400 percent
Together for over a decade: the four members of Cyminology
Ultimately, the "Diwan der Kontinente" orchestra is a larger-scale version of what Cyminology has long celebrated as a quartet. The musicians all live in Berlin, but have roots ranging from New Delhi to France and Iran.
"We are four very strong characters, and each of us brings a personal life story to the band that shapes the music," says Cymin Samawatie. As the group's front woman, it's important to her not to outshine her bandmates. Musical equality plays a big role in the group.
"I always say, we try to bring 400 percent on stage. Each of us should be there 100 percent with our passions and musical stories," she added.
But after ten years of working and playing together, there's a shared story, as well.
"During a tour in Lebanon, three women came up to us and said, 'Your music gives us peace,'" Cymin Samawatie relates. "When people who are acquainted neither with jazz nor with Persian poetry understand and feel the music, then what more can you ask for as a musician?"