Nishtiman music project: Transcending what divides

They come from Iraq, Iran and Turkey; some live at home, others in exile – all, however, are Kurds. The musicians of the Nishtiman ensemble have a mission – to restore the cultural integrity of their homeland. By Stefan Franzen

By Stefan Franzen

"We've always had Kurdish artists who have represented and exemplified a certain region or genre," says Hussein Zahawy, artistic director and percussionist of the Nishtiman sextet. "But there is a pioneering quality to Nishtiman. We are talking here about a nation with a long history and culture that was torn into four parts. A nation of many different colours: its food, clothing, customs and religions, all co-existing in harmony. There are Kurdish Jews, Muslims, Christians and many pre-Islamic religions. And the music scene is just as vibrant and colourful. When Nishtiman was set up in 2013, the idea was to make all of this Kurdish music accessible to non-Kurds as well and give them an intuitive feel for this very special geography."

Zahawy himself grew up in the Iraqi part of Kurdistan. He went to London when still quite young after his father, who was active in the Kurdish resistance, was forced to flee. In England, the son studied music and musicology, his new home opening up entirely new worlds of musical expression to him and giving him the opportunity to perform with many different groups and musicians around the world. "But everyone needs something they can hold on to," he says. ″My roots have always given me an identity."

The Nishtiman project can be seen as the logical artistic manifestation of this identity. It began as the co-operative brainchild of Zahawy and long-time collaborator and friend Sohrab Pournazeri, who, as well as being a composer and arranger, also plays the long-necked lute and the spike violin. "Nishtiman" means home or homeland, a concept that Zahawy takes further: "Of course, home is there where your roots are. But these roots can grow, just like with a tree, where you cannot even see what is below the surface."

Tradition lived on many emotional levels

To listen to Nishtiman is to feel oneself in the presence of a tradition lived on many emotional levels. "Aman Aman", a piece from the Persian Kermanshah Province, blends furious dynamic dance rhythms with powerful unison chanting, explosive percussion and ecstatic bursts of shawm. There are rhythmically free declarations of love, such as "Ghanj Khalil" from Turkish Kurdistan, where the plaintiff strains of Ertan Tekin's duduk blend beautifully in duet with the beguiling voice of Donya Kamali. Or the epic "Shirin" with its origins at the meeting point of Persian and Arab music on the Iran-Iraq border.

In the melancholic title track "Kobane" the delicate santur (hammered dulcimer) of Mayar Toreihi, the circling kamancheh and the tanbur coalesce in a unique dramaturgy that liberates the expressive, rich ornamentation of the unique vocalist. This is Nishtiman's tribute to the Syrian city and to the Kurdish women who played such an important role in liberating it from IS. "Whether you're Kurdish or not,' says Zahawy, "Kobane is a symbol of how strong women can be."

The distinctively Kurdish character of their repertoire, Zahawy stresses, comes from the music related to particular religions. The community of Ahl-e Haqq (people of truth) in western Iran, for example, which came into being in the 14th century. They are a mix of Sufi, Alevi and Yazidi influences and for them the tanbur is a holy instrument.

Mythical aspect of Kurdish culture

Yet it also enjoyed this status among followers of the much earlier sun-worshipping cult of Mithras in the pre-Islamic period.  Nishtiman pay homage to this archaic, mythical aspect of Kurdish culture with the pieces "Khor Halat" and "Kohbod". These spine-tingling sounds have a quality that is unlike any other music in the Middle East.

There is, however, one major note of bitter disappointment discernible in the harmonious history of this relatively new ensemble. Due to the civil war, it has not yet been possible to complete the spectrum of Kurdish music by including artists from Syrian Kurdistan. "The hostilities have meant that the musicians from there don't have the freedom of movement or the necessary documentation to permit them to travel", says Zahawy.

During the interview he repeatedly stresses that he will not comment on politics and when he does venture an opinion on the future it is rather cautious and non-committal: "Whether or not the Kurds get their own state is a matter for the politicians to decide. We have always been a peaceful nation with a wish for an identity of our own. But we are talking about a very fragile region and we do not know how things will turn out. We continue to hope that one day we will be able to live in a peaceful country named Kurdistan and I hope that with our music we can contribute to the dream of an independent Kurdistan."

Stefan Franzen

© 2017

Translated from the German by Ron Walker