A Finely Woven Fabric of Mysticism and Music

The German-Persian singer Cymin Samawatie is the leader of the band Cyminology. With the quartet she has set texts of the Persian mystic Hāfiz and the scholar and poet Omar Khayyám, among others, to music. A portrait by Lewis Gropp

Von Lewis Gropp

A richly faceted musical consciousness is reflected in the compositions of the Berlin quartet

​​At no other time have contemporary musicians been able to draw on such an inexhaustible diversity of musical traditions as today. Yet few musicians and composers succeed in combining as many different stylistic directions as subtly and sensitively as the German world jazz band Cyminology. This skill is particularly apparent in the song "Emu" from their first album, "Per se."

A wide variety of musical characteristics can be found in the highly individual timbre of the band and the album: the elegant grace of the bossa nova, the free-floating weightlessness of French impressionist arias, the melancholy of the fado, the offbeat patterns of bebop, and the consummate dramaturgy of the melodic leading, which could hold its own even against the symphonic poems of Viennese Classicism. "Classical. jazz, rock, pop, hip-hop, traditional, and contemporary music – different styles have slipped into our music," explains Cymin Samawatie.

The mysticism of the beat

There are a few discoveries in terms of meter as well. "Per se," the title song, opens the album in a hypnotic 5/4 meter that begins with a free-floating song, then pulsates darkly with a driving ostinato in the double bass and piano. The band plays the second track, "Delam," in an unusual 11/4 meter and "Biabam" in 7/4 time.

Cyminology has been performing in this formation for four years now; their new album will come out in spring 2007

​​The irregular rhythms create the impression of something mysterious, since the beat is not resolved in the usual way. The listener feels the pulse of the song, but it does not reveal itself to him automatically – that is the mysticism of the beat. Only a well-balanced ensemble of technically skilled musicians is able to play such demanding compositions with this ease and elegance. Cyminology has been performing in this formation for four years now. Drummer Keran Bhatti, born in New Delhi, India in 1981, and the seasoned double bassist, Ralf Schwarz, make up the rhythm section. At only 26, Benedikt Jahnel is already a stylistically confident virtuoso on piano.

Hāfiz and Omar Khayyám

Most of the works were composed by Cymin Samawatie, however. Last year she completed a degree in jazz singing at the renowned University of the Arts in Berlin. Although she was born in Germany and has not been able to visit her parents' homeland for eleven years, the connection to Iran is very important to Cymin Samawatie. For some time, she recounts, she has been studying Persian with a teacher who is also giving her an appreciation of contemporary Iranian authors. Not long ago, however, she also discovered the two great Persian poets of the 14th century herself.

"If you study the texts of Hāfiz and Omar Khayyám in detail, you can find an indescribable depth, emotionality, and beauty in them," she says. Hāfiz celebrated the ecstasy of religious meditation, the pleasures of drinking, and pederasty. Moreover, the mystic and seeker after truth ridiculed hypocrites and philistines. To this day, Hāfiz is regarded as one of his country's greatest poets.

Lost in Translation

The translations of the Austrian diplomat and orientalist Joseph Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall inspired the prince of poets, Goethe, to write his West-Eastern Divan. Nevertheless, for Samawatie the beauty of the texts has been lost in translation. Consequently, in addition to her own Persian song texts, she sings Hāfiz's texts in the original language. The new album, however, which has already been recorded and will be released next spring, contains primarily texts of Omar Khayyám. "By and large, the first album was rather tranquil and delicate," the singer reflects.

"With a couple of exceptions, the second album is on the whole very spirited and lively." Since there is no possibility of traveling to Iran to meet artists there, given the current situation, Cymin Samawatie gets together with Persian musicians once or twice a month when her schedule permits. "We listen to and discuss current and traditional compositions there."

As far as Cymin Samawatie is concerned, she would certainly not say with Thomas Mann Where I am, is Iran. I carry my Iranian culture in me. It is significant, however, that the legacy of Hāfiz and Khayyám is not being passed on within Iran itself today but, as it were, in exile.

Lewis Gropp

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson