Vocal Style and Poetry
Ajam take influence from, and make use of, many native forms of vocal performance that are usually associated with specific forms of poetry. In particular, a poetic form known as Bahr-e Taveel is used in many of Ajam’s tracks to convey the main message of the track. Bahr-e Taveel is often sung in a narrative (speaking) tone and respects the natural prosodic features, and classical rhyming schemes, of the Persian language and literature but does not require for verses and hemistiches to be of equal lengths. Bahr-e Taveel is generally synonymous with people’s poetry, rather than classical art poetry, and is often used to tell urban parables or humorous stories. This form of poetry is still widely used in Tazyieh (religious passion plays performed in streets, markets and religious institutions). Ajam uses this form as a native alternative to Rap and stress that there are fundamental differences between Bahr-e Taveel and Rap especially with regards to the fact that Bahr-e Taveel preserves the natural rhythm and music of the Persian language.
Examples of Bahr-e Taveel can be heard in Bahr-e Taveel-e Ajami, Bāyrām, Eghvāgar, Tayyebeh Jān, Noroozkhāni, Beshkan, and several other of Ajam’s songs.
Other forms of poetry and vocal performance that are often referred to as influences by Ajam’s are Zarby-Khāni and PāZarby songs and poems. These forms are mentioned in many studies as comprising a key part of the repertoire of Motrebs (urban minstrels), especially in Tehran and Esfahan. Some notable features of Zarby-Khāni and PāZarby are the use of short iambic phrases to create simple upbeat rhythms; a combination of colloquial and literary tones in the same piece; and developing rhyming schemes that form stanzas of varying lengths in the same piece.
Noroozkhāni is a broad term given to songs that are sung around the Iranian New Year that generally served to announce the arrival of Spring. Traditionally, this involved agriculturalists, and rural people whose daily routine was influenced by the natural environment, travelling to nearby towns to hail the arrival of Spring, whilst seeking gifts from the townspeople for bringing this good news. Amin Ajami has carried out research and field studies in various Noroozkhāni performance styles from the historic regions of Tabarestan, Koomesh, Rey, and Astarābād in the foothills of the Alborz mountains and the Caspian Rim. Even though it is difficult to class the regional variations of Noroozkhāni as one style, the quick-witted, spiritual, and lively character of the Noroozkhān performers has in part been incorporated into the vocal and performance style of Ajam.
Rag O Risheh (Roots And Veins)
From it’s inception the musical project called ‘Ajam’ sought to define and develop an original genre of music that is derived from the native people’s music of Iran. Favouring ‘people’s music’ over traditional art music, Ajam set out to create music that pays homage to forms of rural and urban roots music that are often underrepresented in Iran let alone on an international level.
The term ‘Rag O Risheh’ translates from Persian as ‘Veins and Roots’ (Roots and Veins being the preferred order in English) which expresses the importance of both geography and society in the natural formation of musical identity and heritage. In developing this genre, Ajam seek influence and inspiration from the people of the streets and Bazaars, such as public storytellers or patrons of the ‘Chāy-Khāneh’ (teahouses), the preservers of native beliefs and rituals, like performers of the ‘Tazyieh’ (street passion plays), and the inheritors of organic living heritage, such as the athletes of the ‘Zoorkhāneh’ (traditional gymnasiums). However, the principles of ‘Rag O Risheh’ are not just relevant to Iran and can be applied by any people that aim to promote their roots based identity.
With the ever growing international influence of market-led popular music (and its associated culture) produced by countries of significant economic strength, it is inevitable that the native heritage of many economically developing regions will not survive from one generation to the next. It is within this context that genres, and cultural initiatives, such as ‘Rag O Risheh’ can provide people who may not have the power of the markets behind them with a fighting chance of preserving and promoting their native identity.
Rather than promoting staunch traditionalism, ‘Rag O Risheh’ seeks to identify elements of native musical and cultural heritage that can be used in a contemporary context. ‘Rag O Risheh’ is about practicing traditionalism in preserving the richness and variety of the native music of various regions, whilst exercising flexibility in order to use contemporary production sensibilities so as to forge an overall sound that can comfortably exist within the era in which it is created. These principles can be used to introduce a younger generation to their own native musical heritage, which creates an opportunity for them to develop a richer sound palette for making original music in place of misinformed interpretations of ‘imported music’ or stagnant imitations of ‘traditional music’.
‘Rag O Risheh’ is not a statement against Globalisation but rather a platform for those who believe that that the global community will benefit from the preservation of the rich variety of human culture.
Ajam is the brainchild of Amin Mohammad Fouladi (a.k.a. Amin Ajami) and the core of the Ajam family comprises Arash Fayyazi, Nariman Akrami, and Sara Fotros. Amin Ajami is the main songwriter and lyricist whilst formulating the early production of most tracks. Arash Fayyazi arranges key melodies, often composing instrumental pieces, and also assists in developing lyrics. Nariman Akrami is the main producer and usually assists in developing the arrangement of tracks with particular focus on bass and drums/percussion. Sara Fotros is a traditional percussionist that assists in percussion arrangement.
Ajam’s extended family have included Parham Bahadoran (one of the first members of Ajam), Zartosht Safari and Shohreh Khatoon. The Family is ever growing with members such as Saeed Naghdi who often joins Ajam in his capacity as a bassist and a drummer in several performances for Ajam and notably features in the recordings (and associated video clips) of ‘Zoghālchi’ and ‘Dare Vāz Kon’. One of the youngest members of Ajam’s extended family is Arsam Babaee who is an old time friend of Ajam’s and plays bowed instruments and percussions on several of Ajam’s tracks.
The Ajam Family is often joined by guest vocalists and musicians to pay homage to the music of different regions of Iran. Early Ajam guests include Erfan Shaho (Kurdish vocals on ‘Khezān’), MirKazem Jaffari (vocals on ‘Hossein Khān’ and ‘Shahmirzādi’). More recently Ajam’s guests have included Mehdi Boostani and Tannaz Zand. Undoubtedly, Ajam’s most notable collaboration has been with Jamal Mohammadi and the Kayer Ensemble on a track featured on their 2016 album ‘Rag O Risheh’ which includes vocals from Abolhassan Khoshru, a prominent master of the music of Mazandaran.
Ajam is a word with various meanings and interpretations. It is commonly recognised as a historic name for Farsi speaking people. One possible root of this word can be traced to a term used to describe ‘Non-Arab’ Muslims which literally meant ‘mute’ or ‘ineloquent’ (to the Arabic Language). It is also often referred to as a synonym for ‘stranger’ or ‘other/outsider’.
There are numerous reasons as to why Ajam was chosen as the name of this musical project. In many historic and contemporary conflicts, Ajam, much like many other terms relating ethnicity, has been used as a politically fueled word to rile tensions and breed animosity. By choosing to refer to ourselves as Ajam we seek to challenge and deride the chauvinistic nationalism that still plagues many neighbouring peoples that share a fortune of common history, culture and heritage. Further to this reason, with relation to the definition of Ajam as ‘mute’ or ‘illiterate’, the use of the word Ajam is our proclamation that we would rather be ‘illiterate’ to language of man, but aspire to attain fluency in the language of the heart (soul).
By choosing Ajam as the name of this musical project it is envisaged that the word can be empowered and celebrated whilst depreciating negative historic/political connotations. Further to such aspirations the naming of the project as Ajam is also to serve as reminder of the highs and lows in history that have produced the rich variety of cultures and heritages that form present-day Iran.
It should not go without saying that the word ‘Ajam’ has been used widely in Iranian literature, often in an honourific tone, by poets such as Ferdowsi, Sa’di, Rumi, Jāmi, Nezāmi, Abu-Sa’id Abulkheyr, and many others. Also, Ajam was used in geographical naming (Erāq-i Ajam – a term used for the central region of Iran, including cities such as Isfahan, Ray, Qazvin, and Kāshān from the Teymurid to Qājār periods), honourific titles of poets (Amir-e Pāzevāri, “Sheykh-e Ajam” Māzandarāni poet of the Safavid era), naming of modal melodies within traditional music (Bayāt-e ‘Ajam in the dastgāh of Rāst Panjgāh), and many such instances by Iranians. Moreover, the naming of the band was in part a salute to the ethnic-minorities of Iranian origin that reside in states on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf that are to this day known, and refer to themselves, as ‘Ajami’.
It is worth mentioning that for a large proportion of Arab speakers today this word does not carry any negative connotations and is used as a surrogate term for ‘Iranian’ or ‘non-Arab’. From experience, in many instances common Arab speakers have little knowledge of the term. As such, when considering that a large proportion of the Iranian and Arab speaking world do not consider this word to be derogatory term, an emphasis on the negative connotations of “Ajam” is rooted mostly in the intentions of those wishing to nurture animosity and hatred between the two peoples, which is certainly not our intention.
Further to the ethno-linguistic and geographic meanings of the word Ajam, there are literary definitions of the word which are to be found in classical poetry. In particular, in the poetry of Attār and Rumi, ‘Ajami’ is an attribute used to describe a person that is aware of a fact or secret but due to circumstances has to proclaim ignorance.
Ajam try to bring the epic, energetic, and often aggressive spirit of the native musics and roots heritage of Iran to this generation. In many ways they reintroduce Iranians to native cultures that are often neglected in representations of Iran as well as creating a platform for an international audience to hear the less standardised and ‘untamed’ music of Iran.
Several of the cultures that Ajam pay homage to overlap with those of neighbouring countries. This represents the common shared history and culture between the peoples of the area that transcends current international boundaries.
Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But man, there’s no boundary line to art.
– CHARLIE PARKER
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Ajam is a London based band that formed in early 2010. Ajam’s music tries to bring the epic and soulful spirit of the native music of Iran to a new generation. The band’s repertoire comprises of original pieces that are set to a post-modern soundscape of traditional, rural and tribal instruments fused with urban and rock beats and bass lines and production sensibilities. Ajam’s performance style is inspired by different elements of Iranian ‘people’s’ music such as street and market place performances, music related to traditional sports and competitions, religious passion-plays and ritualistic performances and recitals.
The vocal performance mirrors this vibrant sonic blend by presenting a mixture of roots styles such as the once popular ‘Bahr-e-Taveel’ and other traditional/folk singing styles with hints of modern inspiration. All this is delivered in a dynamic performance, which incorporates elements of dance and movement.
Ajam is a cultural experience of Iranian Roots Music.