Azadoota blends traditional Assyrian rhythms with contemporary music

September 2018 | By Yasmeen Altaji | Photos Contributed

Sydney, Australia – Robin Zirwanda’s take on Assyrian music is far from traditional.

When one mentions native music to an Assyrian anywhere in the world, the sense of nostalgia it provokes typically isn’t attached to the sound of congo beats and Latin-American rhythms.

But the Sydney-based Iraqi-Assyrian took to refreshing the standard definition of native Assyrian music via a medium of unorthodox creativity which, in combination with a simple taste for something different, gave way to the birth of new-world band Azadoota.

Assyrian for “freedom,” the name of the band upholds an image of national pride and the value of freedom itself, both concepts Zirwanda intends to facilitate through his work.

“In Australia, we have so much freedom,” Zirwanda said. “It’s unbelievable; the Aussies buy your CDs, come to your gigs, and pay to see you sing in Assyrian.”

Like many Assyrians of his generation, the Dora-native immigrated from the small Baghdad neighborhood at the cusp of national turmoil, stopping in Kuwait until eventually settling down in Sydney with his family at the age of 16. Where Zirwanda’s story takes a turn, however, is at his musical background.

Zirwanda’s father and foremost inspiration, Awimalk Haider, had established a musical acclaim of his own. As a worker for the U.S embassy in Iraq, Haider had participated in the Jazz Ambassadors program, a channel which would later feed into his artistic endeavors. The recording of his album “Bayen Amrenakh” in 1969 became a staple of the jazz-oriented turn that 1960s Iraqi recreation began to take.

Azadoota picture 2
Duke Ellington plays the piano while wearing a traditional agal (headband worn by Bedouin Arab men). Ellingtonton was with Awimalk Haider, Robin Zirwanda’s father, and other fellow musicians. (Photo submitted by Elle Zirwanda)

“If you listen to his dad’s music, it’s very western-influenced,” said Elle Zirwanda, Robin Zirwanda’s managing partner and wife. Each track bleeds modernism with every element from foreground accordion to bluesy beats. “It’s way ahead of its time,” Elle Zirwanda said.

As a child surrounded by such creativity, Zirwanda did what fit naturally: he tried it out for himself. “I used to find the key to the music room and play all the instruments. But the drums were for me,” Zirwanda said.

His innate love for percussion in large part founded his artistic curiosity.

“When you’re in percussion, you learn all the rhythms: congo, rumba,” Zirwanda said. “I’d be tapping on the kitchen table, then I’d start singing a song, and I’d write it that way. If I write [music] traditionally, what we do in these festivals in Australia won’t work. I have to select what the trend rhythms are.”

This technique of trend-selecting has brought about an appeal vital to the success of Azadoota. The utilization of elements derived from music popular in Australia (Latin American and African, among others) in combination with the Assyrian tradition gives Azadoota’s music a punch that listeners can relate to.

But some listeners find the technique diminishing – a fault which, according to these listeners, only masks the true Assyrian identity and suppresses its integrity. Zirwanda assures that this, however, is simply not the case.

“We’ve got to get our name [as Assyrians] out there in the world, in the bigger picture,” Zirwanda explained. “Why not expose yourself so the world knows about you?”

A personal goal of maintaining and respecting his Assyrian identity surfaced as Zirwanda assimilated into Australian culture; expanding his hobby to a professional career seemed the most efficient and effective option in realizing his objective. Soon, Zirwanda went from putting audition notices in the local paper to establishing a band with a background as mixed as that of the country in which he took residence as a young Assyrian. Members hailing from the Netherlands to Argentina have come together in the form of the new-world music group  to project and preserve Assyrian identity in the modern world.

Azadoota’s sheer fascination with multiculturalism presents itself early on in its history; the band’s 2008 album Planetarian features an opening track ornamented with occasional Spanish lyrics and bubbly guitar loops which carry on smoothly, patiently waiting for the sharply contrasting Assyrian vocals to gracefully cut in.

The mesh is unexpected, but unequivocal in its intention of creating a harmony that spans across musical genres and global cultures.

Azadoota began their first ever USA/Canada tour in August. For more detailed information, visit their website here: Azadoota website

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