British-Iraqi singer Alya Marquardt will launch her debut CD “Chai Party” at the Vortex on April 6th. It will be appearing on her own label Two Rivers Records, which has launched two previous albums (write-up of initial double launch here). Sebastian interviewed her:
LondonJazz News: Where are you from and where are these songs from?
Alya Marquardt: I was born in Basrah, southern Iraq. The Iraq-Iran war started when I was 10 months old. My father was conscripted to the army and my mother worked as a doctor looking after wounded soldiers. I stayed in my grandmother’s house, with 10 other children and teenagers. Being the youngest, I ended up spending a lot of time with my great grandmother who used to be part of a small women’s music group who performed at weddings and public events, singing Iraqi folk songs. Although I was too young to remember, I expect these songs featured in my time with her and then subsequently in records played by my parents in Iraq and then in London when we moved here.
LJN: You were inspired by another album and you even attended his recording and this was a catalyst?
AM: My whole album was the result of listening to my instincts and going with the flow of life and accepting what crossed my path as somehow meaningful. There was very little planning and I went with what I loved rather than preconceived ideas or concerns about genre.
My friend Jesse who writes on music in New York sent me an album in the post, Sonic New York, by a musician and producer Sxip Shirey. I felt deeply inspired by the integration of genres and use of urban soundscapes (urban as in, sounds of the city) and the ingenuity and resourcefulness. It was like nothing I’d heard before. I got in touch with Sxip and flew out to New York for his live recording of his next album. At the recording I met Rima Fand, the violinist on the album and the centre of the album’s universe on a number of levels. I went over to her place, jammed a little, talked a little and I think we fell in love with the idea of working together. The rest is history.
LJN: You have called your album chai party / political commentary too?
AM: Chai is the word for tea in many languages and dialects, including Iraqi. Tea is the centre of Iraqi life – it is family time, how we socialise, connect with each other. It is what we drink when we’re playing backgammon or listening to the radio. It’s enormously important. We drink it black, sweet and sometimes infused with cardamom and we drink it out of small glasses called stakan. One of the sounds that makes me happiest is the clink of a tiny teaspoon against the side of a stakan as the sugar is stirred in – that’s how I remember my parents when they were young. Stakan in hand, listening to Oum Kolthoum or Abdel Halim on the radio.
But the album is about contrasts – the mechanical sounds of war and the human sounds of song, the city and the village, the competing meaning of things that can be both beautiful and ugly. The word “tea” is no different in this regard. When the TEA party emerged in America, listening to those views and those prejudices rubbed salt in a raw wound that was the result of three wars and a decade of sanctions. It felt like the culture, education, thought, beauty and history of my country and my people were being disappeared into a black hole of hate and ignorance. I felt deeply hurt by those views and by the lack of empathy, love, education and care. I felt dehumanised. So the title is my way of reclaiming the beauty of my culture and country and letting people know that they cannot take our humanity or taint what is important to us.
LJN: What was gestation period for album?
AM: This album was a whirlwind experience in the doing but not in the conceptualising. But from the first step to the final recording, we’re talking less than 12 months. Yes, pretty speedy stuff.
LJN: Why did you record in New York?
AM: I hadn’t planned where I’d record or who would be involved in the performing and recording. On my trip to New York I met people who I felt understood by and who shared my aesthetic and I didn’t second guess my gut feeling. They were brave and open-minded. I felt like these people were part of my musical tribe, I felt at home. So I went with it.
LJN: Is there a concept or narrative behind the album?
AM: I think the idea had been within me for some time and other musical interests such as contemporary jazz and improvised music had become more prominent in my focus. The album is ultimately a concept album expressing the range of my musical loves. It presents the fragments that I wanted to take on a journey towards musical and personal integration. Essentially parts of me that haven’t yet worked out how to come together in an organic way. And I wasn’t going to force them to do so – I knew it would happen when it was ready.
LJN: You have some live gigs planned – how has playing live taken project further?
AM: The live gigs are key to the integration process and here, I really did spend a long time thinking about who I wanted to be involved, both in the septet and the trio. Extraordinarily, the musicians on my fantasy wishlist all agreed to be part of this. In the septet, ALULA, our first outing really showed what can happen to music with that level of improvising power in a band. The band features Asaf Sirkis (drums), George Crowley (t.saxophone), Jasper Hoiby or Olie Brice (bass), Shirley Smart (cello), Nikos Ziarkis (oud) and Sam Leak (piano). We’ll be recording our next performance at Vortex on 6 April and hopefully releasing it. I think the evolution of the music will be very evident.
LJN: You are coming up to the first anniversary of your house concerts – what have they brought to you / the musicians / audiences?
AM: The house concerts have enriched my life in so many ways. I remember the very first, which was Rick Simpson’s first solo piano performance. It felt so intimate, resonant and emotional, like we were being let into a musician’s secrets. Since then, I’ve hosted some fantastic musicians and yes, met some key individuals in my musical life. I’ve also met musicians who have become close friends. They’ve helped develop my understanding of what audiences want, who does the right things to bring them to their performances and who doesn’t and what the differences are between those artists. I’ve learned more about my own musical preferences and aesthetic and my ears have developed immeasurably in the past year. I’ve been very privileged to have the space and I hope the impact has been a positive one for the London scene.