Music, as I think we all know, has the power to bring people together unlike any other force in the world. It is pure human emotion and expression captured and created through artistry, reflecting the cultures and the experiences of those who live it.

This definition can be applied to all cultural expressions, really, so the fact that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has held Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebrations for several years feels incredibly right. The museum has a tradition of highlighting not only the European masters but subjects that are important to all the people of Los Angeles, showcasing the diverse cultures of the city’s population.

LACMA partnered with Southern California’s Farhang Foundation, a non-religious, non-political non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Iranian art and culture, to organize the Nowruz event, which has grown to the point that it is now too big for the space and will be held at UCLA next year (not particularly surprising given that there are more Iranians in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the world other than Iran).

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Photos by Vafa Khatami

The Nowruz celebration at LACMA took place this Sunday and was full of music, costumes, activities, and more, all spread out across the museum’s campus. The event was capped off with a performance by Niyaz, a duo that creates contemporary Iranian/Middle Eastern music that brings together a host of cultural music influences. It’s a sort of combination of traditional “world music” and experimental electronica.

Led by frontwoman Azam Ali, Niyaz’s performance was a dreamlike, multicultural mission statement. During her opening remarks, she shared that she was happy to celebrate the New Year with the massive crowd that had gathered in a corner park and also asked how many non-Iranians were in attendance. Many more hands were raised than I was expecting. This event has truly brought the community of LA together.

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This thread of multiculturalism is pressed upon in Niyaz’s music. Though born in Iran, Azam grew up in India, sings in four or five languages, and also speaks English. The influences of these cultures were woven throughout the performance. Rather Iranian on the top level, it featured a sort of old-school Bollywood-esque rhythm and vocal play.

Though at first glance Niyaz’s music certainly felt traditional, samples undercut the expected sounds, giving the whole performance a dreamlike quality made even more dreamlike when one of the world’s first female Sufi dancers spun on stage, mesmerizing everyone with a powerful expression of movement.

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Azam celebrated humanity and culture, saying that music is life and that, in the end, we are all people. With Niyaz’s cross-cultural performances, she aims to combat the dangerous, hateful rhetoric that is currently being spewed by some politicians in this country and around the world.

In her statements, there was also hope. At one point she got so emotional talking about humanity that she was overwhelmed with passion and love, as were all of those lucky enough to be in attendance on Sunday afternoon.

Learn more about Niyaz.
Learn more about the Fahrang Foundation.