Azadoota is the creation of Assyrian singer/songwriter Robin Zirwanda. Based in Sydney Australia, Azadoota has been performing on the pub and festival circuit for the last 8 years. Featuring Latin, African, and Eastern European flavors, Azadoota’s newly released CD “Planetarian” takes Assyrian music where it’s never been before.
Azadoota’s cross-cultural musical style has seen them perform in a broad range of venues, winning fans at local pubs, music festivals and cultural events. Robin even sang the National Anthem of Iraq in front of over 30,000 soccer fans at Sydney’s Telstra Stadium, for the Australia vs Iraq soccer international. Azadoota also participates in the Cultural Infusion program in schools.
“Azadoota in Assyrian means freedom,” says Robin, “and our band stands for freedom from cultural and ethnic prejudice. We hope that our music will transcend cultural barriers and encourage our audience to embrace diversity.”
Shaypoura: Your sound is very unique. You mix different cultures in your music. You have Assyrian, English, and Arabic vocals with Latin instruments. The end result is a very well-integrated sound. Did you start out with the intention of bringing all of these cultures together, or did you begin with a different goal that evolved to what the Azadoota sound is today?
The essence of Azadoota was very much influenced by the bands I was working with throughout the nineties. I was playing drums and percussion and singing backing vocals with a Latin band, Latin Fire, and a pop-rock band, Floyd Vincent and the Childbrides. During performances the band would be jamming on a groove and I would ad-lib Arabic or Assyrian vocals over the top just for fun. The front man would make up a “translation” – it was something impromptu and unusual, and the audience loved it. I wrote the song “Nureleh Nureleh” and started singing it as part of the Childbrides show. We recorded it and put it on the first Childbrides album – the first Assyrian song to feature on an Australian pop-rock record!
The idea of Azadoota grew from there. When I was playing with Latin Fire, we would perform at festivals where most of the audience was Australian – they didn’t understand the Spanish lyrics but they still loved the music. That experience proved to me that Australian audiences were open to music from other cultures.
I started writing more songs, bringing together an amalgamation of all the different music I’ve been exposed to during my career.
I didn’t stress about trying to write English lyrics, I just wrote them in Assyrian because that’s what came naturally. (In fact most of the English lyrics in Azadoota songs have evolved out of ad-libbing at live gigs).
As Azadoota developed, we experimented with different instrumentation – Indian tabla, saxophone, different amounts of percussion, different combinations of guitar and piano. We welcomed guest musicians from every corner of the world who all brought their own perspective to the mix.
My goal has always been to make music that breaks through cultural barriers. With the Planetarian album, we wanted to really define the Azadoota sound and create something unique. When you hear it you’ll notice Latin, African, and Eastern European flavors, and while the lyrics are mostly Assyrian there is some Arabic and English thrown in. In a lot of ways it represents our people – essentially Assyrian but also influenced by the cultures around us, this is what defines the Azadoota sound.
Shaypoura: Robin, you were born in Iraq. What about the culture there either within the Assyrian community, or the Iraqi-Arab community, influenced your musical style?
I was fortunate to be exposed to a huge range of different music when I was growing up. My father was a major influence – he was a guitarist and singer in Baghdad so our house was always full of music and musicians. He would work nights playing contemporary music at the clubs in Baghdad, and during the day he worked at the American Embassy. That gave us a lot of exposure and access to Western music – Dad even has a photo of his band jamming with Nat King Cole at an embassy party! Somehow he also found time to write and record Assyrian songs – one of the songs Azadoota performs, Plitla Gu Aurkhi, is one of my father’s hits from the sixties.
On the other side of the spectrum the Arabic singers were also a big influence. Stars like Umm Kalthoum and Nadhem Al Ghazali were constantly on the radio, and my uncle would have everyone singing their songs at family gatherings and picnics.
My family’s appreciation for music from different cultures has definitely had a lasting influence on me.
Shaypoura: A good portion of your lyrics are in Assyrian about places and times that Assyrians can relate to. Were you ever concerned that the non-Assyrian members of your band wouldn’t be able to musically express themselves like Assyrian musicians could? Were you ever concerned that because of this the integrity of the songs would not be maintained because they would not be able to relate, ultimately affecting the turnout of the songs?
I think music speaks its own language. When you work with the same musicians in a band, you form a bond that transcends spoken words. It’s a connection on a higher level, which is part of the magic we use to communicate with the audience. It’s my job as the singer to convey the emotion of the song, and I don’t mind if people interpret their own meaning from what they perceive.
At one stage I had an Assyrian drummer in the band, but I don’t think that understanding the lyrics helped him play the beat with more feeling. Perhaps the musicians even do a better job if they can’t rely on the lyrics to tell the story, they have to work harder to communicate the meaning through the music.
Shaypoura: You are quite possibly the only music group that sings in Assyrian outside of Assyrian venues. Has this ever made you feel alienated in any way? Alienated either from the Assyrian community or even from your non-Assyrian audiences?
I guess I do feel a bit alienated from the Assyrian community. We do a lot of touring to rural and regional areas, where a lot of the patrons have never even heard of Assyrians so I’m not exactly in familiar territory. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If I’m the first Assyrian they’ve ever seen, and they enjoy the music, have a dance or buy a CD, that’s really rewarding for us, it gives us the motivation to continue.
Occasionally we’ve had negative experiences with non-Assyrian patrons, we’ve been faced with people shouting racist comments and that type of thing, but we figure if it’s only one or two out of all the people who see us in a year, then we’re winning in the long run.
I think the general public is more open to cross-cultural music than people give them credit for. New band members are often surprised at the kind of people who turn up to our gigs. I remember once we had a gig at a tiny bush hall in the middle of nowhere. We arrived and the place was full of hippies playing reggae music at full blast. The drummer was terrified, he thought we would be run out of town or beaten up by rednecks. But as soon as we started playing, the crowd flocked to the dance floor and it was a fantastic gig.
Shaypoura: Would you have ever liked to perform more at Assyrian functions?
Of course we would. I’m not sure why Assyrians haven’t embraced our music. Maybe it’s because we’re so different from the music that has become “traditional” among the community, or maybe it’s because my band members aren’t all Assyrian. Anyway, I hope the Assyrian community will start supporting us a bit more in the future.
Shaypoura: Share with the readers, if you can, the challenges you have faced to be where you are today. Of course in art so as in life, growth and success, are part of an on-going process. You have at this point come very far. What trials and hardships in any aspect of the process did you have to endure?
From the beginning, I’ve pitched Azadoota to a mainstream audience. So essentially we’re facing the same challenges as any original rock band trying to get a break in the music industry, except that we have the added challenge that our songs are in a foreign language.
Firstly to establish a reputation on the pub and festival circuit we’ve had to do a lot of touring. When we first started out, this meant loading all the gear and band members in the back of the van, driving for 10 hours then doing a gig that paid maybe $300, then sleeping in the van because there’s no money for accommodation. These days it’s slightly more civilized; the pay has improved a bit and the venues usually throw in pub accommodation, but it’s still hard work and a lot of driving.
It’s also been tough finding musicians who are willing to make the sacrifices needed for the sake of promoting our product. As a musician you can make a ton of money playing cover songs at the local ex-services club, but that’s not an option for me. I’m after the big fish. I want the reward of being successful with my own original product. It takes a lot of commitment and dedication, but hopefully it will be worth it in the end.
One thing that we’ve learnt over the years is how to adapt our music to make it more attractive to mainstream audiences. One of the things I have done is throw in some random English lyrics – you’ll hear some of them on the new CD. Audiences love something they can sing along to. One example is the song “Yoniya” off our last album Bongo Train. We were performing in Coffs Harbour, which is a regional town close to where Russell Crowe has a property. So I replaced the chorus in Yoniya with the line “I know Russell Crowe is living next door”. All of a sudden all the patrons were requesting that Russell Crowe song.
Shaypoura: Is there anything you would have ever done differently, if you could? Is there anything, looking back in retrospect, that you would not have done that you did, and vice versa?
Well as they say, hindsight’s always 20:20! I have made mistakes in the past, but as you said, growth and success are part of an on-going process. I’ve learnt from my mistakes and Azadoota is all the better for that. I don’t think there’s anything in particular that I would change. I know a lot of musicians in Sydney who encountered fame and fortune at an early age. They weren’t ready for it mentally, and it messed up their lives. I think Azadoota has matured to a point now that if the new CD has the success we’re hoping for, we’ll be able to make the most of it.
Shaypoura: What suggestions do you have for other Assyrian musicians who aspire to be non-traditional in their music style?
Get out there and get experience with non-Assyrian bands. Jam with people, go busking, get out of your comfort zone. Leave your ego behind. Don’t focus on how much money you’ll make – experience is invaluable. Practice, practice, practice. Videotape yourself performing and watch it back with a critical eye. Be professional. Commit. Be original. Get plenty of sleep, eat well, and stay healthy.
Shaypoura: What Azadoota has done with Assyrian language is to be lauded by advocates of both art and culture. You have exposed Assyrian language and music to the non-Assyrian world. Shaypoura, as well as the entire Assyrian community, is indebted to you. Please share anything else you would like the readers to know.
Before I started Azadoota, I spent 20 years as a drummer and percussionist, playing other people’s music. One of the biggest highlights for me during that time was playing percussion for “American Pie” legend Don McLean, on his Australian tour in 1986.
During that tour, while enjoying champagne, lobster and caviar in the dressing room, I asked Don what it took to achieve such a high level of success in the music industry. His answer? “You have to gamble on yourself, Robin”.
It took more than 10 years until I fully understood what he meant by that, until I was ready to take that chance. It’s a credit to the Australian people that they have not only welcomed us here as migrants, but they have embraced our culture and music, allowing us to share a piece of ourselves with them.
Our new album “Planetarian” is out now. I invite all of your readers to visit our website, order a copy of the CD or follow the link to download it from i-Tunes..
Shaypoura: Thank you very much for your time, hard work, and for sharing with us your talent.