Cafeterias aglow, bars percolating with cheers and laughs, street-wanderers with smiling eyes. There are cycle rickshaws suddenly populating the streets, offering fewer emissions but a lot more whimsy. Right now I feel like I don’t make the journey to Fremantle often enough; and it’s hardly an arduous journey. You can get on a train and close your eyes and emerge, like Dorothy in Oz, at the ceramic-swan-festooned Fremantle Station. And so here I am. A stairwell tucked between two cafés beckons.
Kulcha floats above the street; from the balcony you can peer over neighbouring tin rooftops and antique façades. Sounds of buskers and cavorters, scents of pizza, coffee, ale and harbour breeze, rise to your senses. Inside, the darkened room is bulging with bodies – largely bodies that are over forty years old, but sprightly, enlivened bodies anyhow. I’m not sure if the lion’s share of this crowd comprises friends of the band, or if it just feels that way (Fremantle is a friendly place). Either way, the vibe upon entering is more akin to a politely buzzing house party than a ritualized concert. When members of middle-eastern inspired folk/jazz group DARAMAD mount the stage, they emerge not from a behind-the-scenes hidey hole but from the crowd itself, where they’ve been clinking drinks and sharing chuckles. This says nothing about their music, but it sets the tone for the evening nicely.
DARAMAD, as it happens, is a word that actually means something like “emerge” in Persian classical music terminology; it’s fitting that they’re launching their debut record at Kulcha (the space in which their first freeform jams were born) making for a club sandwich of emerge-y goodness. The ensemble features Mark Cain on woodwind, Michael Zolker on oud and percussion, Reza Mirzaei on saz and guitar; Saeed Danesh on full-time percussion duties, Kate Pass on double bass and (in a new addition to the group), Tara Tiba on vocals. After a little bit of housekeeping, the tunes begin, and a hush falls over the rest of the room.
These are rich, hot textures; the stringy, percussive, almost throaty thrum of the oud and the baglama/saz underpinning warm melodic warblings from Cain’s woodwind – he has quite an inventory, including saxophones, exotic reed instruments and ethereal flutes. Deep down, there is the guttural woody pluck, thud and bellow of the double bass, and the tastefully reticent – yet subtly spectacular – rhythms of the percussion. It amounts to a fairly dense and joyous whole, a whole which sounds pretty authentically Middle-Eastern to the untrained ear (that is to say, my ear), but the traditional textures soon find somewhat atypical applications.
The pieces feature strong, modal melodies, not unusual in the traditional folk context. But instead of simply recapitulating themselves from go to woah, these tunes form “heads” in the jazz sense, melodic centrepieces around which extended improvised and textural sections can orbit. Band members take turns exploring the soloistic capabilities of each instrument, before everything coalesces back into an all-in, rustic momentum.
Every player is great, brimming with not only skill but clear excitement and long-standing passion for Persian music and the tools of the trade (though Chinese and Indonesian instruments find their way into the mix, too). “Isfahan” exemplifies jazz and Middle Eastern music’s shared penchant for syncopation and shifting time signatures; “Caspian Winds” is a highlight with its call-and-response melodies and almost industrial percussion. Then there are the extended, more navel-gazey and nebulous jams (like “Galactica”) that owe debts to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.
Yet for all the instrumental excellence, it’s hard to imagine the band without a singer after hearing Tara Tiba. The Iranian-born vocalist arrives on stage and tells us, the audience, that though she has been honing her singing for 12 years or more – it is her life’s passion – for her to sing publicly would be condemned in her homeland. Women are simply forbidden to do so. Thus, she tells us, “this is a dream come true.” The room erupts with applause; undoubtedly a few eyes are moistened. And she hasn’t even sung a note. When she does, the applause that follows is just as tremendous: Tiba’s voice is rich, nuanced and delivered with deft sensitivity to the rest of the band’s inflections and dynamics. Though I can’t understand her linguistically, there’s a sense of gravity to every note, a feeling of meaning as you might encounter in a cello concerto or glacial piano melody.
From the languid to the contemplative to the dancey and downright exuberant, Daramad traverse moods and cultural influences with an almost confounding cohesion. What makes them so convincing is how seamlessly they fuse their Persian and Jazz influences, to a point where it feels unlike a “fusion” at all, instead something singular and special. You might like them for the musicianship, for the intriguing conceptual endeavour of exploring the junctions of styles that are worlds apart, for the near-psychedelic soundscapes that emerge or for the remarkable composition that has gone into the project. As the room slowly empties, it might be the case that every head filing out has taken something different from the performance. But Daramad is a focused beast, with a clear vision. It’ll be fun to watch them pursue it, and expand upon what is already a compelling emergence.