TORONTO, Canada (Kurdistan 24) – “We have an art mission; we just want to perform for the sake of the music,” Hajar Zahawy tells me as he takes a sip of his ginger ale.
Hajar is the creator and director of the Kurdish band Nishtiman. The musical group includes well-established artists from all parts of the Greater Kurdistan.
The first time I met Hajar was after Nishtiman’s performance at the Aga Khan Museum on Sep. 29 in Toronto, Canada. He greeted me with a beaming smile and wrapped his arm around my shoulder in a brotherly embrace.
We met up the following day at his hotel lobby to discuss the performance, his music, and the Nishtiman project.
Hajar was born in Khanaqin, in the Kurdistan Region, before moving to the United Kingdom capital of London in the 1990s with his family at the age of 10.
He has been back to Kurdistan for concerts and has performed internationally with Kurds and non-Kurds at music festivals for over 20 years.
“I’ve always had a foot in Kurdish music and a foot outside of Kurdish music. I’ve always been a musician who has worked with Kurds and with others,” Hajar says. “I’m not from a family of musicians. I’ve followed music since I was 10.”
“The Kurdish daf—my main instrument—that’s something that I have learned. I’m a self-taught musician, but I have studied music in London,” Hajar tells me, adding the decision to become a musician was a personal desire.
When he’s not performing, Hajar says he likes to travel and explore. His interests include history, learning about diverse cultures, and absorbing different nationalities and people.
Nishtiman, Kurdish for “homeland,” brings together musicians from Iraq, Iran, and Turkey for a tribute to the uniqueness of traditional Kurdish music.
The project began in 2013 with the release of the group’s first album titled “Kurdistan” which was performed in over 50 international music festivals around the world.
“It was the first time a series of well-established musicians from different parts of [the Greater] Kurdistan united,” Hajar explains. “We come together and perform interpretations of Kurdish music.”
The group’s second album, titled “Kobane” in tribute to the city in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava), was released in 2016 and distributed worldwide by a French record label called Accords Croisés.
“Kobane is the second album’s name. We wanted to feature a Kurdish artist from Syria. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find one. We wanted to dedicate one of the songs to Kobane.”
“This project is unique because we have a French agency [backing us]. We have a manager. This company is a very big company in France. It’s a distribution label—a world music label. For the first time ever, we were managed professionally as a traditional Kurdish group,” he informs me.
“This is not a pop project. This is not Helly Luv. This is not Dashni Murad,” Hajar pats the table we are sat at with his palm to emphasize his point. “This is not Kurdish pop music. This is Kurdish traditional music.”
“For the first time a traditional Kurdish band with Kurdish instruments and well-established Kurdish musicians from different parts of Kurdistan come together and perform this project called Nishtiman,” he says.
Nishtiman is an ongoing project that focuses on various styles and genres of music, Hajar explains. “It’s been incredible because, with this project, we have performed in many countries around the world.”
“You can see the potential of Kurdish music if you have the right professional musicians, the right spirit, the right team, the right energy, and the right attitude,” he points out.
This year, Nishtiman played at festivals around the world, including Germany, Switzerland, and the island of Corsica. The group will perform in Japan next year.
Although Hajar and his group perform traditional Kurdish folk songs using traditional Kurdish instruments, he says Nishtiman’s target is not a Kurdish audience but an international one.
“When we play at festivals, we welcome our fellow Kurdish brothers and sisters. It’s nice. But this project—we want to form an ensemble that performs internationally around the world,” he explains.
“For me, it’s more important to spread a positive musical message through these festivals for people to say, ‘Look, Kurdish music is beautiful music’ and give it [a chance] and just appreciate it,” Hajar adds.
According to Hajar, the chemistry shared between the band members stems from years of experience on stage in festivals around the world. “We know each other very well; we have a lot of experience on the stage, we know how to react and when to react.”
“That’s very important because in order to create the right sound you need the right people next to each other, but you [also] need the right vibe, and you need the experience,” Hajar continues.
“The audience will feel it. A professional audience will feel it. An intellectual, smart audience will notice what’s going on. They will know. This is not electronic music. This is all acoustic, it’s all hands, it’s all fingers, it’s all spirit and mind.”
During their performance at the Aga Khan Museum, the audience—Kurds and non-Kurds—reacted to the energy of the performers and their instruments. People cheered, whistled, and even left their seats to lock arms in traditional Kurdish dance.
Hajar said the positive reaction of an audience is always nice to see and motivates the group during their shows. “Everywhere we’ve been, it’s been fantastic. The audience has been very lively, very joyous, very upbeat, and that’s been very important.”
“I think the Nishtiman project will continue,” he says. “It’s music, but it’s also a message to say, ‘Look, I think Kurdish people have a beautiful art that [can] be accepted and appreciated.’”
IDENTITY & ART
Hajar is a firm believer in the culture of music and how it can change someone’s perception of a certain group, particularly the Kurds.
“I think culture plays an important card for the Kurds right now. That’s one thing you can [use to] attract people to you [and] change their perception [of] you. It’s very simple. Culture: what you have and what you can offer,” he explains.
Hajar mentions that his percussion instrument, the daf, is an example of how the culture of music can be used to expand the awareness of Kurds.
“The daf is the national instrument of the Kurdish people. It’s an instrument that has a very important place in Kurdish music. It’s a symbol,” he says.
“For the Kurds, the daf is a part of [their] identity. It’s an instrument that has had a very important place for more than a thousand years in Kurdish music. It’s a symbolic instrument. It’s an instrument with great power. Simple and powerful.”
Despite being at the forefront of the media in recent months, especially since the Sep. 25 referendum, Hajar believes the international community still has very limited knowledge of the Kurds.
“The international community doesn’t know much about Kurds. All they know is that we’re fighting [terror] and that we are brave people and we want independence, and that’s it,” he says emphatically.
“Kurdish music has a strong muscle. It’s a big muscle. It’s got a lot of things to say, and at the same time, it is an unknown culture.”
“They don’t know daf, they don’t know tambur, they don’t know sacred music, they don’t know folk music,” he adds. “They say that Kurds are some people in the mountains and they want independence and they are good fighters and God bless you all.”
AWAY FROM POLITICS
While we sit in the hotel lobby, Hajar is reminded of an interview he once did with a German reporter who pointed to Kurdish unity through the power of music.
“I did this interview with this German journalist who told me, ‘Maybe the Kurds can’t unite politically, but they can unite through music,’” he laughs.
“Maybe that affects politics as well. We can play music together and create beautiful sounds. If we can do it, why can’t [politicians]?”
“We can find bridges and understandings and compromises through our sounds and through our instruments. It’s just peace,” Hajar notes. “That’s what Nishtiman is. [Bringing] together all the Kurdish people from” all parts of the Greater Kurdistan.
“Art is a vessel that cuts through borders and religions. Art doesn’t recognize borders, and religions, and ethnicities. Listen to it, appreciate it,” he says.
“When you have this agenda, you show this image about your culture. I think that needs to continue. It’s not a one-man job. It needs a lot of support.”
“Sometimes [Kurdish music is] latched to something political. We don’t want to make it political. We’re not flag-waving at anyone.”
“I think we have a beautiful art that can give a different imagination and image,” Hajar concludes. “It’s Kurdish art.”
Nishtiman’s albums are available for download on iTunes through Apple Music.
Editing by G.H. Renaud