Interview: Pouya Ehsaei, Ariwo – A ‘Happy Music Accident’ in the Making (April 2018)

One of the sensations of 2017 is back in great shape despite its change in formation. A new single (titled ”Pyramid‘), an album-in-the-making (ready for this Summer) and a bunch of shows scattered throughout the next few months (starting from tonight at Village Underground, part of La Linea Festival) are helping to keep flowing the hype surrounding Ariwo that started back in 2016 thanks to the MANANA project.

The band, captained by Iranian electro-wizard Pouya Ehsaei is evolving, its sound transforming and colours changing tone, but Ariwo are constantly coherent with their DIY music approach determined three years ago, which makes them a well-rounded summary between electronica and tradition, Middle East and Caribbean, sound manipulation and live improvisation.

Just a few days ago, between a studio session and a rehearsal, we reached Pouya to talk about the unfolding of Ariwo’s trajectory, starting from what has happened in the last few months and the transition between a trumpeter with a distinct musicianship like Yelfris Valdés to another one like Binker Golding.

I think the Village Underground gig is the perfect timing for having Binker and Yelfris on stage with us because it will be a nice mixture between what we have done until now and the new sound that we are looking for. I’d say that it’s a new departure and starting point for us. In this way, the audience can see what we were doing before and what we are doing now with Binker, which is something completely new and a different direction for us“.

We also asked Pouya how much the new formation is influencing and will influence Ariwo’s sound…

It’s surely a big change, because the sound we made until now was very solid and, at the same time, our melodic section was very free to explore different solutions. Until now, after Yelfris left [to pursue his solo career], we worked with Binker Golding and Jay Phelps. Even if you can feel that the sound we play is already established, they have brought a lot of freshness to it. We were a little bit worried in the beginning, because we have been together for two years in the same formation and, when you have someone new coming aboard, it might be hard to adapt, especially for the newcomer. But it was much easier than we thought. Since what we play is a little bit different than a straight-up jazz jam, we just needed a bit of time, also because in Ariwo you need to know electronic music a bit and be used to it to react and play something that can make sense“.

Pouya also affirmed that the second Ariwo’s reincarnation is nothing transitory, but here to stay.

Hopefully we will be able to go on for a while with this new formation; that’s our new shape. We have a set on which we are currently working with Binker and Jay and this gives us some freedom. Because, as you can imagine, everyone is busy. So, working with different musicians gives us more flexibility also when it comes to playing live gigs. If someone is not available, someone else can back up. In addition, in this way, we can always bring something new to our music considering the melodic element“.

Rewinding Ariwo’s story until its debut, we discovered that the path covered by the band has been a series of fortunate events.

Ariwo is a happy accident. Everything started by chance three years ago. I was already living in London and my landlord, who was Harry Follett at the time [MANANA co-founder with Jenner Del Vecchio] left for Cuba for a few months. When he came back, he also brought back the idea to organise a festival in Cuba, which lately became MANANA. He wanted me to be involved, so I started doing some music promo for the project. Then, he asked me to become the Music Director of the festival and I said yes. So, when they were starting looking for funding, they thought about a music project to express what MANANA was standing for. So, to mix electronic music with Cuban rhythm, but they didn’t have it at that moment. They asked me if I wanted to start a band and I answered yes once again. Cuban music was something new for me. I did a lot of research, for weeks and weeks, not only related to Cuban music but also Cuban musicians living in London. That’s how I got in touch with Yelfris, Hammadi Valdés and Oreste Noda. When I met them, we were only two weeks away from our Boiler Room showcase and we had to come up with a few songs for the set. However, the response we had from the audience was amazing! So, after the performance, we thought that Ariwo could become something more, so we continued and went on recording more and more. Everything was suddenly becoming more structured and we got to know each other and, after three years, we’re still here playing together“.

Although, after three years, Ariwo are able to walk on their own, the relationship that Pouya and the other band members have with MANANA is still high and invigorating for both sides.

The connection with MANANA guys is still very strong. They support us a lot and not only emotionally, but also financially sometimes: they help us to find gigs and funding sources. There’s definitely a good communication between us. Then, they are our label. Even if we are growing, we are going to stay with them for now because there’s a good feeling. I like their approach and I like their DIY attitude. We have recently released a new single with them titled ‘Pyramid’, which is also downloadable for free on Bandcamp“.

From Ariwo’s past and present, we now move to the future. Because, as Pouya revealed to us, ‘Pyramid’ represents the first brick in the new album’s wall.

In the next few months, we’re going to release an EP, but we also want to make an album from it, which is going to be different from our first work. It is going to be more studio-oriented. Our first EP [which was released exactly one year ago] was practically recorded live. Still in a studio, but with no multitrack or overdub, and everything was recorded in one go. Even if the new album will have this live feeling, considering the editing and compositing it will definitely be a studio album. You can already feel that listening to ‘Pyramid’; we wanted to make it a little bit more intimate, structured and even a bit darker. I really like to go a little bit further with our sound, so you can switch off when you listen to it and follow the flow“.

Although Ariwo’s foundations were mainly laid by Pouya alone, the band today rely on and relish a collective creative process involving each of its remarkable members.

The starting point of our tunes, for example, a rhythm on the drum machine, a melody on the synthesizer or a bass line, comes from me. But then, during our rehearsal, we start jamming together on those structures. Since all the people involved in Ariwo are very talented musicians and composers who have also a lot of experience, they can immediately come up with something to add to my incipit. We improvise together, we identify the good parts, we keep them and put them together… in this way, slowly, slowly a new track comes out. Anyway, we always keep the improvisation element, which is also there when we play live“.

Improvisation and spontaneity were also the characteristics that helped bring Pouya to his Iranian origins and the (apparently) thousands-of-miles distant Afro-Caribbean Cuban tradition.

I never thought we were different because even if Iranian and Cuban cultures can look like worlds apart, and possibly they are, we share many elements. Starting from many similarities in our history and social conditions. Then the weather is much like Cuba. There are even some similarities in our music because in the South of Iran there were many slaves from Africa brought by the Portuguese. So, music from the Southern part of Iran is very rhythmical and has many African influences. For example, for ‘Pyramid’ I used the 6/8 time, which is properly Iranian, but Hammadi found almost instantly a rhythm to play with it. Actually, Hammadi can find a Cuban or African rhythm to play with everything, so we’ve never had too much trouble with that. You can give him anything and he’ll always come out with something“.

When we had a chat with Yelfris Valdes, when he was still an integral part of Ariwo, we discovered that one of the main inspirations for the project was the spiritual sphere, with all its connotations, implications and similarities between Cuban Santeria and Iranian Sufism… Pouya confirmed Yelfris’ words and disclosed his point of view.

With Ariwo, I like to tap into the spiritual and psychedelic aspects, but it’s always a bit tricky to talk about it because I won’t say that we are trying to be spiritual. Even if we are doing it, it always comes down to what you mean with spiritual. Spiritual has a lot of meanings and, in my point of view, spiritual is something that takes you on an inner journey and that’s also what we want to achieve with Ariwo. It’s about yourself and about your personal journey“.

We kept on with the journey theme and, to close our interview, we asked Pouya where Ariwo’s journey is going…

First, we’re going to play on Monday at Village Underground and we have a couple of gigs in the Summer. But our focus in the Summer will be on working on the new album. We have already booked a studio for the whole season and we will go in and out of the studio all Summer long. This will give us the freedom to experiment and I will always be able to go back to the studio. I’ll go back home with what we have played, I’ll start working on it and then, if I need something, we can return to the studio and record it. While the last time we recorded it all happened in three days and, even if we wanted to change or add stuff, we didn’t have the time.

I can also tell you that we are going to work with other musicians too. We already have a couple of names we are in touch with, but I can’t reveal them at the moment. Anyway, we will collaborate with them starting in the studio. We are at that stage that we know that this is working and we just need the last push to get it there“.