‘Life of a musician better fits who I am’

  • Aliya Cycon performs with her band, The Aliya Cycon Project, during the Green River Festival. RECORDER STAFF/Paul Franz

  • The Aliya Cycon Project’s “We Will Be Light” album, released in April 2015, included mostly Cycon’s original material, and a review in Downbeat magazine called it “an alluring, shimmering dance between world pop and traditional arabic music.” RECORDER STAFF/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/16/2017 2:06:41 PM

Even before she’d left Amherst Regional High School, it was clear that performing was in the future for Aliya Cycon.

She had been studying piano and ballet from the time she was around 5 years old, and the Leverett teen was drawn to playing jazz, performing in the school’s jazz ensemble and singing in its chorale.

One day her ballet coach, Sueann Tomshend, was choreographing a dance piece to music by Lebanese pianist-composer Ziad Rakbani. As Cycon moved to it as a high-school junior in Amherst Ballet, she began falling in love. She asked to borrow of all her teacher’s Arabic music CDs, and she began listening to the rhythms and intricate modalities even as she continued studying jazz piano and ballet.

For her senior year, she went off to study at Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., where it was “all ballet, all the time,” while continuing to play jazz on the side “for my own therapy,” says Cycon, now 23 and gearing up for a Thursday, Aug. 24, performance with the 12-member Aliya Cycon Project at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center.

Even while living in New York the following year to pursue ballet, she’d be off to practice stretches at the dance studio at 6 a.m. — listening to the music of Count Basie, Art Blakey, Pat Matheney and Rakbani.

It was that spring that her father, Dean’s Beans owner Dean Cycon, invited her on a trip to Palestine to see the Jenin Freedom Theater, when she first heard the oud — the pear-shaped lute that’s at the heart of Middle Eastern music. She was taken with its haunting, exotic sound.

“That’s when I became very interested in the situation in Palestine. When you see it in real life, it really affects you,” says Cycon.

“When I came back (to New York), that’s what really sealed the deal to leave ballet,” she recalls. “There’s a much bigger world out there. I felt ballet is so intensive; it was restricting me from pursuing all the other things I love to do. For me, family is so important to me, freedom to travel is important to me, doing my music is important to me. I realized the life of a musician better fits who I am.”

Changing gears

That spring, in 2012, she began researching Arabic music in New York and discovered an Arab cultural center that was offering its first classes in Arabic music theory beginning the following week, with oud player Zafir Tawil. He began offering her lessons.

“It was total serendipity,” says Cycon. “I’d been looking for something to engage myself more in Arabic music. I just connected with it immediately and fell in love with the music, the language and the culture, and the way music is such a communal thing; so embedded in the culture. It was a total learning immersion for me.”

She got so involved, in fact, that she returned to Ramallah for two months that summer, hanging out with the same theater troupe and following it as it toured Germany and Estonia, all while playing her oud and getting an occasional lesson here and there.

Cycon had been thinking about applying to colleges, and was mostly looking at liberal arts study, but also at Boston’s Berklee College of Music — where she’d once attended a five-week summer program.

A Middle Eastern festival concert when she returned that summer convinced her to go there, and the fact that Palestinian-American violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen was joining the faculty solidified her decision.

“It all just came together,” says Cycon, who would continue with piano as her principal instrument, but hoped to take oud lessons from Shaheen as she majored in arranging and orchestration. “It was a rare opportunity to learn from him”

Two years later and midway through her program at Berklee in 2014, “I decided my soul loves the oud. This is what I’m going to do.”

‘Phase I’

In changing her main focus from piano to oud, Cycon in 2016 would be Berklee’s first female graduate with oud as her principal instrument, and one of its first graduates concentrating in the Middle Eastern instrument.

She’d been doing occasional gigs around the Boston area playing oud, attending an Arabic music retreat every summer, connecting with other Arab students at Berklee and with the larger Arabic community around Boston, all while still playing jazz.

The Aliya Cycon Project was formed that summer, but only after the Berklee junior had booked several gigs around the Boston area.

“I had some compositions in mind that I wanted to share with a group of musicians,” she says. “I knew that having that deadline of being on stage in a month — having that fire under my butt — was only way I’d really get it to happen.”

At Northampton’s Iron Horse — what she calls “Phase I” of her combo did a show opening for jazz trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, one of the teachers she’d befriended while in New York.

“Talk about a fire under your butt? Starting a band and branding yourself as an artist takes a lot of motivation. It’s easy to put it off. This was a case of ‘fake it ’til you make it,” Cycon said. “Book it, get it on stage and with every gig, you improve your craft and see what’s working and what’s not”

“Phase I” included piano, bass, a Colombian drummer on a Latin drum kit playing Arabic rhythms, as well as a lead oud player, with her on vocals and second oud. For some bigger shows, the band included a guest violin and guest cellist.

Its “We Will Be Light” album, released in April 2015, included mostly Cycon’s original material, and a review in Downbeat magazine called it “an alluring, shimmering dance between world pop and traditional Arabic music. Her [oud] sometimes projects a palpable effervescence, other times an incisive ambiguity.”

Early compositions for the group, which came about while Cycon continued her studies with Shaheen at Berklee, reflected use of traditional song forms, “almost like I was doing my own version of traditional Arab-sounding music, like I was trying to please and live up that audience.”

As her oud playing strengthened, Cycon became more sure of herself. “I felt had less and less to prove, and my confidence on stage and as an artist and my sense of self got stronger. I kind of felt I don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone. I just have to make music that feels like Aliya.”

‘Phase II’

As she prepared to graduate Berklee last year, Cycon was focused on arranging and orchestrating, and was invited to do orchestrations for so many people that she began wondering whether to devote herself to that part of the business.

But after serving as arranger-conductor for Brazilian singer-songwriter and guitarist Milton Nascimento at Berklee’s 2016 commencement, at which he received an honorary doctorate in the 4,000-seat Agganis Arena, she had an epiphany.

“It hit me: Oh my gosh, I love this too much. It want to be on stage again as the Aliya Cycon Project. I have to do this. How can I combine what I’m doing with the band and my passion for music direction, arranging, orchestration? I want a huge band behind me; I want to write all their notes and make a big statement.”

Cycon admits that her inspiration is Yanni, whose music she says bends world genres and has drawn a huge following of listeners who get inspired and uplifted by his large arrangements, often played in giant venues by extremely talented musicians.

“I decided to make this huge band and make it work somehow,” she says.

“Phase II” of the Aliya Cycon Project, which debuted at the Green River Festival in July, will have an album release party next Thursday at Hawks & Reed. The lineup includes electric bass, piano/keyboard, Arabic percussion, a four-piece string section, horns, and — of course — Cycon herself singing and playing oud. It will perform songs from the new album, “Prayer.”

The band will also be performing in promotion of the release on Aug. 31 at the Cambridge YMCA Theater in Boston.

Not standing still

Since the unveiling of ‘Phase II’ of the Aliya Cycon Project, Cycon has been keeping busy in the solo world as well.

In addition to ​performing at Musikfest in Bethlehem, Penn., she was invited to appear as a soloist at the Nobel Business for Peace ceremony at Oslo City Hall in Norway last May after producing a “Carol of the Ouds” (think “Carol of the Bells”) music video last Christmas for the organization Music for Change. Check out that video at: http://bit.ly/2x4oBIN

Cycon will perform at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix as part of a Playing for Change event. She also plans to move to Los Angeles early next year.

All along, says Cycon, “Everything’s been so serendipitous.”

To learn more about Cycon, visit: www.aliyacycon.com

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