Based in Valencia, Aliya Cycon Project (ACP) dances between styles of Global Fusion music with strong influences from Andalusia, the Middle East and the Balkans. Talented leader Aliya Cycon was the first female oud player to graduate from the renowned Berklee College of Music in 2016. Although she is American, Aliya sings in Spanish, Arabic, English and Ladino, and showcases her impressive oud playing in her compositions. Aliya’s music is inspired by artists such as Yanni, Enya, Gipsy Kings, Paco de Lucia and even Boban Markovic. She is accompanied by the talented Valencian flamenco guitarist Lluis Castany, the Balkan trumpet virtuoso Timotej Kotnik from Slovenia and a multicultural rhythm section with Arabic and Latin percussion. The group has been described by the renowned DownBeat Magazine as “a seductive and brilliant dance between world-pop and traditional music”. ACP’s mission is to convey the love of bringing cultures together through the uplifting and inspirational power of music.
EXCLUSIVE ’24/7 VALENCIA’ INTERVIEW WITH ALIYA CYCON
24/7 VALENCIA: Please tell us something your background, upbringing and musical education…
ALIYA CYCON: I was raised in the US by two parents who always had a huge passion for travel and adventure and spirituality, which resulted in having an eclectic musical soundtrack in the house at all times. Latin music, Portuguese Fado, Arabic pop, West African music, and even New Age music were my constant companions. Then I fell in love with the piano, making up my own instrumental compositions since I can remember. I knew from a young age that becoming a musician was in my future…though I certainly didn’t expect to be an Oud player living & touring in the Middle East and living in Europe.
What got you interested in Arabic music? How does it differ from Western music?
Growing up with the exposure to such eclectic music meant that my ears had been exposed to the sound of the Oud and of Arabic music before I knew what to call it. Then, when I was 18, my dad invited me to go on a father-daughter trip with him to Palestine, and it was there that my passion for Arabic music was born. It differs immensely from Western music, in that it uses musical notes (“microtones”) that are not found in Western scales, and it focuses heavily on melody rather than on chords or harmonies. There’s so much more to say about this! But one last thing I’ll point out is that this music grabbed me on a very deep level right away–there’s something to me that just feels more expressive and more soulful than any other music genre I’ve heard. Hearing it felt like coming home. I don’t know why, it just did. And still does.
Has travelling been an influence on your music?
Yes. Travelling to Palestine is what birthed this musical path I’ve now been on for 11 years. Traveling to a variety of other Arabic-speaking countries introduced me to so many people and experiences that inspired my music, helping it improve and mature. And moving here to Spain (initially to do the Berklee Master’s program but then remaining here permanently) has helped me find my own voice and not feel confined to use only Arabic music as my source of inspiration. As someone who loves learning new languages, traveling has exposed me to new ways I can communicate in my singing and songwriting as well.
Please explain the concept of ‘Aliya Cycon Project’…
ACP is my band, my safe place of musical experimentation and growth, my little universe of world-peace, and it’s basically my baby. Since I first started it in 2014, it’s always been a fluid group of musicians who I gather around me to bring my music to life. I always try to include as many nationalities as I can in ACP, so that the interpretation of my songs takes on pieces of the other players’ cultures. I’ve brought the same repertoire of my original music to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Norway, Senegal and Tunisia, always making a point to bring the local musicians of that country into my band. It’s been such a privilege to hear so many cultures express my message in their unique ways.
Could you tell us about your recordings, including ‘Prayer’ and ‘Aliya and the New Andalus’?
ACP’s first studio album was a 6-track record called “We Will Be Light.” This was the birth of ACP, and represents a time where I was still finding my identity on the Oud, and as a composer of what I coined “Arabic-inspired music.” The next album was “Prayer” which marked a powerful growth spurt I had in orchestration and in Oud improvement. I centred myself amidst a 12-piece mini-orchestra, and used my writing skills to write music for the ensemble that would highlight my newly-developed Oud technique, and create an almost cinematic, immersive sound experience. It was an incredible project, and it’s the work I’m probably the most proud of. But then I realized that having a 12-piece group, no matter how epic that was, presented real logistical issues for trying to do concerts as frequently as I wanted to. Plus, the cinematic style of that album reflected only one side of my personality, and I felt compelled to make a new record that would be a little more upbeat and fun. When I came to Valencia, I recorded my latest EP “Aliya & The New Andalus,” which served as a 4-track portrait of my new life in Spain, bringing in a heavy influence of modern Flamenco, and served as pieces that I could easily play solo or on the road. In my current concerts, I play pieces from all three of my records.
Tell us about the magic of the Oud as a musical instrument….
The Oud is an extremely old instrument, and I cannot tell you how many times people who hear it for the first time will say exactly that. “Wow, it has such an ancient tone!” Even in the first few notes of an Oud performance, the listener is transported out of the sonic environment of twenty-first century Europe, and brought somewhere at once unfamiliar and familiar. I can’t make this up. It happened to me too, the first time I saw an Oud played live. Then in more modern settings, there’s another fascinating aspect of the instrument. It’s extremely percussive! There’s just something about the way the plectrum hits the strings, the wooden rounded body, its tenor-range that lends itself to a very satisfying textured sound. I’ve spent 11 years honing my articulation and tone, so that the best of all the resonances and textures of the Oud come out in my playing.
How do you find Valencia as a place to live?
It’s a very inspiring and happy place. It always feels like there’s a world of possibilities waiting outside my door, and I’ve been blessed to find an amazing community of friends and musicians. To be fair, a large portion of my living here was spent in a pandemic, so I only now am beginning to feel like I’m really going deep into the life here. That’s why this concert, as well as others, is so exciting–because they mark my emergence into the Valencia universe! And I’m here to stay.
Are you planning a new album?
I am! And this is the first time I’m admitting it publicly, which feels thrilling. I will be singing more in English on this record, and experimenting with ways in which the beautiful sound and timbre of the traditional Oud can be preserved while also using it to support the storytelling of the songs. I have a clear concept and message I’m working on for the album, but for now you’ll have to stay tuned for more info. I’m hoping to release it by next year… and I’m on the hunt for a great world music label to help me distribute it.
Could you tell us about your upcoming show at ‘La Batisfera’ on February 17th as part of the ‘Muv!’ Music Circuit of Valencia…
I’ll be playing Oud and singing my original pieces, with a fantastic band: My husband, the Slovenian trumpet virtuoso Timotej Kotnik, will accompany me, as well as Song Ah Chae from South Korea on synth, and Joshua Wheatley from the UK on drums. Then I’ll have two special guest appearances: Valenciana Isabel Latorre Saez (of Eixa band) on accordion, and Colombiana singer-songwriter Lili del Sol.
Please tell us something about the other musicians you are working with, in live concerts and in the studio.
All I can say is that I’ve been very, very lucky to get to hear my songs interpreted by so many different voices, whether jazz musicians from Oslo, classically trained musicians from Boston, Flamenco singers and percussionists and guitarists from Spain, other Oud players from the Middle East, North African singers, and everything in between! As I plan my upcoming album and tours, I am excited to bring back some familiar characters from past projects as well as bring in some new voices as well.
Interview by Will McCarthy
Article copyright ‘24/7 Valencia’
Photo ‘Aliya Cycon’ copyright John “Fletch” Fletcher
More info: https://www.aliyacycon.com/