I love Middle Eastern music. Niyaz is a band I listen to frequently–I have a whole Pandora channel named after them. Their music is a blend of Turkish, Persian, and Indian sounds. This music is familiar to me since I started bellydancing many years ago in college, but it’s also exotic because I don’t come from a Middle Eastern background. The exotic quality of the music helps me get out of a modern American headspace when I need to create something set in a very different culture, such as the Amaki or Fortunata.
I also love the fact that Azam Ali (the extremely talented vocalist of Niyaz) is not singing in English. I love English-language lyrics, but they distract me terribly. I find it much easier to write when listening to either instrumental music or non-English lyrics. I can enjoy the sound of the human voice, which I find incredibly beautiful, without being distracted by words.
Middle Eastern music employs a different scale than Western music. They use not just the whole steps and half steps Westerners use, but also quarter steps or quarter tones. This is part of what gives the music a sliding, sinuous quality. They also use time signatures that are mostly unfamiliar in the modern West, such as 6/8 and 7/8 (most modern Western music is 4/4 or occasionally 3/4, as in the waltz).
If you don’t know what I mean by time signatures, think of counting a 4/4 rhythm as “ONE, two, three, four/ONE, two, three, four,” and a 3/4 as “ONE, two, three/ONE, two, three.”