Aflame with Song and Scent

From pounding headaches and busted foot bones, good things are born. Really. Ask Aziza Poggi.

If pain is the mark of birthing art forms, Poggi has paid her dues. Headaches from the alcohol fumes in most perfumes led her to creating her own fragrances, and foot surgery from too many hours on too high heels put her in a wheelchair to brood and heal. And brooding, or getting serious, as Poggi puts it, led her to voice lessons at Grand Rapids Community College.

It was a matter of finesse, because Poggi is more at home on stage than off, and she has been on stage for a long time and belting out songs even longer.

"I was a shy child, so my mother put me into acting classes," she says, and it worked. Poggi worked acting gigs from the age of 14 until about four years ago. Her ethnic background being one of Lebanese, Egyptian, and Italian roots, her dark and sultry Middle Eastern looks kept her busy enough on screen, doing local commercials and taking parts in independent films. "But when I spent a 10-hour day working on an Alltel commercial and my part got cut, that was it, not my calling," Poggie says. "I walked away and never looked back."

On stage, she's anything but shy. Poggi moves with confidence across the boards, and her classically trained mezzo soprano voice reverberates through the audience with a sound like none other. She is the vocalist and the composer and lyricist for Aria Flame, a neoclassical rock group founded in 2011 also featuring Erik Sales on drums; Dan Cruzan on guitar; Greg Cloon on bass, producer;  Johnathon Townsend on vocals and keyboards; Paul Stein, guitar composer and recording artist.

"When I was a little girl, my mom called me Mighty Mouth," Poggi smiles. "I used to belt out songs at the top of my lungs. I sang in the basement with a band of my imaginary friends."

This band is not imaginary. They have already left their mark, creating a music video, now marketing a first CD -- but that's not where their history begins.

"I was dating a guy that was in a band -- that was around 2000 -- and I was inspired by the female lead in his band," she says.

Erato was Poggi's first band, but it was her second band, Dendura, that made a name for Aziza Poggi. Dendura, a rock band named for a temple in Egypt, born in 2004 and playing its last number in 2010, had a progressive metal sound. Their first CD, New Life, was produced by Roberts and Neil Kernon, a Grammy winner for producing 40 Platinum and Gold records. The CD was released in 2007 and became "editor's pick" on CD Baby, listed on top 10 best sellers in world music on Magnatune, and was played on radio stations in 50 countries. Dendura has performed with Epica, Scar Symmetry, Doro Pesch, Edguy, Light This City, Unexpect, The Agonist, Blacklist Union, Egypt Central, and Lennex. The band built a following in Grand Rapids, but also worldwide.

From Dendura stepped Aria Flame in 2012, formed by Poggi and percussionist Erik Sales, also a Dendura band member.
"We are editing our music video 'Divine World' now," Poggi says. "We spent about $200 on it, but it looks like a $3,000 video. I wrote the script for it while I was still in the wheelchair -- about this world between Heaven and Hell, where the bigger you lives."

Poggi has found her balance of classical training and rock by observing traditional rules, but then creating her own. Her influences range from Nevermore, Revamp, and Epica, to classical artists Renee Fleming, Maria Callas and Anna Netrebko.

"I'm addicted to voice lessons," she says. "I've been taking lessons non-stop since 2001. What I listen to varies. I listen to rock while I am cleaning the house, but when I am making perfumes, I listen to classical."

Moving from the candlelit room in the basement of her house where band instruments await rehearsal, Poggi enters a smaller room in the corner of the basement. Here, her perfumes, Aziza's Fragrances, are born, and to hear her talk about them, it seems the conversation might still be about music.

"When you smell a fragrance, you smell the top note first. The citrus, or the honey or brown sugar. Then the middle notes, the florals. Finally, the base notes -- the woodsy scents, sandalwood, amber, patchouli. When you create a fragrance, you always start with the base note. Yes, when I write music, I start with the base notes, too," she muses.

Poggi moves her fingertips in a bowl of coffee beans she keeps on the fragrance table. The beans clear the sinuses of all other scents so that a new fragrance can be fully appreciated. The table is covered with little bottles of perfumes, roll-ons, scented soy candles, and wooden roses that emanate fragrance across the room.

"I've always been a perfume junkie," she says. "My favorites were Christian Dior, Chanel 5. But I got bad headaches and allergies from the alcohol in the perfumes, and I didn't want to pay the high prices, so I started making my own about three years ago. It's like cooking. I buy the oils, [then] distill and blend them until I have something I like."

Poggi sells her fragrances at Aria Flame performances, setting them out right next to the CDs, and she also sells them at various bazaars and festivals, or places them in consignment shops such as Sage and Roses in Rockford. She makes custom fragrances for those with a more adventurous nose, and for Valentine's Day, as for most special occasions, she offers specials.

"The Gypsy Spice Collection is one of my favorites," she says, placing the wrapped basket up front. "Candle and roll-on perfume for $35, and any purchase over $25 gets a scented wood rose free. You can spray the rose with one of the scented oils every two days to refresh the scent -- it's that easy."

Three heart-shaped soy candles, also scented, sell for $5 for Valentine's Day. The fragrances are based in jojoba oil rather than alcohol, "so that they can hold their note longer," Poggi says.

"Nothing is watered down or diluted. No selling out."

She's talking about her fragrances. No, she's talking about her music now. Aziza Poggi is talking about herself, no longer too shy to stand up front and center, doing things her way. 

Zinta Aistars is a freelance writer from Hopkins and editor of the literary ezine The Smoking Poet.

Photographs by Adam Bird