Azam Ali’s From Night to the Edge of Day explores traditional lullabies of Iranian, Turkish, Lebanese, and Kurdish origin. And as Azam Ali’s decidedly “grown-up” treatment of them testifies, lullabies are not really just for children. They attempt to cope with difficult lives and the harshness and sorrow of the world, with loss, exile, and pain.
In a career which spans over a decade and includes eight collaborative albums and one solo project, Azam Ali has confirmed her place as one of the most prolific, versatile, and gifted singers on the world music stage today. Her dedication to defying cultural specificity in music, and her unwillingness to settle into one form of musical expression have earned her the respect of both her peers and critics worldwide. When one looks at her entire body of work, it is hard to deny Azam her rightful place among the best singers and composers in music today.[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/10930328″]
Azam is internationally recognized for her work with Vas, the critically acclaimed, best selling, world music duo she co-founded in 1996 with percussionist Greg Ellis. From 1997- 2004 Vas released four albums on the Narada label. Their music, which they described as “alternative world,” focused mainly on the ancient relationship between the drum and voice. Their distinct cinematic sound blended influences of Indian, Persian, Western and other musical styles into a unique configuration that transcended categorization and cultural specificity. Though in their early days Vas drew many comparisons to Dead Can Dance, they patiently surpassed that comparison with each album they released, earning them their place in the musical hierarchy of bands whose innovation set a standard to which others to aspire.
In 2002 Azam released her first self produced highly successful solo album, Portals of Grace, which featured her singing renditions of ancient Western European medieval songs. Billboard described this album by saying, “It’s unlikely that this year will bring a more spellbinding vocal album than Portals of Grace.” Azam’s exceptional voice and emotive performances on this album earned her much critical acclaim and once and for all solidified her place as a highly respected singer in the World music scene.
Azam Ali, who currently resides in Los Angeles, was born in Tehran, Iran and grew up in India from the age of four in the small town of Panchgani, a beautiful hill station in the state of Maharashtra. There she attended an international co-educational boarding school for eleven years, all the while absorbing India’s rich music and culture throughout her formative years. The course Azam would eventually choose in her life would be very much influenced by her fortuitous upbringing in a school that emphasized the importance of the arts and spirituality, and aimed through moral and academic excellence, to produce promoters of social transformation imbued with the spirit of service to humanity. It is this objective that would take shape in Azam’s music in the coming years.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 changed the course of Azam’s life as it did for many other Iranians. Unwilling to bring her daughter back to a country filled with uncertainty, her mother decided to give up her home, and together they moved to America in 1985 when Azam was just a teenager.
Shortly after moving to the United States, Azam fell in love with the Persian santour (hammered dulcimer) and it became clear to Azam that she wanted to pursue a career in music. Though she had an innate gift for singing since she was a child and sang often at home and school functions, Azam had no particular interest in becoming a vocalist. She had her heart set on becoming an instrumentalist and so began studying the santour under the guidance of Persian master Manoocher Sadeghi, During the eight years of her extensive studies with Ustad Sadeghi in which she became an accomplished hammered dulcimer player, Azam began to realize that she was unable to express the full range of emotions she experienced through her instrument. It was during one of these lessons that her teacher heard her sing for the first time. Completely taken, he told her that her voice had a rare emotional quality about it which should be cultivated and nurtured. It was through his encouragement that Azam began to explore her voice as the vehicle through which she would finally be able to fully express herself, a voice which Billboard magazine would later describe as, “a glorious unforgettable instrument.”
While pursuing formal training in various vocal traditions like Western classical, Indian, Persian, and Eastern European, Azam’s true passion has been to explore the immense potential of the human voice, specifically its capability to transcend language, cultural, and spiritual barriers when expressing pure emotion. When asked about her approach to singing Azam explains, “What intrigues me most about the human voice is its ability to make all things transparent through its power of transformation. The voice is not just a conduit for words. For me it is like an abstract dream in which everything makes perfect sense.”
“I am pertinacious in my need to expand. By nature, I am not one who can physically remain in one place for too long. I imagine that is the case because I have been transplanted enough times in my life that I am well aware of the influence the external environment has on the inner one, and how that can affect perception. So naturally, my music is going to reflect this inability to remain static, and this inability to identify myself with just one specific culture. I think of all the different music that I have done and will continue to do almost as photographs of my evolution, and just like photographs, in some I may look great and in some I may not. What matters to me is that I risk, I, trust, I strive, and let things unfold as they may.”
A New Life
The first night of her son’s life, singer Ali sat awake, stunned, until dawn. She began to sing. “I was in shock, staring at this little person,” Ali recalls. “I realized singing was the best way to communicate with him, without language. There’s something profound about singing to a child, which is why women have done it for thousands of years.”
This profound something is rarely about mere soothing. Traditional lullabies, with their latent darkness and emotional complexity, are not really for children, as Ali’s decidedly “grown-up” treatment of them testifies. They attempt to cope with difficult lives and the harshness and sorrow of the world, with loss, exile, and pain.
They scintillate under the influence of Ali’s unique vocal abilities and aesthetic, honed on three solo albums and during a career that has spanned all genres. Ali has collaborated with everyone from Mickey Hart to System of a Down, with musicians from Nine Inch Nails and King Crimson. She has appeared in film scores including 2007 box office smash, 300. She has taken global sounds in new directions as part of Niyaz, with help from producer Carmen Rizzo (Seal, Coldplay).
And as Ali sang to her son, cradlesongs became urgent pleas for an end to politically induced suffering in her native region. Lullabies flourish where the highly personal intersects the intensely political, flowing out in what Ali feels are “invisible waves” of quiet communication between adult and child. Ali kept singing the melody of that first night with her son, slowly crafting it into “Tenderness,” a bank of lush, warbling sound that rises from a dreamy drone and evokes love, loss, and longing.
Lullabies began coming to Ali out of the blue. Friends returning from Iran brought her a collection of traditional lyrics, including texts in Farsi dialects that became tracks like “Mehman (The Guest).” Other friends from across the Middle East sang her classic favorites (the Turkish favorite “Dandini”) and obscure gems (the rarely-heard traditional Turkish song, “Neni Desem”). Her close friend, Palestinian oud player Naser Musa, spontaneously wrote a stirring lullaby for Ali’s son, after speaking with Ali about her project (“Faith”).
Rich with strings, unexpected bursts of Middle Eastern percussion, and contributions from virtuosic players like Musa, Ali’s songs nestle dreamy layers of vocals in contemplative soundscapes that evoke both the softness and sadness of night. Yet this emotional and sonic world has a drive that goes beyond the pulsing drums of tracks like “Dandidi.” Ali has thoughtfully chosen lullabies from minority communities across the Middle East, such as Iraqi Kurds (“Lai Lai”) and the Azeris of Iran (“Shirin”), in a plea for peace and an end to conflict. “You go to the Middle East, and the West is blamed for everything. However, many of our problems stem from our own way of thinking, from cultural divisions, interethnic conflict,” Ali explains. “No matter what culture you are, we are all the same at the core. Lullabies communicate this. And that perspective alone can change a lot of things.”
“To do this project, I worked with Kurds, Azeris, a Palestinian Christian, Iranians from all over,” recounts Ali. “You could write a book about each one of them, about their difficulties in life and their diaspora. It was a profound experience for me as person.” Despite oppression, war, and exile, Ali heard “hope and the belief that good will always come out in the end” in the traditional songs and in the musical contributions of her friends.
It is this ray of light that gives Ali’s voice and arrangements their edge and elegance. “From childhood, we are fed all these ideologies that end up shaping the way we view the world,” she says. “If our parents and society could feed us more enlightened ideology from childhood, it would have such an effect on how we grow up and see people.”