Azam Ali eagerly embraces a one-world vision, the notion that the blending of…
- Posted on Apr 5th 2011 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
The song 'Noor (The Light in My Eyes),' which opens Azam Ali's new album 'From Night to the Edge of Day' (due out April 12 by Six Degrees Records) certainly doesn't sound like kids' stuff. Leading off a collection drawn largely from various cultures in Ali's native Iran and neighboring countries, the song's dark, modal tones and haunting/haunted atmosphere not exactly, well, lulling.
"Lullabies are really for the mother, for your comfort to yourself," Ali, who last year moved to Montreal after living many years in Los Angeles, tells Spinner. "You suddenly have this little person you are responsible for and their entire experience of the world will go through you."
She isn't speaking theoretically. She needed that comfort when she gave birth to her son, Iman, nearly three and a half years ago.
"I remember the night he was born," she says. "I was so petrified. 'How am I going to be able to protect him from the reality of the world?'"
It was a further troubling time, for all the joy of the new arrival, due to the absence of family and community. Living in Los Angeles at the time with her husband and musical partner, Loga Ramin Torkian, the birth underscored a real sense of removal and isolation from the people and traditions of her own childhood and development.
"It was sad for me when he was born in a hospital and it was Loga and me and him and none of our family was there," she says. "My mother had passed on, but strange to have a child come into the world and no family around. I realized it wasn't just me, but every immigrant. And this is my son and he won't know the country I was born in, his father was born in, at least until he's an adult and can really explore."
So she did what comes naturally: She sang.
"I was not even thinking of making a record at that point," she says. "I just started gathering lullabies and wanted to write some for him. The best thing I could do as a mother was just sing to him. That's what I do."
But as anyone who's followed her career with various solo projects and in the group Niyaz with Torkjan and Los Angeles producer-composer-electronicist Carmen Rizzo well knows, she does much more. With an acute, dedicated cultural consciousness, Ali always brings a scope at once personal and sweeping to her music. Motherhood led her to think back on her childhood and her identity, which led her to reflect on the national and ethnic divisions that have scarred the Middle East.
"It evolved from this world of me and my husband and my son into something so much larger," she says. "I wanted to do a project that is really about this issue. To be an artist, for me, it has always mattered that anything I do has a larger purpose. You have the power to draw attention to larger things."
Just as she says that, her attention is drawn to a smaller thing, though the largest in her life. Her son has approached to make what sounds like a sad parting as his father is about to cart him off to preschool.
"It's a challenging age now," Ali says, sighing. "He just started preschool. He goes once a week and he's always been here with me. It's really hard for him and harder for me."
That underscores the challenge of striking that balance in this album, creating something that is both hers and the world's, which suits her smaller and larger focuses. But serendipity provided a way.
"Two friends went to Iran when I started this and when they came back the said they brought a gift," she says. "I hadn't said I was doing this project, but it was a book that had lyrics to every single lullaby written not just in Iran, but from the minority groups -- the Tajiks, the Afghans, every single dialect. It was amazing. I felt, 'My God, here I am thinking of doing this and they brought this book back -- a sign.'"
Charged up, she set about putting melodies to the words, a true labor of love -- including one, for the wordless song 'Tenderness' that she says was the first tune she sang to Iman in the hospital. She pulls the book out and turns to the page on which she discovered 'Noor.'
"Like all the lullabies, they're very simple -- no deep or elaborate lyrics," she says. "The entire book is so beautiful in terms of the lyrics. My main reason in choosing this song is I really wanted to focus on minority regions. This is in Tajik Farsi. And I had this melody in mind and the words fit very well within that. It's a very simple song, just sleep."
The song's entire lyrics, translated to English in the CD booklet, are contained in just seven short lines, imploring a child to slumber, concluding, "Sleep, sleep love of your mother/For everyone is asleep/Even the birds are asleep/Light of my eyes, O Allah." That theme carries through many of the songs here, though with some nuances that poke into some of the folds of a mother's psyche.
"The song 'Mehman' is similar, if you want something more in depth," she says. "The lyrics just killed me when I read them. I called it 'Mehman,' which means "the guest." My relationship with my son, I feel no sense of possession. He is his own being. I really feel this little guest has come into my live and will live with me and at some point will leave. The lyrics are so beautiful."
Not all the songs came from the book. One came from a closer, more intimate source.
"One that is really meaningful to me is 'Faith,'" she says, noting that the title is the translation of her son's name, Iman – which was the title of song she wrote for the last Niyaz album.
"My friend Naser Musa is an amazing oud player, a Christian Palestinian," she says. "I've known him for over a decade and we've worked together. We are great, great friends and I am close with his family. When I told him I wanted to do this project he said he'd always wanted to do lullabies. He has two daughters. And when Iman was born, he came over and one day he said, 'I wrote a lullaby for Iman and want to send it to you. The lyrics were so beautiful. This was one of the special ones for this album. I could not do an album without this, and not because he wrote it for Iman. In Niyaz, we have musicians from all over and I reflect that I never would have shared the stage with these people were it not for the political situations in our countries. This is how something negative can be transformed."
The other musicians extend the concept. In addition to Torkian (playing stringed instruments ranging from saz to viola de gamba) and Rizzo (credited for "drones"), she tapped a community of musicians reflecting the cultural ties of the music. San Francisco-based violinist Georges Lamman is also a Palestinian who grew up in Lebanon. Percussionist Omer Avci and saz player Ulas Ozdemir are both Kurds who live in Istanbul (the song 'Lai Lai' on the album is of Kurdish origin). And Montreal brothers Kiya and Ziya Tabassian -- who front the medieval/Mediterranean ensemble Constantinople -- are featured on the songs 'Shirin' (rooted in Azerbaijan) and 'Neni Desem' (from Turkey). Also on several songs is the Quatuor Bozzini, a Montreal string quartet, with orchestrations by Torkian -- a talent that was employed here to the surprise and delight of his wife.
But Musa's role seems illustrative of and illuminating for the album.
"Here's a man forced out of Palestine with his family in 1968. He grew up in a refugee camp in Jordan, then came to America and here he is. Not a trace of bitterness in him. I joke and say to him that if anyone could convert me to Christianity it would be him. Naser is the embodiment of why religion was created, make us better as a society and people. He has nothing but hope. If he can live the life he lived, which eclipses anything I and others I know have experience -- if he can write something so lovely and full of hope, that is what is about."
It's the perfect comfort for a new mother. Though on the other hand, she offers a sad note.
"I really wanted to do an Afghan melody and couldn't find one," she says. "I asked many friends and they'd say, 'My grandmother used to sing one.' But they couldn't remember it. I went to stores and couldn't find anything. Something has been lost. How could I do an album for that region and not include Afghanistan? I'm very sensitive about it. In so many ways no one has had it worse than the Afghans. That I couldn't find one is very sad to me."