[17 August 2011]
In her prolific career as a solo artist as well as vocalist for Niyaz and Vas, Azam Ali’s distinctive voice has proved consistently striking. Sinuous and flexible, that voice manages to convey both depths of longing as well as coy playfulness, always with a powerful, elegaic beauty. Her 2009 release with Niyaz, Nine Heavens, showcased her vocals against a backdrop of high-energy traditional tunes augmented with Western beats and Eastern instrumentation. Her new album From Night to the Edge of Day is a more sedate affair. Downtempo tracks predominate, as you might expect from an album of lullabies.
Sorry—did I say lullabies? Well, yes. Ali has become a mother in these past few years, and this record draws together lullabies from her native Iran as well as Turkey, Lebanon and the Kurdish world. As you might expect, many of the tracks here are soothing, but don’t confuse “lullaby” with “nursery rhyme”. These songs are anything but simple-minded. Given that none of them are sung in English, even the lyrics lose a good deal of their child-oriented specificity for many Western listeners.
That said, this is hardly a dance record. While beat-heavy tracks do crop up from time to time, like the infectious “Nami Nami”, the bulk of the songs rely heavily on Ali’s querulous, soaring voice rising over a soupy bed of instrumentation. What instrumentation it is—you have to love a record whose contributions include santour, oud, lafta, riqq, dor dayereh, acoustic and electric saz, and drones.
All this activity ensures that the album retains a musical complexion fully as engaging as Ali’s swooping vocals. Opener “Noor (The Light in My Eyes)” builds from a slow-burn start to a full-throated wail, while “Dandini” and “Mehman (The Guest)” maintain the intensity through deft touches of multifaceted percussion. With many of these songs clocking in at the five-to-six-minute range, the musicians have time to let things build to a stormy climax or drift away to an ethereal whisper.
Nowhere is this more evident than on “Neni Desem”, a song that kicks of with a dreamy stew of ghazal-like vocal stylings and oud flourishes before ramping up the intensity with Ali’s plaintive vocals. The expected fireworks never quite ignite, as the layers of sound peel away one by one into the fadeout, but the song is a standout nonetheless.
Other highlights include “Faith”, the fastest number here, and the aforementioned “Nami Nami”, which marries an Eastern violin medoly and a propulsive beat into a surprising, hip-shaking union. The record’s one original composition, “Tenderness”, is also the only one without lyrics. Growing from a wordless tune she invented during the first night of her son’s life, the composition was expanded by Ali until it grew into the longest song on the record. It is, as one would expect, lovely.
This is a strong record which should appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in Middle Eastern or “world” music. Recorded in Canada, the production is excellent, with sound that manages to remain simultanouesly layered and clear. Melodies and instrumentation recall the East, even as the lyrical themes remain universal and timeless. Don’t let the fact that these are “lullabies” put you off. The last thing this record will do is put you to sleep.