For decades now, Americans have received heapings of negative press about Iran, centered mainly on the stances of the country’s politicians. Lost in these headlines is the truth of the country’s extensive cultural history, the strength of its people, and the recurring vibrancy of its music and arts scene. As Marjane Satrapi details in her graphic memoirs, Persepolis 1 & 2 and Chicken with Plums, the Islamic Revolution changed the laws governing the country’s citizenry and limited their creative expression, but it could not whitewash the Persian past nor entirely remove the influence of mythology, mysticism, and artistry on the people. Still, it’s nearly impossible for Americans to learn of these artistic endeavors. Unless, that is, they occur outside of Iran.
This is where Azam Ali, a Tehran-born, India- and Los Angeles-raised musician, steps in. One of today’s top artists outside of Iran to embrace her Persian heritage through music, Ali studied the santour and the hammered dulcimer before moving on to vocals. As part of the band Niyaz, she released an album mixing Persian and Urdu Sufi poetry with instrumentals.
Her musical influences aren’t limited by her Persian heritage, however. Portals of Grace, her first solo album, retold ancient Western European medieval songs. And she’s collaborated with musicians as diverse as The Crystal Method, Serj Tankian of System of a Down, and Chris Vrenna formerly of Nine Inch Nails. Ali’s voice likewise graces many film and television soundtracks, from Alias and the controversial ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11, to Dawn of the Dead, and Matrix Revolutions. Perhaps it’s this wide outreach that makes Ali’s work sound so familiar, her voice comforting in spite of its haunted and haunting qualities.
And that’s also likely why her work as a musician has consistently appeared at the top of the world music charts. Elysium for the Brave, Azam’s second solo album, especially drew acclaim for weaving world sounds with atmospheric rock, electronic, and poetic lyricism. Elysium Remixes, available from Six Degrees as a two-part EP digital download (separated into tracks 1-5 and 6-10 and not available individually), picks up on the album’s popularity and remakes the hits from this second album for a different audience. Less an Ali project than an attempt to bring Elysium for the Brave to the dance floor, the remixes by accomplished DJs like Bombay Dub Orchestra and ZAMAN 8 focus extensively on putting an electronic soundtrack to samples of Ali’s voice.
Overall, as dance tracks, the project proves successful. “Spring Arrives” and “I am a Stranger in this World” both pull from Ali’s base track to produce a moody, spell-binding mix of lyrics and electronic beats. As is too often the case with remix albums, however, the noteworthy attributes of the original songs become lost beneath the bass and turntable tricks, and this proves a dilemma for the Elysium Remixes. Because despite the strengths of the individual remixes, the album is marketed as an Azam Ali and her musical stylings — including traditional instrumentation — feel noticeably absent, replaced by keyboards and false build-ups. Ardent fans of Ali hoping for a new multicultural foray into musical traditions may ultimately come away from the album disappointed.
Likewise, those interested in hearing something new after her much-criticized appearance on the 300 soundtrack may be frustrated by these digital download packages. Both EP releases contain two remixes of “Endless Reverie” (yes, that’s right — four of ten songs are comprised of the same base), a song that in spite of its inherent goodness sounds more than a bit repetitious after 24 minutes of play. And this Azam Ali gem stands out more in its original version than on any of these, albeit accomplished, remixes. Still, for DJs interested in blending electronic with world sounds and dance floor fans of Thievery Corporation, the album is worth listening to, if only to hear what other electronic musicians can do with the haunting voice of Ali.