Azam Ali Brings Her Haunting Middle Eastern Lullabies to NYC on 11/22
Originally from Iran, singer Azam Ali is one of those extraordinarily eclectic musicians who’s equally at home with music from her native country as well as from Kurdistan, or Egypt, or Turkey, or probably anywhere else on the globe. Her most recent album From Night to the Edge of Day came out earlier this year; she’s at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 365 5th Ave. on 11/22 at 7 PM and if Middle Eastern music is your thing, it’s a concert you shouldn’t miss. On the album, Ali plays santour and percussion; Loga Ramin Torkian, who put out the extraordinary Mehraab album with singer Khosro Ansari earlier this year, plays his usual collection of stringed instruments including kamman, lafta, guitar, viola da gamba and saz, and contributes his signature, swirling, lushly echoing production. The duo’s comfortable familiarity working together here makes sense, considering that that they’ve been the nexus of pioneering pan-levantine band Niyaz since the 90s. Multi-percussionist Omer Avci and frame drummer Ziya Tabassian propel the band with a stately, understatedly booming intensity, with Naser Musa on oud, Kiya Tabassian on setar, Ulas Ozdemir contributing electric saz on a couple of tunes along with a full string section and light, ambient electronic touches by Carmen Rizzo.
Ali has a full, round, wounded voice and uses it judiciously and effortlessly for maximum impact: she doesn’t overemote. The songs themselves are Iranian, Turkish, Lebanese, and Kurdish lullabies (along with a stunning original by Musa that could pass for a Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic). But these aren’t sleepy, happy songs: they seem to be meant to provide a heads-up about the difficulties that will arise in a future just over the horizon. The first track is like a symphony composed of layers of vocals, dark and European-flavored, with echoes of the central theme from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The band follows that with an elegant, echoey, darkly hypnotic Iranian melody; Georges Iamman’s tersely wary Arabic violin opens the next song with an improvised intro before the drums come rolling in, bringing the rest of the orchestra along on a dreamy, otherworldly levantine vamp, Ali’s vocals gentle but resolute overhead.
One of the most gripping tracks here, Neni Desem, sets the stringed instruments rustling and clanking against a sepulchral drone as Ali also improvises her way in. It’s a tone poem with layers of vocals rising and falling, howling and pleading – and creepy. The centerpiece is Faith, a duet with Musa that sounds like classic Abdel Wahab with south Indian flourishes, oud and violin playing artfully off Ali’s vocals as she finally goes up the scale with some subtle Bollywood-style melismas. The fifth track, Shrin, also blends Indian and levantine influences, in this case from Azerbaijan. There’s also the slow Persian gothic Mehman (The Guest), strings quietly aching against the brooding, inscrutable vocals; a low, gentle, suspenseful vocal taqsim in over lush oscillating drone, which is actually the closest thing to a traditional western lullaby here; a Kurdish waltz with ethereal harmonies that evoke Bulgarian folk music; and a lushly ambient reprise of Faith at the end. Alongside Torkian’s album with Ansari, this is one of the year’s most original and captivating releases.
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