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Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2002
Azam Ali: "Portals of Grace"; Natacha Atlas: "Foretold in the Language of Dreams"
The most fascinating musical hybrids these days tend to come from artists who are themselves cultural crossbreeds. They don't plan these new sounds, they arise organically, from within.
Take Azam Ali, born in Iran, raised in India and now living in the States. She started out by learning Persian classical music on the santur (hammered dulcimer) before turning to voice, where she has perfected her own style: flowing, wordless and timeless. Her blend of medieval European and Arab/Indian influences immediately brings to mind Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance), but Azam can stand the comparison, with a voice at least as powerful and graceful, and an equal ability to discover deliciously haunting harmonies.
After three albums of mystical, hypnotic ethno-acoustic trance music as Vas -- Azam's duo with percussion whiz Greg Ellis -- Azam offers up a solo album, "Portals of Grace" (Narada), which consists entirely of "cover versions," showcasing her love of 12th-14th century medieval music. From French troubadour to Latin chant, Sephardic song and Byzantine a cappella, Azam takes some truly ancient music and makes it sound startlingly modern.
All too often medieval music is approached in an austere, academic manner, an anachronism that -- like most closed-off paths of musical exploration -- no longer has that spark of life to it. Not so Azam: Her vocals, redolent with passion, could squeeze tears from a stone. On "A chantar m'er," a lament from the late 12th century, Azam sings of unrequited love for a man other than her husband. Her voice swoops and soars, as smooth as any Gregorian monk, but listen to how she drops all sorts of trills and graceful sighs onto the end of each phrase. Although the direct connection between European medieval and Arabic music may be a subject of dispute, Azam's phrasings bridge the two seamlessly.
Turning to the U.K., we find Natacha Atlas, a singer with Moroccan-Jewish roots who's become the Ruling Diva of groove-wise Arabic pop over the past decade. With four solo albums, regular appearances with Transglobal Underground and collaborations with everyone from Juno Reactor to Talvin Singh, no other singer has worked so tirelessly to break Middle Eastern song into the Western pop idiom.
Up until now, Natacha has focused on the dance floor, with her voice wedded to fat dub bass lines and frantic Arab percussion. With her latest release, "Foretold in the Language of Dreams" (Mantra), she takes a turn into more ambient, experimental territory. Some of the most supple and sensual vocals you'll ever hear flow over shimmering soundscapes like a shot of hot espresso over a scoop of vanilla.
While the arrangements make full use of studio trickery, and the occasional synth texture or sample as well, this is not your typical electronic ambient album: There are spellbinding solos on acoustic guitar, qanun and sitar, and much of the "ambience" comes from instruments like the cello, zither and bells.
This is less New Age relaxation music, though, than a mysterious and mystical trip through sound. Backward effects, disembodied voices, instruments that appear and disappear, street sounds, languorous solos and surreal shifts in soundscape make up the world through which Natacha's vocals lead us as a guide -- somewhere, the ghost of Jimi Hendrix is smiling. It's been almost that long since pure technical musical genius and totally free experimentation have met on equal terms. Radical, yet beautiful in the extreme.