REVIEW: Azam Ali - "Portals of Grace"

By Mike Ventarola

Chain Border

Portals of GraceAzam Ali has been known to the underground for her contributions with the alternative world ensemble Vas. Here, Ali is also joined on her solo premiere with fellow Vas band mate Greg Ellis, as well as a multifaceted group of talented artists who help to bring music from the 12th to 14th centuries to modern fruition.

Ali sought to render reinterpretations of medieval music with Arabic influences in order to broaden its appeal, particularly to those who might not otherwise hear the heavenly sounds of our ancient past. Her influences span the entire range of her life and stretch even further back into the annals of antiquity. The aim was to craft music that at once becomes an amalgamation between the sacred and mystical, as well as exotic and atmospheric renderings of love, longing and even sorrowful emotions.

Lasse Pour Quoi is a beautiful yet mournful piece whose author is now obscured through the sands of time. This track delightfully embellishes the mood and feeling of a woman who sings of her regret for refusing the one whom she loves. La Serena is a song from the Sephardim (Spanish Jews) about a woman who sings a melancholic tune to the sailors as they pass by her window in a tower by the sea. In the liner notes, Ali points out the history of peaceful coexistence between the Muslim and Jews until the Catholic re-conquest and Inquisition in the 14th century that brought their days of peace to a horrid end. Breton Medly is an instrumental piece that combines the melodies of three traditional folk dances from Brittany. One can hear the modern day elements of "jungle" rhythm happily coexisting with Celtic, Arabic and medieval influences.

O Felix is attributed to Abbess Hildegard Von Bingen. As a nun, Von Bingen dedicated her life to creativity and devotion, leaving the world with a large legacy of divinely inspired music. Here, Ali seems to be imbibing the entire essence of Von Bingen to cross the chasm of time to touch fingertip to fingertip to deliver this track that is no less inspired upon its delivery 9 centuries later. Ben Pode Santa Maria is a track that remains one of 400 songs to celebrate the divinity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the miracles she performed. Because of the patriarchal order of the day, many of the songs and poems written by women as well as devotions to the Blessed Mother have also been lost through time.

O Quanta Quali has a very interesting liner note that tells us this was written by Peter Abelard, a French philosopher who was secretly married to Heloise, the niece of Canon Fulbert. This union was tragically ended when Fulbert had Abelard castrated, resulting in both lovers living the remainder of their lives in monastic retreat. Abelard was also known for his many theological writings that often instigated contention and caused him to be charged with heresy on many occasions. In light of the brutal and barbaric castration he was subjected too, there isn't much mystery why he would want to provoke alternate points of view from the modern day ruling class. This track is from a hymn book that Abelard composed for his beloved Heloise, of which only this hymn for Saturday has survived. There is some speculation that he also composed many love songs, but these have been lost to time as well.

Sackpipslat is a Swedish instrumental that is traditionally played on a bagpipe. Here, Cameron Stone invokes the cello and Ethan James the nyckelharpa, along with Greg Ellis' frame drums, riq, and bells. Aj Ondas is written by a man from a female perspective as she looks out to sea, singing to the waves while longing for her lover who is far away. Ali seems to have brought the spirit of Ofrah Haza into this track as it literally sinks the heart into a tortured reverie. One needn't understand the lyrics because of the expert emotive quality of the vocals that cross all language barriers to depict heart-wrenching grief for unrequited love.

A Chantar M'er was written by Comtessa Beatrix de Dia and is the only extant melody written by a female poet/musician of the late 12th century. This tells a tale of a woman longing for another man other than her own husband. An interesting bit of information is that prior to meeting Greg Ellis and forming Vas, Ali originally lent her vocal talents for this track to Carol Tatum's Angel's of Venice Awake Inside A Dream CD, which has become a benchmark for ethereal/world musicians. Interesting as well is that Ellis had also lent his percussive talents to the Angels of Venice CD. Both versions of the track are equally good.

Inna-I-Malak is an original work from Souer Marie Keyrouz that is a chant to the Blessed Virgin on the resurrection of Christ. Souer Marie requested that Ali maintain the tradition and sacred integrity of this chant by keeping it true to the format which she composed and performed it. Ali states this is a humble tribute to the author for the wealth of inspiration she has delivered to her. El Rey de Francia is another Sephardic track that depicts a young princess whose dream is foretold to be an omen of a prince from a far away land that would carry the young girl off.

Portals of Grace goes beyond merely being a reinterpretation of early music. We are wrapped in a musical history lesson, as well as learning about life and religious politics from the era. It is though this whole CD was crafted to be a full entertainment and enlightenment session in order to expand our awareness to musicology down through the ages. Indeed, one can come away from the listening experience feeling as though Ali has been touched with the divine and managed to capture each nuance and essence via the translation of sound. Azam Ali delivers a delightful musical canvas of medieval style music with vocals that are an amalgamation of Loreena McKennit and the late Ofrah Haza. The Eastern influences simply shade the subtleties and complexities to bring new meaning and life to this work. It is impossible not to come away from this experience feeling as though the divine muse that ignites this woman's heart also inspires a strong woman of conviction and confidence.

A portion of the proceeds for the sale of this album is being donated to support RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Woman in Afghanistan. In addition, there are dedications mentioned in the liner notes as well as lengthy descriptive notes to each track. Ali created a work of love, and in so doing is letting it ripple on the waters of a disenfranchised world that seems to be on the brink of spiritual ruin. With very little fanfare, this remarkable woman is working to effect a change in the world in the best way she can, through the use of music. In so doing she is connecting us to the lineage of our ancestors while also crossing the national boundaries so that each person can see within the soul of the other.

Despite this being a "solo" release, it is heavily stamped with Greg Ellis' mark as well as the remarkable contributions of the many phenomenal musicians who helped to bring the work to life. This fact is not lost on Ali for one second as she humbly thanks everyone involved with this project. Even though this collection of work may fall within the confines of Narada's "world" music catalog, it seems to transcend that. The title to the CD is pretty much the most descriptive one could anticipate, as it is an opening towards a higher consciousness.

Goth ethereal fans will find this a very welcome addition to their musical library. Purchasing it also helps out our sisters on the other side of the globe who are desperately seeking a means of escaping the torture and exploitation that has been pervasive in Afghanistan for far too long. In today's unenlightened times, simply obtaining this CD is a vote for a better world. It is a calling to our world leaders to work in peace and harmony while also calling to that nether reach within our own soul that longs to believe that there is a divine spark emanating somewhere to guide us to a better way of living. Azam Ali was indeed ignited by the divine, and this CD is more than a full confirmation of heavenly existence.

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