Narada World, 72438-11390-2-8, 2002
label website
Iranian-born, Indian-raised Azam Ali has established a solid name for herself as a stunning vocalist in the Lisa Gerrard / Loreena McKennitt / Soeur Keyrouz vein. Her three releases for WorldMusic group Vas (In the Garden of Souls, Offerings and Shunyata) were launched with percussionist Greg Ellis while the present Portals of Grace is her first solo release. It swipes the listener into a time-slip whirlwind that deposits us into Medieval times somewhere in wider Europe. Sitting in our castle, we're attended to by an extremely well-versed and traveled female troubador/bard who's visited the Holy Land and parts of Africa and Andalusia during the crusades.

Citing Hildegard Von Bingen's songs as eliciting similar psychic responses in her as walking her childhood's temples in India to the prayers and chants of Vedic worship and Hindu bhajan, Azam Ali's music is modern sacred music in WorldBeat guise. It employs, in this instance, period instruments like the hammered dulcimer and hurdy gurdy for authenticity of milieu while fully exploiting modern production values and cross-cultural permutations to, as she says, "commune with God and sing His praises" by reinterpreting ancient songs.

From the early 14th century French "Lasse pour quois" to the Latin a capella quartet "O Quanta Qualia" with Nicole Baker, George Stearne and Mark Beasom rounding out the vocal contingent; from the Galician-Portuguese cantiga "Ben Pode Santa Maria" culled from a famous medieval collection of monophonic songs to "Inna-I-Malak", a Byzantine address to the Holy Virgin - Portals of Grace offers many doors to enter the inner shrine.

Some songs emit Arabian or Sephardic airs by employing pentatonic or other minor scales as well as using Middle-Eastern hand drums, duduk and oud. Others cull from the Courtly opus of Central Europe. Regardless, the main attraction is Ali's crystalline voice, a finely honed instrument fully in the service of emotive expression and ably supplemented by first-rate instrumental accompaniment that is anchored, as before, by percussionist Greg Ellis.

Unlike Soeur Keyrouz' standard-setting body of work on Harmonia Mundi -- authentically Byzantine and performed by a full-fledged nun-cum-musical ethnologist -- Azam Ali adds just enough Western-friendly touches to make accessible this ancient art to 21st century Western ears opened to exotic otherness by the exploding WorldMusic genre, yet likely adversely predisposed toward stark, undiluted "church music".

The concept of devotional music is finally catching on in earnest in the West. From Jai Uttal, Anand Jesse and Deva Premal on the neo-Hindu side to Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and successors on the Sufi/Qawwali end, from formations like Tulku, Axiom of Choice and Rasa to multicultural adventurers like Cheb i Sabbah, Shafqat Ali Khan or compilations like Trance Planet and growing international sacred music festivals, more and more listeners are reintroduced to the age-old tradition of using music as a form of prayer.

Portals of Grace is the latest such reminder in an illustrious line of forbears. It stands solidly on the shoulders of Ali's work with Vas and could, in fact, have been issued as a Vas release without breaking the concept. Although, by now going solo, Azam Ali's name might only win further momentum to win her the popular acclaim she so clearly deserves.

And don't let the religious subtext here derail you. None of the lyrics are in English. You get to imbibe the sacred vibrations without battling any mental conflicts of belief or particular expression. In fact, you may enjoy these songs purely on their musical merit, or admire Ali for her vocal skills. As you relax into the flow, the other message is bound to touch you in whatever way is appropriate - quite without any doing or volition. That's the great power and secret of music - it affects us in subtle ways we need not consciously account for.