Azam Ali is an Iranian musician/singer who currently resides in Montreal. She emigrated to India when she was four, after which the Iranian Revolution of 1979 made Ali’s mother decide to give up her home and join Ali in India. Together they moved to America. Ali studied the Persian santour and sang. Billboard magazine described her voice as ‘’ a glorious unforgettable instrument’’. She has released four albums, all of which blend influences of Indian, Persian, Western and other musical styles. Her recent project is to compile Middle Eastern Lullabies. We were lucky enough to hear her sing one of them, a Turkish lullaby ! You can see it on the Skype recording and enjoy the velvet voice. Her understanding of life is remarkably philosophical while her voice has appeared in many films and tv projects.
We would like to ask you some questions.
Ok, I’m happy to answer.
Describe your job in one sentence.
İ have been a professional singer and musician for the last 15 years
How does your husband describe your job?
Well, my husband has the same job so he sees me as an artist
Can you describe how Iran and India’s music and culture affected you at a young age?
I think the place that you are born is forever in your blood, even if you leave when you are very young. I grew up in India from when I was 4 years old so these two cultures had a big influence on me. They are a part of who I am. I always say my music is like an autobiography. Its the story of my life so really I think that is a part of who I am
How is it leaving one’s roots, the country where you were born?
I think that a lot of time for many people if you had a choice of leaving or if you wanted to leave its different, but I think that for people who leave their country because of political or social problems or war – like a lot of Iranians – I think there’s always a little a bit of sadness in your heart that you carry with you everywhere. For me there’s always a little bit of sadness in my music because I believe that your country’s like your mother, you only have one and even if she’s good or bad you still love her
You did music with an underground group called Kiosk, a Persian Hardcore Blues Band. Then you left. Do you prefer working on your own? We are all in several school bands. If one has a conflict with one’s band, how does one resolve it?
Very good question. Actually I didn’t perform with kiosk but they are a very good band. But to answer your question I think this is something that everybody has problems with when they have a band. The personal problems are sometimes too great and it affects the music. I think in this kind of situation when you are younger it s a little easier but as you get older, like me now, I have been doing this such a long time that if the personal relationship is not good it is very difficult for me to work with that perso. But when I was younger, it was easier
Is it your thoughts or your feelings you express in your music? Heart or mind?
Yes my music is very personal. All of those things, especially heart. It is more about emotions for me.
We watched the film Persepolis last year. Have you seen it? Do you share the feeling of not belonging to any country, like Marjane Satrapi?
Yes, actually when I read her book the first time, when Persepolis was released, I read the first one in two hours and when I finished it I was crying like I was five years old. My husband asked me why I was crying I said you ‘have to read this book because it is our story’. I felt like she really captured our story. All of the Iranian stories were in that book.
You said in one of your posts on your blog ‘’What hope is there for us as a race if we identify ourselves more with our culture and religion than with our humanity.’’ How important is the feeling of belonging? Where is the cut off line between patriotism and fanaticism?
I wrote that blog because of what happened in my own country and my having to leave my country because of political conflicts. I’m very sensitive to the issue of justice in the world. I believe that people who put personal religious belief and culture before their humanity don’t allow themselves to identify with a lot of justice in the world. I really believe that you have to look at the events that take place in the world as a human being to see whether it is right or wrong. This is happening in the world and lots of times I believe people are not able to do that. So for me, because that I feel that, I don’t belong to any one particular culture and you become a little bit like a kind of gypsy. For me, I feel that the whole world has become my home and we have to take care of it and of what is happening in other countries and whether or not there is justice.
That a very good question. I think fanaticism has much more to do with religious extremism when there is too much religion, and politics of course. I think it’s a little bit naïve when people say that religion should not be in politics at all because I believe religion is part of a culture and you cannot separate a culture from its religion. Its like that everywhere in the world but I think that when religious beliefs become very extreme they begin to shape the politics of a country, like in Iran, and then it become impossible for a population to live in this kind of a context. So yes, I believe that there is patriotism, the love for your country and, especially if you are a real patriot, if you really love your country then you criticize your country. I don’t believe in blind patriotism where you just say ‘I love my country’ but you close your eyes to the reality of everything. Really I feel that if you love it you have to criticize it because when you criticize it, it’s because you want it to be better than it is
I just say I’m from Iran, I was born in Iran and if the conversation continues then I tell them where I grew up. But normally I just say I am Iranian.
How do you criticise things you don’t like? By humour, by writing, by singing, by …?
I think for me it will be by writing and speaking because if its more personal I don’t put it in my music because my music is the sacred place for me. It’s a place for me that where I go travel beyond human experiences so it’s a little bit of a higher place of existence. I love to write my criticism and if people want to know what I believe they can ask me in interviews where I speak very honestly about my beliefs.
How long does it take you to write a piece of music?
Its different every time. Sometimes it is like a stream of consciousness, sometimes it comes very easily and sometimes it is very very difficult. You cannot put a time to it but I think that when its coming very easily, I can complete something in maybe 8 hours.
Do you have a muse? What inspires you? Who is the person that has affected you the most?
My husband. (laughs) I will say he is my muse. He really inspires me because he is also my best friend and we have exactly the same story, the same culture, the same feelings of being misplaced in the world and he is a great artist as well so musically he inspires me.
Is music in our genes? If so, would you say that Jazz music genetically belongs to the black race?
Definitely. I think there is music in your genes and music is like a language. Nobody plays jazz music like black musicians. Really, there is something very special that is their language. Its very particular. Maybe it’s because of their experiences as black people in the world, but there is something very special about that language, it sounds very different
You have been to Turkey last year.
A Middle Eastern country. I go to Turkey every year, sometimes two times a year. The first time I came to Turkey was maybe 10 years ago and for the first three days that I was in Istanbul, I was very sad because it reminded me so much of Iran and I kept thinking that if a revolution happened, today it would be like this. Because we are so close, Turkey and Iran in our culture, more than the rest of the Arab countries. So it is very difficult for me to see Turkey, even though it’s so modernized and in many ways also western, but really we are only talking about Istanbul because once you go outside of Istanbul it’s a very different story. But in Istanbul I still see it very much like an eastern country.
Your son is nearly 3 years old. How has he changed your life?
I don’t there is enough time for me to answer this question. But I think maybe the most important thing is the way that you see the world. Everything becomes more precious because time becomes precious. The way you live your life becomes very important because now there is this person who is looking at you to learn. You are their teacher and they want to learn from you about the world and about what it is to be a human being so everything I do now is under a microscope. Every day I get up and I have to be a better person and I have to really change my perspective about what is important in life and how to really be a good human being. So in this way, yeah, I think he completely changed my life.
In one of your blog posts you mentioned how your son has become a world traveler at such a young age. Can you tell us in a few words, what is the advantage of being exposed to many cultures?
Well I think for any child it’s very exciting to travel and he is also boy so he has the spirit of adventure. I’m really happy that he will see the world and see the different cultures because for me, because I traveled at a young age and saw different countries it really had a big influence on the way that I see the world and the way that my life is. So I would like him to have that experience. Actually, the first big trip we took together was to Istanbul when he was 8 months old.
What message do you want tos hare through Middle-Eastern Lullabies Project?
Well that’s a very good question because I did this recording when my son was born. I was thinking I was very sad that he was born far from his country and that, at least for now, he does not really know where his country is. It made me think that my son is not the only one, there are many children from Iran, from the different parts of the world who are like this. I feel my connection with the middle east is more strong than the other places in the world so I thought I would be nice to do a project that is really telling the story. It’s really for the children who are born in countries where there are social and political conflicts whih they are innocent but in the middle of having their lives shaped by it. So really there is a very strong social message behind the lullabies CD and I did it in a way so that it’s not really just for children to listen to, it’s music for adults and its really telling the story of the children
Singing of a Turkish Lullaby…………………. (beautiful)
What’s your life plan? What do you plan to have accomplished in 50 years — personally and professionally?
When I was younger professionally and personally were separate but as I am becoming older and, now that I am a mother, professionally and personally is becoming one thing for me. The most important thing is that by the time I retire and decide to stop working, I just want to feel that I made a contribution to the world, even if it’s in my small way.
Please say the first word that comes to your mind when we say the following words:
17 years old: complicated
Do you believe in intercultural marriage?
Yeah, why not? I am living in Montreal now and there are people from all over the world and many many different cultures and they are falling in love, so why not? But life is a bit difficult. I think it can be a little bit complicated as a person and sometimes can makes lives complicated. However, if you love each other why not?