Mideast meets West with Ali's exotic voice

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Vocalist Azam Ali has sometimes been compared to Lisa Gerrard; like the former singer for Dead Can Dance, the Iranian musician is well on the way in her transition from recording artist to film and TV soundtrack vocalist.

"I use my voice as an instrument, and she does the same thing," Ali says.

Ali's alluring, exotic voice can be heard on her second solo album, "Elysium for the Brave," a seamless mix of Eastern and ambient styles, and the self-titled debut set by the contemporary world music trio Niyaz, both on San Francisco indie Six Degrees Records. It's a voice that has been utilized in film projects as diverse as "The Matrix Revolutions," "Paparazzi" and "Dawn of the Dead"; the miniseries "Children of Dune" and "The Path to 9/11"; and the TV series "Alias," "Witchblade," "Prison Break" and "The Agency."

The Tehran-born singer, who left Iran with her family at age 4 after the 1979 Islamic revolution, originally was an instrumentalist and student of the santour, the Persian hammered dulcimer. However, she began studying voice after moving to Los Angeles in the mid-'80s; her training in early music choirs is reflected in her solo work -- in Latin -- on Mychael Danna's score for director Catherine Hardwicke's current New Line feature "The Nativity Story."

Ali says of Danna, "He's one of the first composers that used ethnic music and incorporated it with Western music without compromising it." He recruited Ali after hearing her first solo recording, 2002's "Portals of Grace," which was largely inspired by medieval music.

"He said, 'That's what I want to do on this film,' " she recalls. "It was the first time I got to use that training in early music."

In March, her voice will be prominently featured in composer Tyler Bates' score for "300," a Warner Bros. release from "Dawn of the Dead" director Zach Snyder. Although the feature is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel about the fabled battle between 300 Spartans and the huge Persian army at Thermopylae, Ali does not sing in her native tongue on the soundtrack.

"There's a lot of me in that film, probably more than in any other," Ali says. "(But) we decided specifically not to use any (Eastern) language. Everything is nonlyrical. It allows you to explore so many different emotions."

Ali's collaboration with Bates has continued outside of the film arena. He appears playing guitar, bass and keyboards on "Elysium for the Brave," and the duo have finished an unreleased album under the name Roseland. "I'm singing completely in English," Ali says. "It's a combination of film music, rock and ambient music."

While her albums feature vocals in Farsi and Urdu, Ali often is called upon to sing wordlessly in her performances for film and TV.

"The composers are looking for the flavor of exoticism, but in a way that's not so strange to the Western ear," she says. "I know how to take what I do and deliver it in a way that's not going to be too out there."

Although she is increasingly well established in the entertainment business of her adopted city, Ali reflects on the resonance her work holds for her as an emigre from a country still torn by political and religious tumult.

"Music was really the only tangible place I had to go in life," she says. "I discovered, here is a place I can come to where I'm not feeling any of those conflicted emotions. It's the only place I feel at home."
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