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Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: iranian music

Mamak Khadem’s Rapturous New Album Transcends Tragedy and Loss

One of the most capriciously cruel effects of the post-2020 lockdowns was the separation of families from ailing, elderly parents. Because of totalitarian travel restrictions, singer Mamak Khadem was unable to return home to her native Iran to see her father before he died: divide-and-conquer taken to a particularly sadistic extreme. Khadem channeled her grief into an often wrenchingly beautiful, immersive tribute, Remembrance, streaming at youtube.

Although the album is characteristically eclectic and spans many genres, it’s 180 degrees from the exuberance and exhilaration of her previous release The Road, a 2016 brass-and-string fueled mashup of Balkan dances and classical Persian poetry. For whatever reason, this is more of an art-rock record.

The sound is more desolate and enveloping, sculpted largely by multi-instrumentalist Jamshied Sharifi, guitarist Marc Copely and cellist Chris Votek, with many other musicians contributing. Khadem sings in Farsi, opening with the title track. Mickey Raphael’s forlorn, bluesy minor-key harmonica is an unexpected touch in this slowly swaying setting of the Saadi Shirazi poem, Copely’s multitracks and Khadem’s imploring, melismatic vocals flickering over Sharifi’s atmospheric backdrop. It brings to mind peak-era, mid-zeros Botanica.

Khadem rises from a wary tenderness to fullscale angst in Mina, a brooding, drifting setting of a Saied Soltanpour text lowlit by Sharifi’s piano and Benjamin Wittman’s clip-clop percussion. Khadem goes to the Rumi repertoire for the lyrics to Entangled over dissociative, rhythmic layers of vocals, cello and wafting synthesized orchestration.

Khadem takes a backseat, contributing vocalese to Across the Oceans, Coleman Barks narrating the Rumi poem over a loopy, simple backdrop with spare contributions from Roubik Haroutunian on duduk and Ivan Chardakov on gaida bagpipes. Dead and Alive begins more calmly, in a pastoral Pink Floyd vein, then Copely pulls the energy skyward. It’s an apt poem for this point in history: one of its central themes is to be open to serendipity.

Khadem sets an emotive Fatemeh Baraghani poem to a starkly gorgeous traditional Armenian theme in Face to Face, Mehdi Bagheri adding ravishing, spiraling kamancheh fiddle. Copely plays spare resonator guitar behind Khadem’s warm, hopeful delivery in Messenger, Sharifi turning up the enveloping keyboard ambience. The final cut is Don’t Go Without Me: Barks’ English narration is especially poignant considering the circumstances, as is Khadem’s gentle, wounded interpretation of the original. As her harmonies rise in the distance, the effect is viscerally heartbreaking.

A Rare Glimpse of New Artists Coming Out of Iran

One of the more intriguing playlists that ended up on the hard drive here last year was the Homanity compilation of recent music by Iranian artists, streaming at Spotify. The segues are weird, but that’s to be expected considering the diversity of styles on it.

It’s on the quiet side, more influenced by traditional Iranian folk, European pop and art-rock sounds than the inimitably funky psychedelia that was all the rage there before the 1979 counterrevolution. The fourteen artists on the record sing in Farsi. A promised cheat sheet for Farsi-deprived English speakers never materialized, but, many stranger things have happened over the past twenty-one hellish months. At this point, it’s a miracle that artists outside the free world continue to release any music at all.

The first track is crooner Sattar’s Farghi Nemikoneh, a lilting midtempo minor-key folk-rock tune with a delicately melismatic string section and a nimbly picked interweave of acoustic and electric guitars. Chanteuse Nikita goes for understated Eurovision drama in the second track, Yadam Nemire, which could be the Gipsy Kings with a woman out front.

TarantisT contribute Soldiering, a steadily marching, surreal mashup of death metal, hip-hop and 80s goth. Singer Shery M channels muted angst and full-on longing over neoromantic piano and spare rock guitar in Havaye Khooneh.

The best-known band here, Kiosk are represented by Parviz, an uncharacteristically low-key, twinkling Iranian approximation of late 60s Velvet Underground. There’s more moody, chanteusey trip-hop with Shab, by Shaya and Soltan, by Justina.

Bardia Taghipour builds his warily rising and falling ballad, Baba, around a familiar art-rock descending riff. Hero & Frya‘s In Manam harks back to 70s American acid rock. The lone hip-hop track here is Raay Bee Raay, by Behrouz Ghaemi.

Arash Rahbary features in two stark, spare poetic epics: Khoon Bood, with activist and dissenter Fatemeh Ekhtesari, and Gorbeh, with Mehdi Moousavi.

Breathtakingly Gorgeous Interpretations of Rumi Love Poems From Katayoun Goudarzi

Singer Katayoun Goudarzi‘s voice is Albert Camus’ concept of lucidité brought to life. She sings with a disarming, viscerally breathtaking, completely unselfconscious clarity and, ultimately, hope. Her latest album, This Pale – streaming at Spotify – is a series of incandescent settings of Rumi love poems, played by her longtime collaborator, sitarist Shujaat Khan with ney flutist Shaho Andalibi and tabla player Shariq Mustafa. Goudarzi took her initial inspiration for the project from the irony that Rumi’s work would be reaching a peak of popularity in America in the months after the 2016 Presidential election, when hatred and bigotry were seeping out from under every rock.

Wild, the album’s first track, has a matter-of-fact tenderness – and when Goudarzi becomes more assertive, the effect is breathtaking. Likewise, Khan develops a backdrop that begins starry, then he adds triumphant ornamention. Meanwhile, the percussion grows more energetic, Andalibi’s dreamy solo at the center.

The second track, One is more of an amiably lilting ghazal. Mustafa doesn’t waste his time bringing his flurrying beats front and center; Khan’s glistening solo sets up Goudarzi’s soaring crescendo. He takes a bright, tantalizingly curlicuing alap to introduce Tender: Goudarzi varies her vibrato from a resolute gentleness to a shivery expectancy.

Andalibi’s mystical, mysterious ney trades off with Khan’s bracing Middle Eastern-flavored modal work as Sweetest gets underway. Paradoxically, it’s the most hypnotic yet most energetic and arguably most straightforwardly beautiful track here.

Khan builds a barely restrained vigorousness to begin Still Here, then Goudarzi engages in wistful exchanges with Andalibi. Sitar and tabla join in a pensive, purposeful stroll, Goudarzi reaching for the night sky before the group calmly recede. She decided to record the final poem, All I’ve Got after hearing from a woman fan in Afghanistan who would sing quietly, in secret, around the house and hoped that someday Goudarzi would sing it for her. From Khan’s spellbinding chromatic intro, to Goudarzi’s resolute, impassioned vocals and Andalibi’s desolate ney, it’s a stunning way to close the album.

In the most troubled time in world history, we are fortunate to have artists like Goudarzi to remind us that the forces of love and compassion are infinitely more powerful than anything any wannabe tyrant could throw at us.

Revisiting Karavan Serai’s Gorgeously Slinky, Psychedelic Middle Eastern Themes

Karavan Serai‘s haunting, hypnotic album Woven Landscapes came out in 2015. Considering how lush this blend of original Iranian and Middle Eastern-inspired music is, it’s almost a shock to find out that there’s just two guys in the band. Narayan Sijan plays the stringed instruments and the percussion, and sings in a strong, resonant baritone. Carmen Rizzo plays keys and supplies electronic textures that are often very enveloping. The record is streaming at Bandcamp.

These two like slinky one-chord jams, and always find a way to make them interesting. A slow, swaying, warmly dusky theme, The Journey, opens the album. How trippy is this? With incisive oud and tar lute awash in Rizzo’s echoey sonics, it’s plenty psychedelic, but just as joyous as it reaches the end. The second track, Schirin is completely different, a broodingly dramatic if equally serpentine Arabic-flavored tune where the oud is a lot more prominent.

River Bend starts out with even more epic grandeur and grows more surreal and atmospheric, with Sijan’s multitracked tar lute, oud and buzuq echoing each other. His allusive, steady cascades in The Road to Hijaz tease the listener, as he only uses the iconic Arabic scale on the turnaround. Tingly buzuq contrasts with cumulo-nimbus atmospherics in the first part of Caspian Sea, then Rizzo adds an unexpected trip-hop rhythm while Sijan’s Arabic phrasing gets more animated, but more hypnotic as well.

He digs into majestic raga-like chords as Rizzo adds graceful piano and synth accents over drony atmospherics in Upon My Own Hand. Desert Water, a diptych, begins with a hazy ambience and morphs into the album’s most lighthearted track: appropriately enough, since it’s about a mirage. The duo close the album with the alternately echoey, gritty, aptly majestic High Mountain, the closest thing here to Rizzo’s other Iranian band, Niyaz.

Poignant, Gorgeous, Paradigm-Shifting Iranian and Ethiopian Flavored Mashups From SoSaLa

It’s been a long time between albums as a bandleader for Iranian-American saxophonist Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi, who records under the name SoSaLa. His 2008 album Nu World Trash was a wildly eclectic mix of Middle Eastern, dub, Ethiopiques and jazz, among other styles. The album’s underlying concept was to encourage people to get back to reality and leave the virtual one behind. There’s never been a more important time for that message, and auspiciously SoSaLa has a follow-up, wryly titled Nu World Trashed – streaming at Spotify – to remind us how little the paradigm has changed since then. But, damn, the world is on the brink of a seismic shift, and this guy is ready!. If jazz, psychedelia, Middle Eastern or Ethiopian music are your jams. crank this often starkly beautiful album. Fans of great Levantine reedmen from Daro Behroozi to Hafez Modirzadeh are especially encouraged to check it out.

The opening number, Welcome Nu World has brooding, gorgeously allusive tenor sax over spare, echoey electric piano from Paul Amrod and a dissociative electronic backdrop with agitated crowd noise.  The second track, Enough Is Enough is a hip-hop broadside against “vampire capitalists” and the anti-artistic contingent who are so well represented among the lockdowners. Cornel West makes a characteristically fiery cameo; the bandleader plays a poignantly melismatic, Ethopian-tinged solo.

Mystical Full Moon Hymn for Ornette Coleman is an attractively modal Ethiopian reggae shout-out to Ladjevardi’s onetime teacher and mentor. David Belmont does a spot-on recreation of a sarod, Ladjevardi loops a balmy but bracing Ethiopiques riff and kamancheh player Kaveh Haghtalab jabs and plucks in a live remake of an acid jazz number from the previous album, Sad, Sad, Sad Sake.

There are two versions of Anybody Out There?, the first a haunting trip-hop number with stately, flurrying Ethiopian-tinged sax and delicate acoustic guitar attcents from Bob Romanowski over an echoey, loopy backdrop of Rhodes electric piano and twinkling atmospherics. The second is a bitingly swirly dub miniature.

What’s What? is the album’s most hypnotic number, Ladjevardi’s elegantly incisive modal phrasing over similarly stark kamancheh from Haghtalab and a dubby background. “Fucking internet, taking our private time away,” Ladjevardi grouses.. The album’s most epic track is  My Shushtari, a shout-out to the late Iranian musical icon Mohamad Reza Shajarian, with Ladjevardi on imploring, plaintive soprano sax and David Shively rippling sepulchrally and intensely across the sonic spectrum on cimbalom. It will give you chills. The duo revisit the theme more broodingly further down the scale to close the album with the ironically titled Intro Music.

Brilliant, Haunting New Works From Iranian Composers Soheil Shirangi and Shervin Abbasi

Teheran-based composers Soheil Shirangi and Shervin Abbasi have released an aptly titled, haunting new album Maelstrom, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a diverse but persistently dark collection of works for both solo instruments and small ensembles. The two draw on influences as vast as European minimalism and horizontal music as well as traditional Iranian sounds. In a year of one horror after another – especially in Iran, which was one of the first countries crippled by prppaganda and hysteria – this is indelibly an album for our time. Yet the music here also offers considerable hope and even devious humor.

The first work is Trauma, a Shirangi trio composition played by cellists Ella Bokor and Mircea Marian with accordionist Fernando Mihalache. The strings enter with a syncopated, mutedly shamanic drive that quickly rises to an insistent pedalpoint. The accordion first serves as a wary chordal anchor while the cellos diverge and then return with an increasingly stricken intensity, then wind out with plaintive washes.

Violinist Mykola Havyuk, clarinetist Yaroslav Zhovnirych and pianist Nataliya Martynova play Abbasi’s The Rebellion, beginning more hauntingly microtonal, its austere resonance punctuated by simple, forlorn piano incisions. Eerie, circling chromatics from the piano underscore troubled, anthemic phrases. A couple of vigorous flicks under the lid signals a wounded call-and-response: slowly but resolutely, a revolution flickers and eventually leaps from the desolation. The obvious comparison is the livelier moments in Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time.

By contrast, To Lose Hope – another Abbasi piece, featuring clarinetist Mykola Havyuk and a string quartet comprising violinists Marko Komonko and Petro Titiaiev, violist Ustym Zhuk and cellist Denys Lytvynenke – first takes shape as a hazy cavatina, Havyuk’s crystalline leads balanced by brooding cello and shivery vibrato from the rest of the strings. It’s the most distinctly Iranian piece here. The jauntiness, acerbity and suspense that follow are unexpectedly welcome. The point seems to be that hope is where you find it.

Afrooch, an Abbasi solo work played by violinist Farmehr Beyglou, requires daunting extended technique, shifting back and forth between ghostly harmonics, moody atmosphere, insistently hammering riffs, shivery crescendos and a call-and-response that grows from enigmatic to puckish. The ending is too funny to give away.

The closing composition, Shirangi’s The Common Motivations is a solo piano piece, Sahel Ebae’s low murk contrasting with muted inside-the-gestures, expanding with spacious minimalist accents and eventually forlorn, Messiaenic belltone chords. If this is characteristic of the new music coming out of Iran these days, the world needs to hear more of it.

Mahsa Vahdat Releases a Profoundly Multi-Layered Album For Our Time

Why did the lockdowers outlaw live music? For the same reasons the Taliban in Afghanistan and the slave traders in the Caribbean did. The arts are subversive by definition: they encourage people to question their situations, and the lockdowners won’t settle for anything less than total obedience to their most egregious and ridiculous whims. In that sense, Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat’s new album Enlighten the Night – streaming at Spotify – is subversive. Using the words of both iconic Persian poets as well as contemporary lyricists, she celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. If there was ever an album for our time, this is it. And what a great title!

Vahdat is joined by a familiar supporting cast of pianist Tord Gustavsen, bass player Gjermund Silset and drummer Kenneth Ekornes, playing arrangements by Atabak Elyasi. They open with The Act of Freedom, a spare, steadily shuffling, bittersweetly minor-key celebration of self-determintion (that’s a very prosaic summary of Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari’s lyric).

Vahdat’s clear, wounded voice channels desolation and longing over graceful solo bass in the album’s second track, Where Is the Home of the Wind, with a lyric by Forough Farrokhzad which could be about a lost love or a lost world – or both. She channels a more muted, haunting resignation, matched by Gustavsen’s haunting, quasi-bolero sparseness in Farewell, a setting of a well-known desert tableau by Saadi.

Vahdat’s aching melismas flutter over stately piano in Precious Cup, a reflection on impermanence and the first of a handful of Omar Khayyam settings. The second, The Roses and the Meadow follows a similar theme more somberly. The most fleeting – and arguably optimistic – of all is If I Were God. Light electroacoustic touches come to the foreground in Lovelorn, which is basically 180 degrees the opposite.

Bootarab – a Rumi poem celebrating enlightened leaders, party musicians and much more – has a balletesque bounce and oud voicings from the piano along with a touch of jazz. The album’s title track, with an allusive Jafari lyric about a triumphantly prowling bird of prey, has otherworldly kamancheh leaps and bounds from guest Shervin Mohajer.

Vahdat’s distantly imploring nuance matches the subtle hope for solidarity in Nima Youshij’s poem The Moon Beams, one of the album’s most Arabic-tinged track. The glimmer of hope in Ney Davoud – the album’s most skeletally epic track and a lost-love lament – is much the same. Gustavsen’s use of close harmonies to mimic the microtones of classical Persian modes is masterful, as is Silset’s crepuscular bowing.

The Dawn, with a lyric by Ahmad Shamloo, is the album’s most grimly metaphorical moment. Vahdat imbues the closing lyric, Simin Behbehani’s calmly defiant I Will Build You Again, My Country with guarded optimism over Ekornes’ clip-clop beat and Mohajer’s plaintive kamancheh. She couldn’t have picked a better moment to release this austere, inspiring record. You will see this on the best albums of 2020 page in December if such a page can exist.

The Kronos Quartet Explore Spare, Haunting Iranian Themes with Singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat

Today’s album is Placeless, by the Kronos Quartet with singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a frequently austere, often haunting Farsi-language song cycle exploring themes of displacement and alienation. It’s an inventive blend of Iranian, Indian and western classical sounds utilizing texts by Rumi, Hafez and more contemporary poets.

On the album’s first few tracks, the vocals are front and center, strings a little further back in the mix, rising up in the later numbers. The title track has a dramatic, melismatic crescendo bookended by tense, shivering ambience. My Ruthless Companion has spare, dancing, catchy looped phrases over a jaunty, strolling groove. With its achingly gorgeous resonance, My Tresses in the Wind is a ghazal, more or less, and the high point of the record.

Spiky, marching pizzicato and unsettled, hazy washes of sound alternate in I Was Dead, up to a cold, mysterious ending. Cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt’s spare, plaintive lines rise and dip amid violinists David Harrington and John Sherba’s airy textures in the woundedly anthemic, Russian-tinged ballad Endless Embrace.

Misled Fate is a completely unexpected, steady, minimal theme with echoes of both Appalachian folk and new wave music. The Sun Rises has spare, ambient strings behind the two singers’ starkly brooding conversation, vocals panned left and right in the mix, their voices finally handing off to the quartet’s similarly plaintive, slightly baroque harmonies at the end.

Likewise, Vanishing Lines, a lush, striking waltz, comes across as a mix of elegantly medieval European and moody Iranian sounds. The Might of Love has a dancing pulse underneath one of the album’s sultriest vocals. The singers and strings return to uneasy, close-harmonied atmospherics in Far Away Glance and raise the unsettled intensity in the crescendos of Leyli’s Nightingale.

The ensemble alternate between occasional emphatic chords, shifting washes of sound and unexpected pauses in The Color of Moonlight. Angst-fueled, acidic swirls from the strings contrast with the often tenderly impassioned, anthemic vocals of Lover Go Mad. They close the album with Eternal Meadow, an allusively majestic, modal melody awash in disquieting echo effects. The Kronos Quartet have put out an awful lot of good albums, going back almost fifty years; this is one of the best.

Gorgeously Intense, Slinky Iranian, Arabic and Jewish Sounds and a Joe’s Pub Show From the All-Female Divahn

Galeet Dardashti is the scion of an Iranian Jewish vocal dynasty, the daughter of renowned cantor Farid Dardashti, and granddaughter of legenary classical singer Younes Dardashti. On her new album Shalhevet – streaming at Spotify – with her acoustic all-female Jewish/Persian/Arabic band Divahn,– she keeps that passionate flame alive, with soul, gravitas and influences from across the Middle East. Divahn are playing the album release show on March 7 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub; general admission is $20.

The opening track, Ya’Alah is so catchy you don’t realize it’s a one-chord jam until the group finally take it doublespeed, with a starkly soaring Persian violin solo from Megan Gould. By the time they reach the end, they’re going quadruplespeed. Are we having fun yet?

Oseh Shalom gets a spare, melismatic violin-and-vocal intro before the rhythm section kicks in with a stately majesty, Dardashti’s vocals reaching an imploring peak. Am Ne’ermanay slinks along on a darkly chromatic, cleverly arranged, increasingly stygian bass-and-tabla groove.

Kamancheh fiddle swoops eerily and bass bubbles suspensefully over Eleanor Norton’s cello drone as the band gather steam in Ayni Tzofiah – then they’re off, with a fiery, Egyptian-tinged drive and achingly intense vocals from Dardashti again. Divahn’s take of Leha Dodi, a classic Israeli melody that’s become a staple throughout much of the klezmer diaspora, is gorgeously spare. With tar lute, echoey percussion, shivery strings and Dardashti’s wide-ange melismas, Khazan is true to its title, rising to a fluttering coda.

Layered with subtle vocal counterpoint over Sejal Kukadia’s hypnotic tabla sway, the Indian-tinged Hamavdil is the album’s gentlest, most lighthearted track. The band pick up the pace with austere, chromatic strings in the big, powerful anthem Banu Choshech and wind up the record with the even more darkly majestic, propulsive El Nora Alilah. You don’t have to speak Hebrew, Arabic or Farsi to appreciate this group’s livewire intensity and singalong anthems.

High-Voltage Intensity and a Stunning Surprise from Cellist Kian Soltani and Pianist Julio Elizalde at Lincoln Center

“We’re going to do the slow movement from the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata in G minor,” pianist Julio Elizalde told the crowd at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center last night. This was the encore. It wasn’t on the program, at least formally. A murmur went through the audience: had the general public know this was going to happen, his debut duo performance with cellist Kian Soltani at this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival probably would have sold out the moment tickets went onsale.

It was at this point where Soltani, who’d played with a stunningly straighttforward, emotionally piercing approach for the previous hour, decided to turn his vibrato loose. Yet the result turned out to be less full-blown angst than persistent, haunting resonance, punctuted by twin peaks where he dug in and went for the windswept poignancy and several bittersweetly elegant exchanges with Elizalde’s eerily floating, perfectly articulated pointillisms.

That all this wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to how compellingly the two had performed the material that was officially on the bill. There were two particular pièces de résistance. The first comprised a triptych from Reza Vali‘s Persian Folk Songs collection. The Austrian-born Soltani explained how this material dovetailed with his dual immersion in both western classical and traditional Iranian music, as a child of expatriates. The wary introduction approximated an opening improvisation, followed by a lost-love ballad, each awash in aching, Arabic-tinged chromatics. To balance thie plaintiveness, the two leapt into a final love-drunk tableau with jaunty, trickily rhythmic abandon.

Soltani’s own solo performance of his Persian Fire Dance, also drawing on folk themes from his heritage, was arguably even more compelling and required considerably more extended technique, from wispy harmonics to a prelude to the mighty coda where he tapped out a beat, essentially playing between the raindrops. In between, he built and then fanned the flames as the firestorm’s waves rose higher and higher.

The two opened with a comfortable, glitteringly faithful take of the Romanticisms of a trio of Schumann Fantasiestucke pieces. Elizalde negotiated the lickety-split cascades of Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, No. 3 with steely focus and a slithery legato, while Soltani attacked the obstacle course of David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody with similar aplomb and even more vigor, through innunerable, thorny thickets of staccato sixteenth notes. A sold-out audience had to catch their breath afterward.