A World of Music: Galeet Dardashti & Divahn at The Ark


"Well, it was only natural that a Jewish Middle Eastern band should form in Austin, right?" joked singer [http://galeetdardashti.com|Galeet Dardashti] when asked how she formed the band [http://www.divahn.com|Divahn].

Though Dardashti and Divahn don't have any Texas twang in their music, the songs they create aren't hemmed in by geographical or cultural boundaries. The group blends Persian, Jewish, Arabic, and Indian music, with touches of European classical and American/Latin jazz, into a worldly blend that seeks to highlight our universal commonalities, regardless of the land under your feet.

It's music made to spark a bright light during a time filled with murky shadows.

"We chose to record our new song, 'Banu Choshesh Legaresh (We’ve Come to Chase Away the Darkness),' for our upcoming album because the lyrics really spoke to us. It’s a Hanukah song and we decided to record it right after the November election. Hanukah is all about overcoming the darkness and we were all very down and in need of some of that Hanukah light. The Hebrew lyrics are:

We’ve come to chase away the darkness
We bear light and fire
Each glimmer is small
But together, our blaze is fierce
Flee, darkness
Go away, night
Flee, before the light

The lyrics gave us hope, reminding us that we are more powerful when we resist/persist together. Our fans really loved the song and so we -- with the help of a friend -- made our first music video." (See above.)

Divahn plays [http://www.theark.org/shows-events/2017/apr/03/emu-center-jewish-studie…|The Ark on Monday, April 3], and we talked to Dardashti about her family's rich musical history, the band's hearty sonic soup, and being an all-female band performing an all-male repertoire when it tackles traditional tunes.

Q: I saw that your family's been playing music all the way back to 19th-century Persia. What do you know about your family's musical history and how they got started singing?
A: Yes, music, and particularly singing, has been my Persian family's tradition for generations and I’m honored to be the first woman to continue that family legacy. My grandfather, [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8JO889L0-A|Younes Dardashti], was one of the most renowned master singers of Persian classical music from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. He was known as “The Nightingale of Iran,” and performed at the Shah’s palace, at Iran’s most coveted concert halls and in weekly prime-time radio performances with the Iranian National Radio Orchestra.

Like his father and grandfather before him, he also chanted as a cantor -- the clergy member who leads the congregation in prayer and song. In Iran, this was not a profession but rather an honor for a traditional Jew, and some of my grandfather’s early musical training took place in the synagogue. During his many years of fame in Iran, he continued to serve regularly as a cantor for various synagogues in Tehran on the holidays. My father became a teen star, singing international pop music on television in Tehran before immigrating to the U.S. for college, and years later studied to become a professional cantor. My mom is also a musician -- singer and guitar player -- and I grew up performing throughout the U.S. and Canada with my parents and two sisters. So, I had a rich musical upbringing!

Q: Musically, what are some of the similarities between Persian, Jewish, Arabic, and Indian music that allows you to blend them so seamlessly? The modalities, the rhythms, the lyrical themes?
A: Persian, Arabic, and Indian music -- while certainly each very distinct -- do have similarities, and Divahn enjoys blurring them at times. Certainly, there are shared rhythms, improvisation -- under specific rules -- is key in all of these forms, and all Eastern music moves beyond just whole step/half steps to explore the diverse microtones in between. All of these commonalities makes it fun for us to blend genres. But we also add Western music into the mix. The musicians in Divahn come from very diverse backgrounds -- from Indian classical music, Latin music, Arab music, and Western classical music. We enjoy capitalizing on our strengths and crossing musical boundaries. For example, I enjoy bringing Persian avaz singing into a traditional Arab song sometimes. Music has always been borderless.

Now "Jewish music” is a very loose category of music that has always influenced and been influenced by the cultures with which it has come into contact. So Jewish music IS Arab music in Arab countries, Persian music in Iran, and so on! So in that regard, there was little musical blending that we had to create; it has existed for generations.

Q: When you create your songs, are you consciously blending all these styles in part to make a social statement about the intersections of all life and culture on this planet, or is it a more organic thing in that you've just absorbed all these different types of music and what comes out is just something that is naturally your sound?
A: Since Divahn’s inception in 1999, we have striven to underscore common ground between diverse cultures and religions from the Middle East through our music. We believe that defending and highlighting these ideals is most pressing today. But creating the actual musical arrangements happens pretty organically. I mostly choose the songs -- traditional Jewish music from the Middle East or songs I compose -- and each musician brings her talent to creating an arrangement we all enjoy performing.

Q: How did Divahn come together in Austin?
A: I was attending the University of Texas at Austin as a PhD student in cultural anthropology focusing on Middle Eastern musical practices in Israel. I met a Middle Eastern percussionist in town who heard that I was a singer and tried to get me to join a band she was forming. The repertoire she chose didn’t speak to me. I found out later that she was Jewish and she got really excited about forming a band that explored Middle Eastern Jewish music -- she hadn’t been aware that such songs existed. I knew some other talented music students on campus -- also women -- and we started experimenting with some songs and had a great time playing them and the band just took off from there. We developed a large following in Austin among an interesting cross section of Austinites. And when I moved to New York years later, we kept it going for a while but eventually I became the only original band member remaining. The band is completely New York-based now.

Q: Is there a symbolic significance to having an all-female band with Divahn?
A: We hadn’t originally thought of having the band as “all female” but once there were a few women in the band we decided to keep it as a “girl band” and did specifically seek out women musicians. I’m happy we did. It’s a different band experience from the other groups I play with. And since I am largely performing sacred music from the Middle East, I’m performing a very male repertoire and I’m often told how exciting it is for audiences to hear a woman singing this music in an all-female band.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and editor of Pulp.

The [http://www.theark.org/shows-events/2017/apr/03/emu-center-jewish-studie…|EMU Center for Jewish Studies presents Galeet Dardashti & Divahn] on Monday, April 3, at The Ark, 316 S. Main St. Ann Arbor. Doors at 7 pm, show at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $50, $36, $18, $10.