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Iranian women singers are barred from performing in public in Iran. But this week in D.C., there are a few unique opportunities to hear Iranian women singers perform songs that straddle traditional Persian music and contemporary pop, among other far-flung influences.
First there’s Mahsa Vahdat, who duets with American soul singer Mighty Sam McClain at the Atlas Performing Arts Center tonight. The 39-year-old is known for her knack for collaboration: In 2003, she and Norwegian producer and poet Erik Hillestad worked on several songs for the compilation Lullabies From the Axis of Evil. Then in 2010, Hillestad produced Scent of Reunion: Love Duets Across Civilizations, which matched Vahdat’s melancholy verses with McClain’s gospel and deep soul. Recently, the pair released A Deeper Tone of Longing; like Scent of Reunion, music was provided by a Norwegian and Iranian band. The album includes the song “Sun of Iran,” a tribute to Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian lawyer who defended the rights of women and minors, and now sits in a jail cell.
Tomorrow, Iranian-born Israeli Jewish vocalist Rita performs at Strathmore. The singer, born Rita Jahanforuz in Iran, practiced Judaism in secret while learning Persian songs from her mother. At 8 years old, she left with her family to Israel where she later became a pop star singing in Hebrew (though she included a Farsi song on most of her records). On her 2012 album My Joys, with the aid of an international band, she changed gears and adapted 11 Persian songs. Rita sings over rhythms that sound mostly Persian, but also reflect Eastern European Jewish and North African influences. Iranians seek out her music despite the fact that it’s banned in the country. “We have had an amazing response,” she says. “The music is being played underground. It is not allowed to be played legally because I am Jewish. The music can be bought on the black market. Many Iranians are listening to the music at private celebrations and in their homes and many are sending emails to our website.”
Thursday, New York’s Mitra Sumara performs twice: an early show at the Kennedy Center followed by a later gig at Tropicalia. After years of playing in New York with avant-jazz groups, singer Yvette Perez formed the band a year ago, spurred by a revelation inside her family: “I found my Iranian birth father just three years ago,” she says, “and that was a big part of my inspiration for this group.” Perez did not learn Persian songs in Iran; she grew up in Carson, Calif., in a mostly black, Chicano, and Filipino neighborhood. She found more inspiration in Googoosh videos and compilations of Iranian ’60s pop. Perez says, “I hope to be reaching young psych and funk record collectors, Iranians young and old, and anyone who might be just a tad bit curious about this music, and anyone who wants to dance and have a good time.”