"Tradition. . .s!": Galeet Dardashti Sings the Margins

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October 5, 2010

All too often, culture that promises ideological satisfaction is compromised by its artistic shortcomings. The more we agree with the message, the harder we will ourselves to like it. But pleasure is almost impossible to force. We may dutifully buy the latest release from an artist whose politics we admire, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to listen to it much. In the end, taste preferences trump political preferences. Only when they align does “message” art stand a chance of winning our hearts as well as our minds.

That’s why I groaned when reading the press release for Galeet Dardashti’s The Naming: “‘I am not going to sugarcoat everything,’ Dardashti explains. ‘We know that women get the short stick. Women are marginalized. I am trying to show how for the most part women try to overcome that inequity. And how they can rise to the challenge and be powerful and funny.’”

This is a worthy goal, particularly for progressives keen on breaking patriarchy’s tenacious hold on Jewish life. But the way in which Dardashti frames it conjured memories of my college days, when I followed my politically minded friends to functions whose earnestness was inversely proportional to the excitement they stirred up. Even though my boredom made me feel sheepish, as if it were proof of my ideological failings, no amount of artificially simulated solidarity could dispel it.

As much as I liked the idea of someone “singing deep in her bones to transform the ghostly outlines of Biblical women into full-flown, flesh-and-blood personalities,” I worried that the idea would get in the way of art. Giving voice to the subjectivity of minor characters like Queen Vashti and the witch of Endor sounded interesting, certainly. Could the music sustain my interest?

A funny thing happened when I finally put The Naming on my stereo. I was about to wash the kitchen floor, but figured I’d sample the album before turning to one of the “comfort” records that make that tedious task go more quickly for me. Only I forgot to make the change. Indeed, I was already listening to the album for a third time before I realized that my CD player was set for auto-repeat. Dardashti’s rich singing in the Persian Jewish tradition and her able accompanists, particularly on percussion, had put a spell on me. I may not have been paying attention to the names of songs or characters, but The Naming still moved me. Or at least the parts of me scrubbing the floor.

Later, when I went back to listen to the record more carefully, with the packaging and press release in hand, I could tell how artfully the music communicated Dardashti’s point. On “Sheba”, praise for the queen’s mental powers intertwines with her bodily charm in a serpentine melody accentuated by an English-language spoken word interlude. “Endora,” about the witch of Endor’s relationship with Saul, makes excellent use of vocal multi-tracking to conjure a feeling of the supernatural. And on “Michal”, which makes the tale of the woman who put on the tallit and tefillin normally reserved for men double as a tribute to Dardashti’s childless great-aunt, the fastening of the tefillin is incorporated into the song’s rich rhythmic foundation.

But as helpful as this background information is, the music on The Naming is expressive enough to convey the essence of Dardashti’s project all on its own. Her voice is a truly remarkable instrument, moving back and forth between the Persian tradition in which her once-famous grandfather worked and idioms more familiar in the West. It soars and sinks its teeth in, seduces and implores. In this era of Auto-Tune sanitized high notes and artificially enhanced bottom end, her singing is a stirring testament to the capabilities of naked humanity.

The same goes for the vocals of Charming Hostess’s Jewlia Eisenberg, whose latest album The Bowls Project – previously featured in Zeek – shares The Naming’s goal of redeeming suppressed and marginalized female voices from the Jewish past. Given Charming Hostess’s impressive track record, not to mention the fact that I knew Jewlia from our undergraduate days at UC Berkeley, I expected The Bowls Project to sidestep the problem of tendentiousness that trips up most politicized art. And it does so, with flair. What interests me most about the album, though, is its heterodox approach to tradition.

On some tracks, Eisenberg sings the prayers and curses that women inscribed on ancient bowls in a well-researched simulation of the original tongue. But this antiquarian gesture is thrown into sharp relief by haunting songs like “Hangman Devil Man” and “Early in the Morning” that owe more to the Delta Blues than they do to the Middle East. At other times, such as on The Bowls Project’s concluding track “Too Bad,” she invokes other modes of American music-making, suggesting that part of her project is to make listeners rethink their sense of origins.

Like the Bob Dylan of Todd Haynes’s controversial film I’m Not There, Eisenberg is wary of lineage. She wants resources, not rules, and as many of them as she can find. To be sure, the relationship between The Bowls Project’s Middle Eastern and American currents is not random. In listening to “Early in the Morning,” we are right to hear the impulses that motivated ancient women to invoke the pre-monotheistic deities of the Semitic peoples.

Demons are deposed gods, whether in 1000 B.C. or the modern world, and regarded as sources of power despite or perhaps even because of their marginalized status. It makes sense that the downtrodden and systematically oppressed, whether women or ethnic minorities, would be drawn to their equivalents in the mirror world of the divine.

But it’s crucial to recognize that calling out to such spirits does not necessarily entail the repudiation of G-d. Even though monotheistic orthodoxy requires the rejection of all other deities, the truth is that people in need of help will search for it in whatever traditions hold the promise of problem-solving. Desperation is pragmatic.

In seeking to illuminate alternative histories of Jewish womanhood, The Bowls Project makes a trenchant political point that applies to a wide variety of situations. If our lives are too determined by allegiance to origins – including, in the United States, the Constitution of the Founding Fathers – we can either strive for an identity founded on something completely outside of history or seek new origins to complicate the ones that currently hold us in thrall. But if the human craving for narrative is insatiable as the history of civilizations suggests, the latter path might be easier to pursue.

Galeet Dardashti’s The Naming advocates a similar flexibility with regard to origins. The music of a woman who would have a hard time singing freely in contemporary Israel, much less the Iran of her grandfather and father, it testifies to the resourcefulness made possible in the United States. In this respect, the album is as American as The Bowls Project. At the same time, though,

The Naming wants to redeem a Persian Jewish heritage lost in the standardization process that has caused both Israeli and American Jews to lose touch with their pre-modern heritage. Given the current state of relations between Iran and both the United States and Israel, this effort is a powerful rejoinder to those who wish to isolate Jewish identity from its non-Western roots: “Most people don’t realize there was this shared culture or that there was such a thing as a Persian or Arab Jew. I am excited to share this music with people so that we can break these boundaries, these stereotypes of what Jewish is, what Iranian is,’ Dardashti reflects, ‘It’s similar to what I am also trying to do in The Naming: breaking down walls.’”

Again, though, as noble as such goals may be, they can’t be realized if political concerns take precedence over artistic ones. It is to the credit of both Galeet Dardashti and Jewlia Eisenberg that their albums are so rich in musical pleasures that their politics can be felt as well as thought. I recommend The Naming and The Bowls Project with great enthusiasm. They are rewarding the first listen and even better the tenth.

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