Mahsa Vahdat carries thousands of years of culture in her throat. Whenever she sings, the Iranian vocalist reconstructs a world from which she’s been exiled because the clergy who rule her country deem indecent a woman singing in public. Whether interpreting her original settings for contemporary Farsi poetry or classical Persian verse by Hafez and Rumi, Vahdat seems to stop time with her luxuriantly ornamented lines.
Since 2017 the internationally acclaimed artist has found a home in Berkeley with her husband, renowned composer, instrumentalist and educator Atabak Elyasi. An amenable base of operations for Vahdat’s expansive web of musical relationships, the Bay Area has also provided a rich array of creative partnerships, particularly with the women of Kitka and the string renegades of Kronos Quartet, with whom she collaborated on this year’s arrestingly beautiful album Placeless.
I sat down with Vahdat at Fatapple’s the morning after Thanksgiving to talk about why she settled in Berkeley, the winding path that brought her here, and Saturday’s concert at Freight & Salvage. Co-sponsored by Diaspora Arts Connection, the concert features her regular collaborators Greg Ellis, the Los Angeles drummer whose credits include Zakir Hussain, Mickey Hart and dozens of film soundtracks, and Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen, best known for a series of award-winning trio albums on ECM.
Gregarious and emotionally unguarded, though careful not to exacerbate the dangers inherent in visiting Iran, she talked about her affection for her adopted city and the feeling of dislocation that shadows her no matter where she resides outside of homeland. Vahdat first came to Berkeley in 2008 for a performance at Cal with her sister, Tehran-based singer Marjan Vahdat, and next returned in 2016 for performances and Silk Road House workshops arranged by Kitka.
“Since that time I considered Berkeley a place where I could live,” said Vahdat, 46. “I have these wonderful friends here and that makes me stay, but still I have this sense of placelessness. Home can be very many places, not just a physical place. I say that my voice is my home.”
While the Vahdat sisters have often lived apart over the past 15 years, their musical identities are deeply intertwined. They absorbed a love of music and poetry from their maternal grandmother, who sang throughout the course of the day. “She wasn’t a professional but she could have been,” Vahdat said. “She was a very spiritual woman in love with singing and poetry, with a fantastic sense of aesthetics. She didn’t train me and Marjan, but we learned a lot of songs from her organically.”
Their father fully supported their budding love of music and found a private teacher for them during the repressive years after the 1979 Islamic revolution that swept music out of public life. Though Mahsa is the older sister, Marjan started performing first. Once Mahsa found her confidence, she started joining her sister for intimate often underground performances. Even when Marjan settled in Germany for several years, they continued to sing together often, sharing a difficult road that required them to defy government policy whenever they performed in Iran.
“We are very close,” she said. “When we had challenges and music brought a lot of insecurity we cried and laughed together and that gave us strength on our path. Our challenges were the same. Sometimes I was broken and she lifted me up, and vice versa. We found this power together through music, a feeling of solidarity and extra strength in our expression. Now we’re far from each other, but hoping we will live close to each other again.”
They made a spectacular debut on the international scene with the 2008 release of Songs from a Persian Garden on the Norwegian label Kirkelig Kulturverksted, which continues to support and document Mahsa’s music. The live album documented a concert organized with the help of the Italian and Norwegian embassies that featured the sisters boldly performing unveiled in a Tehran garden with a mixed Iranian/Norwegian band led by blues guitarist Knut Reiersrud (an exploratory Norwegian artist who’s also collaborated with musicians such as Palestinian vocalist Rim Banna, guitarist David Lindley, drummer Jim Black, and Rickie Lee Jones).
The disparate repertoire ranges from classical Persian pieces like “Saghi Nameh” and folk themes like “Dorna” to the Kurdish song “Mina” and the tender lullaby “Gole Laleh” (which flows into the spiritual “She’s Got the Whole World in Her Hands”). Utterly entrancing and exquisitely evocative, their easily recognizable voices complement each other in the way that’s only attainable by sisters.
“I don’t know how to describe singing together,” Vahdat says. “We’re different singers but there are special moments when we think we are one and we inspire each other with a kind of freedom in expression. She’s very skilled in regional music and knows classical Persian music. And I am classical and traditional and lyrical. Together we created a texture and combination that’s different than what we do on our own.”
Aside from her sister and husband (who collaborates with her frequently as a player and arranger), Vahdat’s closest musical confidant might be the most surprising. Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen first encountered her in 2010 when he arranged a piece for Vahdat’s performance with SKRUK, the celebrated 40-voice choir from Norway (the ensemble performed around the region in June 2018 with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and Vahdat).
Their initial collaboration was so satisfying that they started looking for more opportunities to work together. Somehow the lush, almost erotically charged spirituality of Vahdat’s music resonated with Gustavsen’s spacious, pristine Nordic sensibility. The partnership fully flowered on 2015’s Traces of An Old Vineyard (Kirkelig Kulturverksted), an album that’s served as a calling card for vaunted venues around the world (outlets that were essential as she was living in Iran and largely absent from local stages).
“There’s a mutual inspiration,” Vahdat said. “Tord understands the spirituality of my music and the way he combines the Persian sensitivity and heritage with his jazz and Norwegian heritage is really clever. Every album is very related to my life, and for Traces I was so concerned about the heritage that was vanishing. Old Tehran is being knocked down. We interpret these gorgeous poems by Hafez and Rumi, but with a completely new expression.”
Tehran’s architecture figured prominently in one of Vahdat’s signature performances. Refusal to be silenced led Mahsa and Marjan to videotape themselves singing unveiled on a Tehran rooftop, footage that gained widespread attention inside and outside Iran. It was this striking image that brought her to the attention of Iranian composer Sahba Aminikia, a San Francisco Conservatory graduate who living in San Francisco and collaborated with Kronos Quartet.
Aminikia arranged several of Vahdat’s songs from her album The Sun Will Rise for her and Kronos, pieces that she premiered with the quartet at the SFJAZZ Center for 2017’s Hear and Now Festival. “She’s one of the most iconic female singers in Iran,” he told me in an interview before the festival. “The piece that introduced me to Mahsa and her sister was the video of them singing on rooftop without headscarves, images that became iconic symbols of Iranian women. They’re very persecuted, always under pressure, and despite all the problems they persevere.”
Once in Kronos’s orbit Vahdat was an ideal interlocutor for the perpetually curious violinist David Harrington, the driving spirit behind the quartet’s ever expanding constellation of singular musical partners. With arrangements by Aminikia, Jacob Garchik and Atabak Elyasi, Placeless was created in a moment of crisis as Vahdat came to terms with leaving Iran.
“I’m losing my country in a way, but all the time music lifted me,” she said. “The way they approached my music was with such intense sensitivity. They could express my sigh. That project was a treasure. And I’m still working with them. We’re going to do another project together. I really like David Harrington. He’s a wanderer in music, open minded and curious and full of desire for learning new things.”
When she’s not performing Vahdat is a devoted educator who teaches students around the world via Skype. She’s also cultivating some Bay Area vocalists, like Oakland singer/songwriter Adrienne Shamszad. With Iran’s ban on women singing in public and the general lack of support for music she worries that an incalculably rich legacy is wasting away. Taking the long view, she sees her work as “preserving a heritage so we can sing for grandchildren,” she said. “It’s like water and will find its way, though the voice of mother is absent. When you can’t hear them on radio and television it disturbs the balance of a society. We want to hear voices, men and women together. This path brought me a lot of sorrow and insecurity, but never think did I think why didn’t I choose a less challenging job.”