Saturday, May 26, 2007


Before Haale Gafori, no singer had made me dig up my collection of Forough Farrokhzad poems to find the one where the poet plants her ink-stained hands in the garden. Yes, Shahram Nazeri, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Khatereh Parvaneh occasionally send me scampering to the bookshelf for a familiar Masnavi or Ghazal, but flipping through Forough after a concert is new. Finally, after years of putting up with that stubborn staccatoed synthesizer beat in Persian restaurants, a new kind of Iranian-Western theme has arrived that does not trigger a Pavlovian response to order the koobideh*.

Haale, the thirty-something Iranian singing talent is from New York, touring California. Her audience, like her music, is developing fast. These days her mystic compositions are making headway with spiritually curious Americans who delight in Eastern exotica. During Haale’s concert, I watch a young blonde in the front row sway to the lazy throbbing of the music. As the rhythm builds, the woman can no longer bear to remain seated; she stands up and twirls on her toes, palms up, head to one side, like a whirling darvish. Suddenly she skips half a continent and her darvish dance morphs into a reasonably watchable Bollywood routine. Yet this audience member is not being na├»ve, Haale just gave us a slight suggestion of a raga, accompanied by a hint of a tabla beat. And not just any raga or tabla beat, this texture comes straight out of the familiar John Lennon repertoire. As the saying goes, genius steals! Haale is not merely influenced by the psychedelic sixties, she is resurrecting it. In Haale’s music, the calloused fingers that Jimmy Hendrix planted alongside Farrokhzad’s ink-stained hands have sprouted.

Like Farrokhzad, Haale is overtly sensuous in her artistic mysticism. Stealing a trick from the rock repertoire of stage moves, Haale surrenders her breath to the microphone, letting it rise from her chest into a sexy nasal groan. Rumi’s drunken words first spill out of her mouth then cascade down a length of dark, disheveled hair that only a Hafez could describe. For a moment during the concert I really understood why the Ayatollahs are so intimidated by Iranian women’s hair. As with many superbly talented stage musicians, Haale is difficult to capture in the two dimensions of a photograph. Her beauty is encoded as much in the alluring way she moves and sings as in the aesthetic symmetries of her face.

Unlike many on the music stage, Haaleh doesn’t seem to make a conscious effort to exploit her sex appeal. She goes only so far physically before she turns inwards spiritually. This may or may not limit her marketability depending on whether or not she becomes aware of some of the other ways she may be holding back. She uses the Persian setar mostly as a drone instrument, and it is clear that her acquaintance with the radif of Persian music has only just begun. At times her singing instincts bring her very close to a chah-chah**, which she declines to fully develop.

The Persian chah-chah is a potentially groundbreaking development in rock music. In 1973 a singer named Clare Torry astonished the Western world by giving voice to a musical sensation that many Iranians consider routine in classical Persian music. Torry gave us the famous vocal, “The Great Gig in the Sky” in the Pink Floyd album, Dark Side of the Moon. This wordless lament is arguably the most deeply sensuous rendition of love, yearning and rapture in popular Western music, and yet, according to Pink Floyd, it is about Death and Annihilation. If you asked this most Sufi of popular Western vocals to compare itself to what Persian classical singing has already accomplished, it might say, "Maa hanooz andar khameh yek koocheh eem.***"

As popular Western music turns more and more to the past, recycling idioms from previous decades, Haale has the opportunity to upend the uncreative eclecticism by going full throttle in fusing the soul of Iran’s ancient musical traditions to the kind of profound rock that David Gilmore, Carlos Santana, and Jimi Hendrix began. Then the world can sit back and listen as a new Western musical journey through the haft shahreh eshgh**** begins. Yesterday in San Rafael, California I met a slight, down to earth, musician with enough talent to lead this journey.

*A favorite Iranian kabob dish
** A from of vocalization that sounds like yodeling to the unfamiliar ear.
***Literally "we are still around the bend of the first alley." A humble reference by Rumi comparing Attar's spiritual accomplishments to his own.
****Literally, "The seven cities of love." According to Rumi, the spiritual real estate Attar covered while Rumi was rounding that "bend of the first alley."

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