July-August 2010

Mamak Khadem:
Crossing Boundaries

By Audrey Coleman

She was a commanding presence, statuesque and still, on the stage of Getty Center's Williams Auditorium that Sunday afternoon in January. A clarinet broke the silence with a rhythmic series of tonic-to-subdominant figures, gradually joined by other instruments in the Middle Eastern fusion ensemble, at last ushering in the voice everyone had come to hear. With strength yet vulnerability, the poetry of 13th century Sufi poet Rumi poured forth from Mamak Khadem. The Persian words flowed upon an Armenian melody the Iranian-born singer had encountered on her travels. In the course of the song, Mamak slowly raised her arms and moved her hands in tiny, graceful spirals, her willowy form and the filmy drapery of her gown bending and billowing like reeds in a breeze.

I will return, I will return

To my ascent, I will return

Release me, unbind me

For to this refuge I have come back again.

Whereas poet Rumi was expressing his love for his spiritual soul mate, Sham Tabrizi, Mamak Khadem might well have been reflecting on her eventual return to the homeland from which she took refuge in the United States.

In her adopted country, Mamak Khadem has performed at venues as prestigious and varied as the Smithsonian Institution, the Greek Theater, Getty Center and California Plaza. Throughout the world in places such as the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, Germany's House of Culture, and the Museum of Folk Instruments in Greece she has represented a unique fusion of Iranian traditional vocalizing with Western musical influences. She has sung background vocals for film and television scores. She spent this past March and April of 2010 traveling and touring in Europe, appearing London, Athens, Gottenberg, Sweden, and at the Women of the Orient Festival in Istanbul, where she timed her concert to coincide with International Women's Day on March 8.

During this recent trip, she did not visit her family in Iran. Or rather, she could not.

"The last time I was in Iran was in December of 2008," Mamak shared in a recent interview. "I cautiously had made the effort that if I was involved in anything that had to do with human rights, I didn't want my name to be included...My father still lives in Iran and it was very important for me to keep that channel open. However, after what happened (over the past year), there was so much going on over here and I was singing at demonstrations and rallies. And from what I am hearing, my friends (in the Middle East) tell me they've seen me on TV or (heard me) on Voice of America. So it's not safe for me to go back at this time. That really freaks me out, the idea of not being able to go to Iran for a while. I hope it will change soon."

Iran holds not only Khadem's family roots but her musical roots. As a child, she sang in the Children's Choir for National Radio and Television of Iran. As an adult, she trained in the traditional form known as radif, a collection of 12 modes or dastah upon which the student learns to improvise. A prominent feature of Iranian classical vocal ornamentation is a shaking, almost wailing effect known as tahrir that Mamak performs with poignancy. Inevitably, Mamak Khadem's musical development is bound up not only in her personal history but also in her country's political history.

"I left Iran before the Revolution of 1979 and came here as a teenager. I came here as a student. At the time there was no problem getting visas. Iran was under the Shah and Iranians had a lot of money from oil and the United States always welcomed Iranians. It was a completely different story....There were some family difficulties we were all facing. My brother was diagnosed with cancer and my parents were divorcing. I was failing in my classes. They thought that if I got into a different environment, that it would be better for me. The plan was that I would get my degree here and then go back."

When the 1979 Revolution broke out, her parents urged her to remain in the U.S. until conditions calmed down. But then war broke out between Iran and Iraq and for the next eight years the climate was turbulent. "My parents were saying, ‘Don't come. It's horrible here.' So I kept staying here and expecting I would be going back. But then after staying here for ten years, you know, you change. Before I knew it, I'd made my home here. I got my (teaching) job."

With her summers free, the math teacher was able to visit home. In order to renew her connection with Persian traditions, she studied classical vocal music with master teachers over a period of several years, carrying what she learned during the summers back to the U.S. to practice and perfect. What started as a deliberate choice to embrace her cultural roots became a passion that guided her into uncharted musical territory.

Years of exposure to western classical music and jazz gave her the impetus to perform the vocal lines of the radif in non-traditional contexts to allow for a more personal vocal expression. She found the perfect environment for these explorations as principal vocalist with the cross-cultural fusion ensemble Axiom of Choice which she formed with Loga Ramin Torkian in 1989-90. The group of Iranian émigrés incorporated Middle-Eastern rhythms and melodies, Persian classical music, Western classical music and sometimes electronic effects into a uniquely enticing sound. L.A. Times writer Don Heckman called the music of the award-winning ensemble "tender and passionate, floating through consciousness with the intensity of a dream."

In 2004, Ramin took a different creative direction, focusing on electronic jazz, and the two ended their collaboration. It was a time of crisis for Mamak. "It was disappointing to me when he decided to go his way," she recalls, "That's when I started doing my traveling and taking a break from music. I wasn't really sure if I wanted to do anything musically because I was so attached to the Axiom of Choice and I felt: either Axiom of Choice or nothing. But it was very good for me emotionally because now I know who I am ..."

Khadem traveled to different regions of Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, gathering songs and melodies that would find life in her first solo CD, Jostojoo (Banyan Tree Production, 2007). Translation: Forever Seeking. "Some of the melodies are not even Persian," says Khadem. "And that is the whole point of this CD. I started traveling and I found that some songs had the same traditional roots and that's what inspired me. It's regional music. So the music you are hearing is not all Iranian but the style of singing (is in keeping with Iranian traditional music.)...I got the song Lachryimosa (based on a love poem by 11th century poet Baba Taher) from a villager who sang it for me. In the CD, I am reaching out to neighboring regions and finding common roots."

When she started traveling she had no idea this was going to happen. "The first things you notice are the differences," she recalls. "The differences in eating, in social behavior. But then after you stay there - and I stayed two and three months, I started realizing how much we had in common and that musical commonality is my biggest joy and what inspires me the most."

Along with this heightened awareness of commonalities in Middle Eastern musical idioms, the vocalist's love of poetry is evident throughout Jostojoo. The CD opens with a poem of Rumi set to an Armenian melody. A Turkish melody brings to life the words of contemporary Iranian poet Amir Fatahi in Heydar, an homage to a Sufi saint Hazard Ali, known as lion-heart (heydar). The title track Jostojoo is based on a Greek melody with Persian words by contemporary poet Siros Jamali..

O love entwined with the horizon

O moon veiled by the universe

I have been seeking your face in the heavens

I have sought only in vain.

The Jostojoo cut includes renowned Turkish musician Omar Faruk Tekbilek playing the darbuka and the ensemble of musicians playing a variety of Middle Eastern instruments plus clarinet, violin and accordion.

Often Mamak is asked if the song Lalah (Lullaby for the Awakening) refers to the oppression suffered by those who oppose the current Iranian regime. However, the words by Ahmad Shamloo (1925-2000) set to a melody by Armenian composer Parseg Ganachyan were written during the reign of the Shah.

Hush my baby, hush my flower of spring

Your father is gone

My heart is bleeding

For he will not return tonight.

Hush my baby, hush my flower of sweetness

Your father is shackled

In thick chains around his ankles

His eyes heavy with sleep

His heart awake.

"A lot of people thought it was about the present situation -- which is fine. It doesn't matter," says Mamak. "That song can be true now, it can be true 10 years ago, and it can be true 30 years ago. As a matter of fact a couple of friends were asking if I would do a song about the situation in Iran. Emotionally I can't. But in every performance, I make sure that there is at least one song that points in a subtle way to what is happening."

Mamak Khadem continues to seek challenges in her musical odyssey. Her next CD will be based on the words of mystical poet and painter Sohrab Sepehri (1928 -1980), who incorporated Western and Buddhist ideas into his Persian writings. "It is in free verse as opposed to Rumi's poetry which is rhythmic. It is taking a long time because it is hard to put any kind of melodic patterns into it. From each sentence to the next, there's no rhyme or rhythm to it but it's coming along. I think we have nailed down three or four of them...He was a man for his time that people really didn't understand. He lived a simple life. In his poetry there are a lot of images - he was a painter first - and that really I connect with. If it's a story about apples and the tree of knowledge, he makes it so visual."

Her performance style continues to develop as well. While the traditional Persian style of performing classical music is to remain perfectly still, Mamak has taken inspiration from Western singers and now allows herself to move while singing. "Honestly, I've always been attracted to movement. When I was (working) in the college (Santa Monica College) we were often seeing ensembles from Africa and other places and they were moving to the music. It was so beautiful...And I'm thinking, ‘Why can't we (Iranians) have that? Why does it have to be so serious?' The more I grow as a musician, the more comfortable I feel with who I am and what I am doing, the more the inhibitions (fall away) and I achieve a level of comfort as a musician. I don't know when it happened, but at some point, I started doing dance at the concerts. I got such a positive reaction from the audience. The Iranians liked it! I think in the next lifetime I'd like to be a dancer."

As a musician, Mamak Khadem continues to move freely between the traditional Persian idioms and the adventure of fusion. In addition to performing, she teaches classical Persian singing in Los Angeles. "I have done my music the way that I wanted to with all the knowledge that I have in my tradition. There are times I've worked with more of the traditional. For example, we did a concert last year at Santa Monica College where I taught, and we did an ensemble with four people playing the tar, the oud, santur, and percussion. That was a pure, traditional ensemble, because it was for the Persian New Year and that was what was needed. I have the capability of going more towards the traditional or coming out of it. I'm open to new ideas. For me there is no boundary...no boundaries in culture."

Mamak Khadem will perform at a house concert in the Los Angeles area on August 29, 2010. For details, consult her website.

Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional and world music.


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