Interview by Joanne Michele, Advocacy Correspondent for Safe World, April 2011
Mahsa Vahdat was born in 1973 in Iran. She started taking piano lessons at the age of fourteen. Since 1995 she has taken part in many concerts in Iran and in other countries (Germany, Holland, England, France, India, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Bahrain, USA,Turkey, Poland and Spain) as an independent artist.
Unable to sing in public
Today in Iran, women can practice various musical forms but they cannot sing in public for mixed audiences.
They can participate in for-women-only concerts, some of which the Ministry of Culture organises annually. Women can also sing in the company of a male singer or as part of a choir.
Mahsa Vahdat refuses to perform for women only. All of her concerts are held outside Iran.
Mahsa Vahdat is an ambassador of Freemuse, an independent international organization which advocates for freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide.
She has released several albums and took part in the 2004 thought-provoking musical statement “Lullabies from the Axis of Evil.”
Her music is also included on the CD "Listen to the Banned", a collection of songs from artists around the world who have faced censorship or had their music banned.
What caused your music to be banned in Iran?
The main reason my music was banned is because it is done with a female voice.
After the Islamic revolution in 1979, the female voice was banned. Women can perform in a choir or sing solo for female-only audiences.
The authorities banned the female voice under the pretext of religious reasons but know it is something political. The rulers fear us. They think music is a power and it can penetrate people’s hearts and minds.
Why have you decided not to perform for women-only audiences?
Because now I love to be myself in my performances.
I want to be loyal to my music because it comes from my innermost emotions…the most free emotions in me. I cannot understand the logic behind the ban. Music belongs to all humans regardless of their gender or faith. I don’t agree with anyone dictating that I can perform for only some people or only a group of people. I feel that if I do perform in Iran at all I give justification to the people who dictate this system.
A lot of your music is inspired by tradition, but I was so moved by your duet album with Mighty Sam McClain (especially "Imprints"). What was the inspiration for this album? Do you feel you were building bridges between cultures?
It started as poetic dialogue between two poets.
Some of the melody was born while this dialogue was forming. The project is a project on love poems and the idea is based on a dialogue between cultures. It was very well-received by many people in and outside of Iran even though it was not possible to sell the CD inside Iran. A lot of people had access to the album and some of them who don’t even know me know the album.
I think the most effective and impressive way to build bridges between nations is through culture, art and music. It allows people to find how similar they are even though they live in different places with distinct cultures. It makes people respect each other based on mutual dignity. It accomplishes what politics cannot-it makes their hearts closer.
You performed on the album "Lullabies from the Axis of Evil," which is a powerful reminder that music is part of our souls. It showed the world that people from these so-called 'evil' countries are the same as us. How do you think music and performance can bring people together?
This was a very interesting project and participating in it guided me in a way on this path I’ve chosen - it woke me up.
I think it was brilliant that Erik Hillestead, the producer of KKV Records and the brain behind “Lullabies from the Axis of Evil”, chose “Lullaby” because it is pure music that relates to the soul of a child. It is the natural relation of two souls through music.
A mother is a singer, composer and sometimes a poet.
When a politician addresses some nations as “evil” and claims he wants to bring peace and democracy - well, these things are mutually exclusive. Comments like that sever the hearts of nations and we need to bring people’s hearts closer if we want to bring peace to the world.
If we regard “Lullaby” and the album from another angle, the female singers from the countries represented in this album are mostly oppressed by their governments in a different way.
In my country these powerful women are regarded as second-class citizens.
These women share a precious part of their culture on this album. Combining these lullabies together with lullabies from western countries shows just how similar human hearts and that we are naturally close together. Our hearts come together over the words, melodies and structures of these lullabies. The way a mother sings for her child is the same in many nations.
Because of all of this, it was a very important project for me. It also gave me the chance to cooperate with many musicians from other countries, especially the Norwegian musicians, and led to other projects and albums.
What is your favorite part of traveling to perform? Which country has been your favorite?
The best part for me in all of my journeys is performing on stage and meeting my audience.
I can say that I have loved every country to which I have traveled. I have seen the wonder of humans with different and similar hearts. It is so interesting for me to see the way we connect and how people from different places can relate and respond to my music.
What role does music have in revolutionary atmospheres?
Much of my music is something inward and internal, but music can have a big role in a revolutionary atmosphere.
The project I did with Mighty Sam McClain (“Scent of Reunion”) impressed people in the summer of 2009 after the very sad situation we had in Iran.
It was about love, but it soothed people’s tender hearts and many people told me that it was a comfort to them in that time of chaos.
How does music speak to those who have no other freedom of expression?
The essence of art is that it can make anything and everything possible.
Music uses symbols both in melody and lyrics. Without telling a specific message directly, it acts like a key to awaken the mind and soul and speak to the heart. This is the miracle of art.
What do you think traditional music's role is in modern society?
It is very important to keep traditional music as a precious repertoire like the way people from the past kept it.
Music and other forms of art were put in a difficult place after Islam came to Iran.
Rulers didn’t support it in large scales and it was sometimes even banned. Individual people carried our culture and it is now our task to keep this tradition alive. It has seen so many ups and downs and a lot of vicissitude. Even now traditional music is censored and controlled. I always tell my music students that they have a big role to carry on our traditions to their children and into the future.
It is nice to keep the old roots while always adding new leaves. I believe we should keep the traditions intact and present it to the world and new generations. It is very important that we present this treasure.
Learning and keeping the traditions alive is not about keeping music-it is preserving a culture. We are not the only ones who shape our culture. It is something that belongs to human society and we should think of it universally. The dialogue between cultures is very important and we should create arts based on dialogue.
What is the strongest emotion you wish to convey with your music? How has your music helped you overcome pain?
The stage is my real home. When I sing I feel that I am in the real Iran.
I can connect to all the beautiful roots of my country and tradition. I feel that I am singing from the throat of the Iranian people.
Music has helped my life tremendously. It helps me live a beautiful life and disconnect from all the sorrows and pain I feel in my country…I can’t imagine my life without music.
Why do you think women are forbidden from performing solo in Iran?
As I said, it is under a religious pretext as they believe men shouldn’t hear the singing voice of a woman. But it’s changed and become political.
For a government such as this, the less power women have is better for them and I think the main reason is fear.
Music always brings fear to this regime because it penetrates directly into the mind and soul and can change people.
Your album "I am Eve" features a variety of classical Persian poems. But the title denotes the strength of women -Eve, our mother. Why did you choose this title for the album?
The poems in this album are not only classical - it also contains some contemporary poetry.
The name of the CD comes from the first track, which is by the contemporary female poet Azar Khajavi. She is one of my favorite poets and I knew “I am Eve” for years.
I knew I wanted to make a song from the poem and one time when I read it a melody came to my mind. I worked on it together with my husband Atabak Elyasi, who composed and arranged the album.
The text of the poem is very strong and it shows the power of the feminine which is now veiled.
How has being a 'banned' musician changed your music?
It makes me sad to be a banned musician in my country and that women cannot perform in their homeland.
Banning music and art is destructive but sometimes it brings more creativity.
It is something that I gave grown from. I chose my path and nothing could discourage me from it. Nothing can stop me or prevent my activity and being banned makes me play my music louder. I am happy that I crossed the red line that this regime drew for female singers. I think it is stupid to ban music in a world such as ours. I have also learned in all these years that my stage in Iran is not limited to the official stage-it can be from anywhere.
It is so sorrowful to me that women cannot perform in Iran because so many people are eager to hear their voices. From the depth of my heart I wish for a day that all people can have my opportunities.
What advice would you give to other young women who struggle to find their voice in Iran?
Most of my students are female and they come to class with the eagerness to learn traditional Persian singing.
It’s not easy and they have no landscape in front of them but they follow the path seriously. Some just sing for themselves and their own hearts but others regard it as something professional.
I always tell them that it is important to learn the treasure that is Persian music so they can transmit the tradition to their children and preserve it for the future. I am sure that we will have a bright future and at that time all people will have the equal opportunity to work in this profession and present their art.
Do you think music can help advance women's rights?
Of course. When the female voice is banned or eliminated from official music scenes it creates a kind of imbalance.
It is human nature to want to see a man and women together, equal, in all places. We are used to hearing the sound of women’s voices. It begins when she sings to us after we’re born. When women cannot sing in public, it disconnects people and disturbs the emotional balance. In Iran, even though people can get this music through other means, they miss hearing women on the radio, television and on stage.
When they ban the female voice, they try to remove a physical ability. This particular physical ability reflects a spiritual emotion. Imagine them wanting to dictate that a woman or human being cannot laugh or breathe. In countries like Iran after the revolution, female presence is weak in many official scenes or is heavily restricted. If a woman can sing freely, her presence in society will be stronger. This is one of the urgent matters in women’s rights in Iran.
The world was able to see a bit of modern music in Iran in the 2010 movie "No One Knows About Persian Cats." How is music kept alive in a country that has so many restrictions on it?
It is very difficult to fight with something that comes from nature.
Music arises from human nature and history has shown that rulers cannot fight it. It’s like fighting with the truth or trying to prevent the sun and moon from shining. We have kept music alive even in the darkest times of our history. It finds its way through the dark. With the technology we have today it is much easier to keep music alive and share it all over the world.
I think anyone who wants to ban music has a more difficult job than the people who create it, even in this dark situation.
What is your next project?
My next project is one with my sister Marjan Vahdat and three Persian players.
We're working on an album with our Persian ensemble. We've been working with this group for years and have performed with them through the world. We plan to record the album this summer in Tehran and release it in Norway in 2012. It combines mystical poems from classic poets with some contemporary poets. The music is mostly inspired by traditional and regional melodies in Iran but we've added our own musical expression.
The music is the result of the emotions, ideas and experiences of the artists and it comes out through musical expression. Performing this kind of Persian music with the artists' improvisations is very powerful.
I am also working on another project with Atabak Elyasi - it is the follow-up to our experience with "I Am Eve" and plan to continue performing with my sister, my ensemble, or with Norwegian musicians.
"It's better that our dear youth spend their valuable time in learning science and essential and useful skills and fill their time with sport and healthy recreations instead of music"
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei - 2 August 2010.
With gratitude to Mahsa and special thanks to Eric Mace from Valley Entertainment who helped arrange the interview