This is the story of why the brilliant Queen of Sheba shaved her legs, how the stunning Vashti laid down the law for her drunken husband, and how a mysterious witch spoke King Saul’s doom and then served him a nice dinner. The Naming, the upcoming release from singer and composer Galeet Dardashti, draws on the Persian classical music and Middle Eastern Jewish singing deep in her bones to transform the ghostly outlines of Biblical women into full-blown flesh-and-blood personalities.
The Naming’s release on September 14 occurred smack in between the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (September 9-10) and Yom Kippur (September 18). She is the first woman in her family to continue her family legacy of distinguished Persian and Jewish musicianship.
Leaping from passing mentions and phantom females, Dardashti seeks names and lives for the many women in the Bible, Talmud, and the Midrash, the millennia-old Hebrew commentaries. “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.”
Women like the Queen of Sheba (“Sheba”), whose interest in King Solomon blossomed into romance, but only after he had the brains to answer her riddles and only after she overcame one more obstacle. “In both Muslim and Jewish tradition, Sheba is a really cool character, a gorgeous queen who perhaps hailed from Ethiopia or Yemen. One of the stories repeated in both religious traditions says that just as they are about to make out, Solomon finds that her legs are really hairy, like a horse,” Dardashti laughs. “So, the commentaries say, he has her remove the hair before he is willing to sleep with her. It’s taking her down a notch. She’s not really a woman. She couldn’t be a woman and be that powerful and have such chutzpah and ask all those questions.”
Strong, powerful women—both Israelite and non-Jewish—are everywhere in the Bible, from the bold Persian Queen Vashti who refused her carousing husband’s orders to dance naked for his buddies (“Vashti”), to the witch of Endor, who foretold Saul’s bitter end but then showed him motherly kindness (“Endora”).
For Dardashti, these women’s stories intertwine with her own family’s tales of women breaking the rules: Just as the Biblical Michal donned the tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (leather prayer bands) only worn by men, so did Dardashti’s childless great-aunt Tovah in Tehran years ago, who reasoned that since she did not have children to care for, she should take on the same religious obligations as men and use the same accoutrements. Dardashti links their stories musically in “Michal,” singing the text recited while fastening the tefillin.
They also echo through her own story, and Dardashti’s personal transition into motherhood drew her to the intriguing female shadows flitting through Jewish tradition. “I don’t know if I would have done this project if I hadn’t been pregnant. I’d never written about gender or gone to women’s groups. But so much of what is mentioned about women in the Torah is about giving birth, or not giving birth and not being able to,” Dardashti reflects. “And suddenly, I was linked to those stories, that identity as a woman with a child.”
Binding texts in several languages from the Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and elsewhere, Dardashti crafts songs inspired by her heritage, the Persian classical music that her legendary grandfather Yona Dardashti performed in Iran, and the Persian Jewish liturgical tradition she learned from her father, Hazzan Farid Dardashti. The intertwined texts resonate with the sound of the Persian santur (hammered dulcimer) and Arabic qanun (zither), as well as in the Middle Eastern cantorial and Persian classical vocal techniques Dardashti employs to tell her stories. “In ‘Vashti,’ for example, I open with passages from the Book of Esther,” Dardashti explains. “I chant that in the Persian style,” the Hebrew liturgy sung the way it evolved among Iran’s Jews.
Though Dardashti grew up in the U.S., singing in a family band “sort of like the Partridge Family, but without the van,” she was separated from her grandfather’s world and her Persian heritage by language and custom. “At that point, I thought my grandfather’s music was beautiful, but it was definitely something foreign, different,” Dardashti recalls. “In Iran, my grandfather was huge. He was one of the biggest singers in his day. He would sing at the Shah’s palace, he had a weekly radio show, back when there was no TV, so everybody would listen every week. They knew he was Jewish,” Dardashti recounts. Yona Dardashti was so popular as a singer, in fact, that even when he acted as cantor at the synagogue in Tehran, Jews and Muslims would line up to hear him. Dardashti’s father carried on the family tradition with his own TV show, becoming a teen heartthrob before eventually leaving for the U.S. to attend college, and becoming a renowned cantor.
Only after she began research in Israel as a student, where Yona Dardashti and many other Persian Jews emigrated in the 1960s, did Dardashti come to a stirring realization. Her grandfather stopped performing locally after he established his new life in Israel. “The émigrés were less interested in keeping their Persian identity than in becoming Israeli, which was becoming more and more Western and less accepting of Middle Eastern culture. When I understood that, I was stunned.”
To reconnect with her roots, Dardashti set about learning classical singing from Persian Jewish musicians in Israel, including the elusive taqrir, a glottal ornament in the intro to “Michal” that at first confounded her then more Western-oriented voice. After weeks of frustrated attempts to emulate it, “My teacher mentioned that it was like crying. I remember that that really opened things up for me,” Dardashti muses. “Crying, but also laughing. It’s the sound of pure emotion,” a sound perfectly attuned to the bittersweet fates of Dardashti’s heroines.
While shedding light on the strong women of the Abrahamic religions, Dardashti also strives through her music to bring Middle Eastern Jewish traditions to wider audiences. “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 about the characters I’m writing about.”
Guest post via World Music News Wire