Galeet Dardashti sings with her grandfather in Hebrew and in Persian

Galeet Dardashti
Galeet Dardashti

It used to be that if your grandfather was a famous singer, and musical talent indisputably ran in your family, then you — assuming you were a boy — would grow up to be a singer like your grandfather. You’d sing in your grandfather’s style, your reputation would be connected to his, and the generations would be solidly, visibly, aurally linked.

Later, even if your grandfather was a famous singer, and talent indisputably ran in your family — but your own father had left his home country, even his home continent — then your grandfather’s fame would be largely irrelevant to the momentum of your own career. (And now you could be a woman.) His reputation would be back there, across an ocean and quite a few mountain ranges. You would develop your own reputation, in your own time and place.

But now, it’s possible to take old recordings and base your own newer music on that older style. (Assuming, of course, that you have inherited the family talent. Otherwise, none of this works.) You can create a new piece of music that is both authentic and novel.

That’s what Galeet Dardashti has done.

Dr. Dardashti is a musician and cantor who has earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin, has been an assistant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and is a visiting professor at NYU. She’s the founder of Divahn, the all-woman Middle Eastern and Jewish-inflected group.

She’s been the High Holy Days cantor at Congregation Beth El South Orange for years, up until shortly before the pandemic.

And most recently, in her just-released album “Monajat,” she used one of the few recordings she has of her grandfather, Younes Dardashti, singing in Hebrew. She’s taken the music, melodies sung on Selichot as the new year, with its opportunities, dangers, call for transformative change, and the possibility of joy approach, and mixed them with her own voice, the work of other musicians, and the sensibility of another time and place.

Dr. Darshashti plays a doumbek.

As she tells her story, it’s clear that both music and the seamless merging of opposites are part of it.

“I’ve been performing with my family since I was a little kid,” she said. Her father, Farid Dardashti, Younes’s son, is an Iranian Jew whose unlikely career path took him to JTS; her mother, Sheila, is an Ashkenazi New Yorker; her older sister, Danielle, is a writer and storyteller; and her younger sister, Michelle, is a Conservative rabbi who now leads the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn. They all sing.

Her grandfather “was a very famous singer of Persian music in Iran,” Dr. Dardashti said. Note that he sang Persian music; Iran was integrated then in a way that we, decades after the Iranian revolution, cannot imagine. He was deeply Jewish, but he was not a cantor. “There was no such profession as cantor in the Middle East and North Africa,” she continued, although now, in Israel, where those communities now are centered, increasingly that is changing. “But then, my grandfather would volunteer to lead Shabbat services at different synagogues in Teheran.

“He’d drop in at different synagogues around the city, and people would be so impressed.” It was as if Frank Sinatra would have wandered around Bayonne, dropping in at various bars to sing a few of his favorite songs. He was that level of famous in his time and place.

In Teheran, Jews often would host Selichot services outside their houses, every night in the month of Elul, so that as many people as possible could hear them, Dr. Dardashti said. Her grandfather sometimes would go from gathering to gathering and sing. “Sometimes it would go all night,” she said. “People would be so proud to host him.”

He was a huge star, both within the Jewish community and outside it. He was so famous that he was called the Nightingale of Iran.

This was during the reign of the shah of Iran, whose very mixed rule was ended in the violent Islamist overthrow of his regime. “It was a good period for women and for Jews in Iran,” Dr. Dardashti said. “That’s when things opened up for women and at the same time for Jews. My grandfather was discovered by the first woman superstar there, Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri. She discovered my grandfather, and she was like, ‘Why haven’t I heard you before?’

The cover of her album includes images of Galeet Dardashti and her grandfather, the famous Persian singer Younes Dardashti.

“‘He was like, ‘Because I’m Jewish.’ And then she was like, ‘Who cares?’”

Soon he had a weekly radio show, and everyone listened to him.

Her own father, Younes’s son, Farid, “was very good looking and talented, and because of that, and because of his father’s fame, he had a weekly spot on television for a year before he left Iran,” his daughter said. “He already was a teen idol.”

He came to the United States to go to college, “somewhere in Delaware,” his daughter said, when he was 19, in the late 1950s. His plan was to become an architect and eventually to move to Israel. He did not think he’d be a singer. “But he found his way to music, and he got the lead as Tony in ‘West Side Story’ — he didn’t even know what ‘West Side Story’ was then — and he just made his way back to music.”

He moved to New York, transferred to the Mannes College of Music, and worked as an usher. “People always asked him if he wanted to be a cantor, and he couldn’t understand what they meant. He would go to synagogues and hear  cantors who weren’t very good.

“And then he heard either Jan Peerce or Richard Tucker sing at Carnegie Hall, and then suddenly, in the middle of an amazing performance, one of them — I don’t remember which one — took out a kippah, put it on, and sings a cantorial piece, and my dad was like oooohhhhhh….. And then he was like, ‘Yeah, I can get behind that.’

“And then he went to cantorial school at JTS.”

Galeet with her grandfather, Younes Dardashti.

At first, that might seem odd. JTS, the Conservative movement’s flagship academic institute, is profoundly Ashkenazi. “But there is no Sephardi or Mizrachi cantorial school,” Dr. Dardashti said. “He was a traditional Jew, and to him Jewish was Jewish. It was just Jewish singing, and he was into it.

“So my dad became an Ashkenazi cantor.”

Danielle, Galeet, and Michelle Dardashti are half Iranian, but they’re also half Ashkenazi. Their mother, Sheila, comes from Queens; she’s a retired special education teacher, musician, and singer. The family moved fairly often as Farid Darshati changed pulpits; Galeet was born in Overlook Hospital in Summit, but then lived in Florida, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. Her father retired after years at Beth El Synagogue in New Rochelle, and he and his wife still live in Westchester County. So does Galeet, her husband, and their two children, and so does her older sister.

When the sisters were young and the family sang together, they sang Ashkenazi music. “We would do a little bit of Sephardic stuff, but it’s hard to dabble in Persian music, because it is very specific, and some of it is hard,” Dr. Dardashti said. “I didn’t grow up listening to it.

She knew her Iranian grandparents, Younes and Hoori Dardashti — “my grandmother was an amazing force,” she said — because they moved to Israel in 1967. He still went back to Iran to sing then, she said. “It wasn’t an issue. He didn’t think he’d have to give up his fame, just because he moved.” She’d get to see her grandparents fairly often, and “I knew him, but we didn’t really have a shared language.

“He didn’t speak any English — he spoke mainly Persian and French — and my Hebrew wasn’t amazing then. And he was a man of few words anyway.” They never sang together. “When I would hear him sing — and everyone would always be ‘Please sing. Sing. Sing!’ whenever he was around — I thought it was cool, but it was very foreign. It wasn’t accessible at all to me then.”

After she graduated from the University of Maryland, Dr. Dardashti moved to Austin and began graduate school. “That’s where I really started studying Middle Eastern music,” she said. It was 1999; the Islamic revolution in Iran was 20 years in the past, “and it seemed at the time that Iran was going to open up. So I got a fellowship to study Persian music. The idea was that I was going to look at what had happened to my grandfather and his music in Iran. But during that first year of graduate school, it became very clear that I was not going to Iran.

Three-year-old Galeet, her older sister, Michelle, and their mother, Sheila, sing together.

“So I switched to study Hebrew more intensely, and I decided to study Mizrachi music in Israel. (Mizrachi Jews come from the Middle East.) I wrote about the growing openness to Middle Eastern music in Israel. In the country’s early years, Israelis weren’t open to it, but there was an opening of Mizrachi pride at the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s. There were people who really wanted to connect with their Mizrachi roots, and of course that had a big impact on me, as someone who was very distanced from her own Persian roots.

“That’s how I started making Middle Eastern music with my band, Divahn, in Austin. It was such a cool place to start the band in, because it wasn’t just Jews who came to my shows. It was a real mix of the Austin music scene.

“Divahn took off in ways that I hadn’t expected. I was asked to perform nationally and even internationally when I was a grad student.”

But she still wasn’t singing Persian music.

“It wasn’t until years later, after I went to Israel for my field work, that I studied Persian classical music in Israel. It was such a roots period for me. People would say, ‘You are the granddaughter of this famous Persian singer! You have to study his music.’ So I did.

“I learned to make sounds that I never knew that I could make. It’s a physical thing, a different kind of training, a differing way to use your voice. I had used my voice in many different ways — I did start out as a voice major, but I realized that I was interested in so many things, but not in being an opera singer.”

After she finished her field work and earned her Ph.D., Dr. Dardashti moved back to New York. She won a two-year Six Points Fellowship for emerging Jewish artists; an album called “The Naming,” with original songs about women in the Bible, resulted from it. “I wanted to make the music I wrote there sound like where they were living — which was the Middle East,” she said. “I wrote songs that I thought fit the sound of what their lives were as they told their stories.”

Divahn performs in Ann Arbor, Michigan; that’s Galeet singing, in the center of the group.

More recently, she kept thinking about the Selichot recordings that her grandfather had made in the early 1970s. “I had always wanted to do something with it. It is just so gorgeous. I always have been blown away by it.

“We have other recordings of him singing in Persian, but I don’t speak Persian very well, and I’m very connected to Hebrew, and I had a very Jewish upbringing. So the recording of him singing Selichot was more accessible to me, and it was so beautiful that I wanted to connect with it.

“So that’s what I did.”

Remember about how there’s often a tension between two poles — Sephardic and Ashkenazi, secular and Jewish, Texas and New York, Persia and Israel — in Dr. Darshashti’s work? “What really inspired me, something really crazy about this recording of my grandfather’s, is that there was a piece at the very end of it
called Monajat.

“I didn’t know what it was. It’s in Persian, not Hebrew. I asked my family, but no one really knew what was this thing that he sang every night in Elul.

“He’d sing Selichot, and at the end he’d sing Monajat in Persian. My dad said he always ended that way. It was his own tradition. We think that he wrote it in the style of a Rumi poem.” At first she thought it must have been by the 13th-century Persian Sufi mystic, “but I couldn’t trace down that poem anywhere,” she said. “It seems more likely that he wrote it himself. That’s what he did — he chanted poetry. He would interpret it vocally.

“It’s about rising up and worshipping God. Rumi and Hafez” — another, slightly later Persian poet — “wrote about the same kinds of things. Even though they were, quote unquote, secular, they really weren’t. They were written about Sufis and God and wine. There was no clear demarcation between the secular and the sacred.”

Members of Divahn; Galeet Dardashti is in the middle of the photo.

So while often there is tension between two poles, there is no tension where it counts the most.

“Monajat is so beautiful,” Dr. Dardashti said. “It was so seamless. My grandfather could go from singing in Hebrew to singing in Persian.

“‘Monajat’ means fervent prayer. It means dialogue with the Divine. I wanted to call this album Monajat because of the whole concept of the lack of distinction between the secular and the sacred.

“I think it’s beautiful. It encapsulates the way my grandfather’s Persian-ness and Jewishness are so fluid. You don’t have to be only one or the other. I feel that is missing from the discourse in the United States.

“People didn’t realize that this is how it was for Jews living in most of the Middle East, that they could be so Persian and so Jewish at the same time. They could be both.

“I wanted to emphasize the sense of coexistence and shared culture that so often gets lost. My grandfather could display it without even trying, both as an artist and as a Jew.

“That’s where this project came from. I composed my own pieces, and I took traditional pieces and rearranged them and sampled my grandfather. Being able to dialogue with him, to sing in unison with him, to harmonize with him, to trade verses with him — that was so exciting for me.

“And I was so lucky to work with such amazing musicians. I am so fortunate to have this incredible ensemble.”

They’re Zafer Tawil on ney, violin, and doumbek, Max ZT on hammer dulcimer, Philip Mayer on doumbek, frame drum, and riqq, and Shanir Blumenkranz on oud and bass. “It was produced by one of the musicians, Shanir Blumenkranz, who is sort of like me — half Ashkenazi and half Egyptian,” she said.

Buy Galeet Dardashti’s album and learn more about her at her website, www.galeetdardashti.com. She and her sister Danielle have started a podcast about their grandfather, called “The Nightingale of Iran”; so far, the trailer is available on Apple podcasts.

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