“I really wanted to find something that would allow me to fuse my nerdiness and my interest in academic pursuits with music,” she told NJJN. “I always envisioned that I would do something along these lines. I didn’t want to choose.”
And so far, it seems to have worked out just fine.
The granddaughter of a famous Persian-Jewish singer and daughter of an American-trained cantor, Dardashti thinks a lot about the cultural and political landscape as it affects Mizrahi music; at the same time, she is the force behind Divahn, an all-woman band focusing on Sephardi strains with an updated twist (think along the lines of the klezmer revival but for Mizrahi/Sephardi music). First formed while she was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin — where she earned a PhD in anthropology — the band took off. Although she is the only remaining member from the original band, it is still going strong and, she said, “tighter” than ever.
Dardashti also created two other projects: “The Naming,” created in 2010, is a solo multi-media work in which she tells the stories of biblical women like Michal, Vashti, and Dina in Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic. “Monajat,” completed in 2011, is an “exclusively Persian” piece that focuses on the prayers of Selihot and includes jazz and electronics. It also includes a recording of Dardashti’s grandfather’s voice, so the two actually get to “sing together.”
What makes her work stand apart from Western music, she said, is its use of the modal system to create the Eastern sound — sometimes called “microtonal” because it includes many more notes than the Western scale, as well as different vocal and instrumental techniques. There’s also plenty of strings and drumming. And while the echo of some long-ago voice is never too far off, Dardashti often infuses something contemporary into her music — electronics, a pulsing beat, or a jazz riff.
Dardashti comes from a long line of Persian vocalists, and her seemingly divergent interests actually stem from her singular desire to explore her own musical heritage. That in turn led her on other journeys, both musical and academic.
She had expanded her focus to include Mizrahi music when it became clear that field work in Iran would be impossible. When Mohammed Khatami was president, from 1997 to 2005, she said, “it was looking optimistic that I could go; but it became apparent very soon after I started grad school that it would be too dangerous because of my grandfather and my name” as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over.
If her grandfather’s aliya brought him to safety in the 1970s, it also led to a musical dead end. He was a “huge star” in Iran, Dardashti said, but “there was no audience for him in Israel.” It was not a moment for Sephardi or Mizrahi pride in Israel, where Ashkenazi culture was the dominant force. And that became a pivotal point in her research. “I started writing about Middle Eastern musicians who were suddenly trying to embrace the Eastern identities they had been dislocated and alienated from.” By the time she got into the studies, the cultural tides in Israel had changed. “Now, suddenly, picking up an oud was cool,” she said.
Her own involvement in performance has helped her understand some of the dynamics at play. Having received foundation money to create both “The Naming” and “Monajat,” she understands how a large foundation’s agenda can shape the cultural landscape, and she is writing about it. “Not enough attention is paid to following the money and understanding how shifts happen — whether it’s Avi Chai or JDub or the Foundation for Jewish Culture — how people make decisions about what to produce is often based upon funding.”
She’s also written on the power dynamics of collaboration in Israel between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians, particularly during the Second Intifada, which began in 2000, when she was there. “Some of those performances were just that — performances,” she said. “They were one-off events that made audience members feel good but were not representative of the facts on the ground.” She said that many of them “did not feel like collaborating, but there was money, so they collaborated.” That work made her feel “more jaded” about the healing power of music, she said, realizing “music can also obscure power dynamics.”
Dardashti is now at work on a book about the forces that have brought Mizrahi piyutim onto the popular scene in Israel today, so that the liturgical poetry is even embraced by secular rock stars. “There’s nothing Mizrahi-related in their music, but they dive into performing and recording these religious poems from Mizrahi tradition. The question is why.”