Music Feature: Fervent Prayer — Galeet Dardashti crafts new rituals from the old

Galeet Dardashti is a trailblazing musician: she is the first woman in her celebrated family to perform Persian Jewish music.

Monajat, featuring Galeet Dardashti. The performance is sponsored by the Boston Jewish Music Festival and the New Center for Arts and Culture at the Distler Performance Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA, September 15, 8 p.m. (Galeet Dardashti will also perform on Wednesday, September 14 at the Selihot workshop, Gann Academy, Boston, MA.)

By Etta King

Galeet Dardashti — a musical trailblazer in the tradition of Persian Jewish music. Photo: Doron Gild.

What intrigues me most about Galeet Dardashti is the way that she captures her family’s story and draws me into it. Although on paper she and I seem nothing alike, in truth, her story is not so different from mine or from the stories of many Americans who strive to honor the legacy and traditions of their families while accomplishing their own goals and dreams.

If I had to choose a word to describe Dardashti’s work, it would be balance. Rooted in a tradition three generations deep, the old world meets the new, musicianship meets motherhood, science meets culture, words meet music, and the East meets the West in a striking and beautiful equilibrium. She’s also a trailblazer: following in the footsteps of her legendary grandfather, Yona Dardashti, and her father, Cantor Farid Dardashti, Galeet is the first woman in her family to perform Persian Jewish music.

As a child and young woman, Dardashti performed professionally with her parents and two sisters in a group known as “A Dash of Dardashti”—what she describes as the “Jewish Von Trapp Family singers.” More recently, she has performed as the leader and vocalist of the all-female, Mizrahi band Divahn. Her solo project, The Naming, launched in 2010. According to her, it “draws inspiration from the musical and cultural landscapes of the Middle East and some of the provocative yet unsung Biblical women who lived there.” Dardashti also holds a Ph.D. in anthropology for her work on the performance of contemporary Mizrahi and Arab music in Israel.

When asked about the relationship between her academic pursuits and her music, Dardashti comments that the two have always been connected. It wasn’t until Dardashti was completing her doctoral dissertation field work in Israel that she studied classical Persian singing for the first time: “They enrich each other—I feel that my artistic work has more depth and my academic work more artistry.” As Dardashti continues to explore both the Persian and the Jewish parts of her identity, the understanding of the larger cultural and political themes provided by an anthropological perspective will continue to inform her performances.

While Divahn and The Naming are generally slotted as “Middle Eastern Jewish music,” Dardashti’s latest endeavor, Monajat, combines video art, Jewish and Persian poetry, and music to generate a rich, multimedia experience that provides “renewal, contemplation, and reflection.”

The piece represents several firsts for Dardashti. “Musically, it is the first time I’ve created such a personal piece on my own Persian identity,” she says. As a child, Galeet listened to a collection of poetic prayers recorded by her grandfather, the only set of recordings he had done in Hebrew. Mixed in with the Hebrew, there was also a Persian poem, “Monajat,” which means “fervent prayer.” The lyrics for the songs “Monajat” and “Wine Song for Spring” come from poems by the Sufi poet Rumi.

“I loved that my grandfather took this Persian poem that thematically related to Selihot (Jewish prayers of repentance) and brought it into the ritual,” says Dardashti. “It made sense for him as a Persian Jew and as someone that made a living improvising on Persian poetry.” The power and strength of “Monajat” within the Jewish context of Selihot inspired Dardashti to recreate the ritual in a way that is meaningful to her own identity and practice. “I hope my children will feel connected and proud of their Iranian heritage and musical legacy,” she says. At the same time, the opportunity to perform “Monajat” during this time of the year allows her to bring the narrative of Persian Jews and Persian-Jewish Americans to light—creating what she calls “a window into the Persian-Jewish tradition.”

Galeet Dardashti Photo: Doron Gild

This is also the first time, by reinterpreting Selihot, that Dardashti has reinvented a religious ritual, and she ironically notes that the project was hugely inspired by technology. Working with old recordings of her grandfather, Dardashti is able to sing with him—which she describes as “incredible . . . almost a spiritual experience.” This practice underscores the importance of history to her work—both generally and specifically. Blurring the line between past and present, listeners and performers alike may feel the poignant weight of tradition while also being reassured by an act of continuity of custom and practice that spans time and geography.

Weaving voice and music into video art created Dmitry Kmelnitsky, Dardashti hopes to harness the media advances of today to “enhance the experience of the ritual for the audience members—to help them feel more a part of it and less like spectators.” Merging the musical traditions of her family with electronic music and live singing, Dardashti anticipates that audiences “will come away from the show perhaps connecting to Selihot either for the first time or in a new way that will leave them inspired and more prepared for the High Holidays.”

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