IRAN: Enlighten The Night - Mahsa Vahdat
Sensuous vocals and gentle jazz combine with Iranian traditional music in a beautiful confluence of sounds
Many, though not all, of the musicians we feature as album of the week tend to be famous, either worldwide, in the world music scene, or even just within aficionados of their genre, or perhaps even localised to just their own countries. Leonard Cohen is maybe our best example so far of the first type, then you have people like Cesária Évora and Salif Keita as examples of world music superstars who are also extremely famous in their home countries as well as to fans of their respective genres of morna and afro-pop, and you have Sinn Sisamouth, the King of Khmer music, as an example of a musician who is hugely famous in their homeland, though not well known outside of it. In an unusual turn of events, Mahsa Vahdat is famous on the world music scene, yet mostly unknown within her homeland of Iran. Though Vahdat is a performer of the highest calibre, with a soft yet powerful voice to reckon with, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, there has been a ban on women performing and singing in public, effectively putting the kibosh onto her career inside her own country. Instead, Vahdat studied music at the University of Tehran, taking up private music tuition as a job, before gaining the opportunities to perform outside Iran, in the early 2000s, the most significant of which was participating on the album Lullabies from the Axis of Evil.
The brainchild of Norwegian producer, Erik Hillestad, the album was conceived as a humanistic counter to former US President George Bush’s assertion that Iran, North Korea, and Iraq constituted an axis of evil by showcasing music from these nations. It also included musicians from the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, Syria, Cuba, and Libya – the latter three of which were identified by Bush’s Undersecretary of State and later National Security Advisor to the Trump White House John Bolton as ‘beyond the axis of evil’. Vahdat and her sister, Marjan, were selected to perform on the album, and while the album was lukewarmly received, it established Vahdat and her sister with links to the Norwegian music industry, and Hillestad’s label have recorded and released Vahdat’s work ever since, with Enlighten the Night being no exception, with Hillestad and Iranian-American setar master Atabak Elyasi overseeing the production duties during their recording sessions in Oslo.
“Gentle piano lines and plucked double bass notes slide in and out of Vahdat’s Persian vocals, giving one the impression of listening to the music in an intimate venue.”
Though it has no real bearing on the album itself – indeed, I was unaware of any of this when I selected it to be an Album of the Week – it certainly is unusual to come across a case of a musician as talented as Vahdat who is denied the fame and success she deserves due to archaic and regressive laws in her home country. Vahdat clearly has a social conscience and has herself written songs with her sister that decry and condemn the repression of women in Iran that are included on previous albums, yet I am at least thankful that she has been able to carve out her niche recording and touring abroad. It is, however, sobering to think of the amount of female talent in Iran that has not been able to express itself or reach its full potential due to wrong-headed laws like this.
The album itself is of very high quality. Vahdat’s voice is a true wonder, expressing rich and keenly felt emotion. While I am unable to understand the lyrics, which have been taken from the work of Iranian poets and writers, Vahdat is a master at conveying the feel of the song solely through the tone of her voice. Whether it is the defiant yet pained intonations of the title track, the mysterious solemnity of The Act of Freedom, or the wistfulness expressed in The Moon Beams, Vahdat’s singing is always pitch perfect. Her almost sultry voice is truly beautiful to listen to, and it is what elevates the album to a high level, though that is not to say the music behind the vocals is bad, rather it does exactly what it needs to do.
The instrumentation is simple, jazzy, laid back, without many frills or fancy flourishes, but it serves the essential purpose of highlighting the sublime element of the album – Vahdat’s voice. That said, there is some interesting aspects to it. Though it may not seem so, it is in fact fusion, with jazz instruments such as piano and bass mixing in with Iranian string and setar sounds, alongside drumming patterns and rhythms more akin to something you would hear in Middle-Eastern folk as opposed to a jazz club. The mix is simultaneously involving and sensuous, complimenting the lush vocal arrangements. Gentle piano lines and plucked double bass notes slide in and out of Vahdat’s Persian vocals, giving one the impression of listening to the music in an intimate venue. I think intimate is a key word here in another respect. Vahdat’s singing in the traditional Iranian style alongside the deceptively simple musical accompaniment make you feel like you’re right there with them. Her voice has that quality that can, at its best, make you feel like you’re in the room where they recorded it. It’s rather remarkable, and it is down to the superlative vocal performance of Vahdat.
This is not an album that will get you up on your feet dancing, nor is it one that I have necessarily found myself going back to over the course of the past several months since I heard it. If I were to level one criticism to the piece, it would be that as a whole album it is wholly of the same style, in mostly the same slow tempo, and that some variation wouldn’t have gone amiss. That said, it is nonetheless a beautiful album, with so many stunning moments of musical interplay between the musicians playing and Vahdat’s passionate, urgent, heartfelt singing. I would recommend you listen to this and give it your full attention. You will soon understand why Vahdat has become an icon of the Iranian diaspora and the world music scene as a whole.