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Galeet Dardashti Puts the Band Back Together
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Galeet Dardashti Puts the Band Back Together

The cross-cultural, all-female ensemble Divahn re-emerges, with its mix of the sacred and the secular.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Roots music: Galeet Dardashti, with Divahn, whose new CD is titled “Shalhevet.”  Photos courtesy of Galeet Dardashti
Roots music: Galeet Dardashti, with Divahn, whose new CD is titled “Shalhevet.” Photos courtesy of Galeet Dardashti

It’s not an accident that Galeet Dardashti hasn’t released an album since her groundbreaking 2015 recording “The Naming.”

“I was a little busy finishing my dissertation and raising two kids,” the Jewish-Persian-American singer explained in a telephone interview last week.

Now the long wait is over, so much so that March will see her involved in not one but two new CD launches, each spawning live performances in the New York area.

Her children are 9 and 12, her teaching schedule is reasonable and the political atmosphere, she said, is dire.

Time to get the band back together.

Divahn, the band in question, began its life in Austin, Texas, early in the new millennium. After releasing an excellent self-titled debut album in 2002, the group dissolved, but Dardashti looked back on the group fondly and, when she was thinking about future projects, she always saw Divahn as the band that would execute them, even if all its members were replaced. And, indeed, that was what happened.

“What really pushed us to record an album was the 2016 election,” Dardashti said. The timing, she explained, was fortuitous: “Right before we knew the band’s personnel wasn’t going to change any more, and this was a really solid group. After the election we felt that what the world needed was an all-Jewish-female-Middle Eastern band that spoke to what unites us and that celebrates those values.”

A quintet with an impressive roster of guest artists, the current version of Divahn is releasing its first album in almost 20 years on March 7, with a live gig at Joe’s Pub.

The album, “Shalhevet” (Hebrew for “Flame”), is a pulsating, probing collection of Middle Eastern-sounding tunes, drawing on one of Dardashti’s fields of expertise, piyyutim (a Jewish liturgical poem, usually designated to be sung). But with a quintet whose distinguishing features are superb musicianship and a wildly diverse set of musical backgrounds and interests, it’s not just Middle Eastern cultures that are in the mix.

“We have a tabla player (Sejal Kukadia) who plays mostly Indian music, a Latin percussionist (Elizabeth Pupo-Walker) who plays mostly Latin music, a cellist (Eleanor Norton) and a violinist (Megan Gould) who play everything from Middle Eastern to classical to Broadway,” Dardashti said. “Everyone brings their unique strengths and expertise to the table.”

The musical tradition they are drawing on together is one that testifies to the complex cultural mix at play in Persia and its neighbors in the Middle East.

 

Dardashti explained, “Throughout the history of the Islamic world there have been sacred texts that were set to the tunes of secular songs from around the region. Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian musicians were an active part of that [cross-pollination], perpetuating the music. These were traditionally songs for men, but we bring our own female approach to these sacred songs.”

Dardashti’s own background is steeped in Middle Eastern musical traditions. Her grandfather, Younis, was a vocal giant of Persian classical music. Her father Farid is a prominent cantor in the U.S. Her training in ethnomusicology diversifies her sources but she still brings a predominantly Middle Eastern spin to Divahn. That, she said, is where the diverse backgrounds of her bandmates come in handy.

The other project that Dardashti has brought to fruition recently is a result of a three-year stint at Jewish Theological Seminary, where she has taught a class on piyyutim that resulted in JTS cantorial and rabbinical students performing their own versions of piyyutim.

“What really pushed us to record an album was the 2016 election,” Dardashti said.

“The Conservative movement’s ‘Siddur Lev Shalem’ has a selection of mystical piyyutim that were unfamiliar to me,” she said. “I thought, if I don’t know them or what to do with them, what will a cantor with little background in this tradition do?”

The class and the album “Seeds of Song” grew out of that situation, focusing on some of the lesser-known verses in the prayerbook. Musically as varied as the school’s student body, “Seeds” is an eclectic, rewarding gathering that suggests that the surface of this tradition — and the new directions it can grow in — has merely been touched. The CD will have a launch concert at JTS on March 22, in conjunction with the opening of the school’s new building.

Dardashti looks back on both the making of “Seeds” and the arduous road that Divahn has taken with a real sense of satisfaction and purpose.

“I could have easily ended the band,” she confessed. “But there was something really special about that band that I just wasn’t ready to let go. We had songs for the next album that we never recorded. I wasn’t ready to not record those songs.”

Which means, hopefully, we will not have to wait five years for the next Divahn CD. _

Galeet Dardashti and Divahn will perform on Saturday, March 7 at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St., publictheater.org) and Sunday, March 29 at Shaarei Tikvah (46 Fox Meadow Rd., Scarsdale).

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