Galeet Dardashti, founder of the all-woman band Divahn, never set out to be a Jewish feminist icon or spokeswoman. She just wanted to follow in the footsteps of her highly musical family.
"We’re all powerful women in my family, so I’ve never felt oppressed," she says. "I never set out to be in an all-woman band, but Divahn grew organically. I started singing sacred music in the Middle Eastern realm as an outgrowth of who I am, not as a statement. When I began to get deeper into the Middle Eastern stuff, it was normal for me to sing it. I learned to chant Torah in the Persian trop; it was all really natural. Incorporating that into my performing was just who I am and what I do."
Who she is and what she does encompasses a lot of territory. She is a singer, composer, writer, anthropologist and, most recently, mom. And she has a new CD coming out this month that showcases all of those roles. Even the last one, albeit indirectly. "The Naming," the new record, is something of a concept album, a collection of songs about and for strong women from the Jewish tradition, and Dardashti’s stage version is an elaborate, scintillating piece that uses video and dance elements impressively.
The project had its roots in two elements of Dardashti’s career and life, the strong reaction to her work from the female side of her audiences, and the birth of her first child a couple of years ago.
"As an academic I had always written about ethnicity and identity, but gender wasn’t that interesting to me," she says. "But when you start thinking about having children, it comes to the fore. I found myself thinking about the roles my husband and I were going to have. And [the issue of gender] became more powerful to me as people told me how powerful it was for them. I almost forgot that this is not something that women do in the Mizrahi and Sephardi worlds. It was very exciting for me to get that response from women."
Since she had already written a song about Vashti, Ahashuerus’ rebellious queen, it was only logical that Dardashti would pursue a collection of women from the Tanach. But her inspirations also came from her own family history. Although the album’s opening song, "Michal," is ostensibly about King David’s wife, the impetus behind its composition was Dardashti’s great-aunt Tovah, who wore tefillin to recite morning prayers in Tehran. And the title cut – based on a midrash saying that while Adam had the task of naming the animals, it falls to women to name the children – certainly must have had its origins much closer to home.
At present, Dardashti is expecting her second child, and contemplating the rigors of launching the CD at the same time. She and her husband reluctantly abandoned Brooklyn last year to be closer to family in Westchester.
"I’m surrounded by family here," she says. "It was sad leaving Brooklyn but being near family is the only way I can continue working as a musician, working on my academic work and being a mother. I’ve been very lucky to have this whole support network nearby."
Never underestimate the power of a network of Jewish women.
The CD release party for Galeet Dardashti’s "The Naming," with her band, SYREN Modern Dance, takes place Sept. 14, 7 p.m. at Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker St.). With video art from Lustre plus special guests, including Mycale – the all-female John Zorn Vocal Project (Basya Schechter of Pharaoh’s Daughter, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Malika Zarra and Sofia Rei Koutsovitis). The CD is available from www.GaleetDardashti.com.