The World Through Music and Culture

Iranian Vocalist Mamak Khadem Breaks Gender Rules with Music

Mamak Khadem performing at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Borneo. (Photo by Maria Bakkalapulo)

Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)

Original Broadcast on The World (PRI/ BBC).

Iranian vocalist Mamak Khadem is breaking gender rules in Persian music, one of very few Iranian women singing this style of poetry in public, usually a men-only affair. On October 4, Khadem will release her new album – A Window to Color –  with influences from Turkey, Greece and Spain. Maria Bakkalapulo speaks to Mamak Khadem about how this album has helped her find her purpose as an Iranian woman and singer.
Original broadcast on The World (PRI / BBC), for the full radio + video feature, click here – THE WORLD / MAMAK KHADEM
TRANSCRIPT: (The below is a transcript of the audio story. Be sure to click on the above link to hear the voices, music and sounds on-location.)
During the interview, Iranian-born singer Mamak Khadem launches into an a capella version of her song “Invocation.” It is from her new release A Window to Color. She calls it a form of prayer, a poetic expression of a lover’s desire to be united with the Beloved. Khadem often starts her live performances with this song as something of a blessing… to ensure her show goes smoothly.
Mamak Khadem moved to Los Angeles in 1977, two years before Iran’s Islamic revolution. She left for America alone and stayed with relatives. The teenager didn’t want to leave Iran, but her parents insisted she study in America. Settled in the US, she still felt herself deeply concerned with the political turmoil and religious extremism in Iran. ” In the States, after the revolution, I chose classic Iranian music because it has a history, it has identity,” Khadem says. “It is something substantial, it is something you have to learn. Instead of pop or other music. I wanted it to be something 100% Iranian. Learning it, understanding it made me feel like I was keeping my identity.”
Khadem travelled to Iran every summer to study vocal arts from two female masters. She eventually mastered singing the ancient poetic verse of the Persian greats, like Rumi and Hafiz. During these trips, in the period before President  took power, she saw hope for change. “There were some changes that were happening during Khatami’s time, where 2-3 women could sing together. One of them that was really great was a woman couldn’t be a soloist, but 2-3 women could sing together,” Khadem explains. “And at that time, I remember travelling to Iran then and I could see my friends and the females that had voices. I could see a spark in their eyes. There was a time everybody felt that they could do something. Of course, that didn’t last too long. When Ahmadinejad came to power, things really went backwards, way backwards.”
With the simple act of singing – in public as a soloist – Khadem rebels against the current regime in Iran, which ensures that traditional music is strictly controlled. Women are only allowed to sing in private, or in all-female concerts where even the production crew are women. For a woman brave enough to sing Persian classical songs, it becomes a form of protest. Khadem shares the music, performing across the world, keeping alive the freedom of expression presently denied inside Iran. “I have to make a statement because I can. If someone is in Iran, they cannot, “she says proudly. “As a woman, I have to do that.  It is not just doing the music, it is going beyond that. Talking about the women who live inside Iran, their challenges. I am an Iranian woman and I want to be the voice of Iranian women. It’s a big challenge. My heart is in it so I feel I am a good representative of an Iranian woman.”
A Window to Color is co-produced with Khadem’s husband Hamid Saeidi, who also plays the santur, a Persian hammered dulcimer. The album draws on the work of the modern Persian poet and painter Sohrab Sepehri. The lyrics of this song, Shakpooy, speak of the contradictions tormenting humanity after its move from a state of primal purity, to one of knowledge and freewill. Khadem says it reflects somewhat the struggles she’s faced in her own life. “I’ve always felt guilty, you know, for not being in Iran and I didn’t do anything when everyone was dying during the revolution,” says Khadem. “Women are not allowed to do anything now. But, I need to be more positive about the things that I can offer. I truly feel that if I can inspire some of the women inside Iran, to be true to themselves their art, then I’ve done more than my share in this life. “

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