Thursday, February 27, 2020

USA: All-female Middle Eastern Jewish powerhouse ensemble Divahn celebrates the strength of women and musical common ground on Shalhevet

All-female Middle Eastern Jewish powerhouse ensemble Divahn celebrates the strength of women and musical common ground on Shalhevet

As one of the very few groups performing Mizrahi and Judeo-Arab music in the US today, NYC-based ensemble Divahn—whose name is a word common to the Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic languages, denoting a collection of songs or poetry—has been internationally recognized for its mission to highlight the common ground between diverse Middle Eastern cultures and religions through music. 
That is the spirit behind Divahn’s latest album Shalhevet (to be released March 7, 2020), a collection of passionately original interpretations of traditional Sephardi/Mizrahi Jewish songs that blend lush string arrangements, eclectic Indian, Middle Eastern, and Latin percussion, and vocals spanning Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic.  The title of the album comes from the Hebrew word for ‘flame’ or ‘blaze’ with the intent that Divahn’s strong emphasis on the commonality between Middle Eastern cultures and religions should serve as a flaming bonfire for the sometimes darker world we find ourselves in today.
According to Divahn’s founder, Persian-American singer, composer, writer, and anthropology professor Galeet Dardashti, the all-female powerhouse is about welcoming audiences into the beautiful shared heritage of the intertwined Abrahamic peoples of the Middle East while also taking a vocal stance against the homogenizing forces of nativism that are increasingly prevalent in today’s political climate.
“We'd mostly been focused on doing a lot of live performances the last couple years, but then the Trump election of 2016 happened,” reflects Galeet. “Like so many, we were all so devastated and really wanted to respond as artists, so it became really clear that we were going to make another album. The world needs an all-female Middle Eastern Jewish album that celebrates what connects us, rather than what tears us apart.”
The album’s defiant spirit of hope is perhaps most exemplified by the track “Banu Choshech”. A familiar children’s Chanukah song sung throughout the Jewish world, the song’s simple and straightforward lyrics resonated powerfully with the band as they searched for an anthem of hope and strength in the dour aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election: “We’ve come to chase away the darkness.  We bear light and fire. Each glimmer is small. But together, our blaze is fierce.” In this version, Divahn gave the song their own unique spin, adding quarter tones, rooted in the band’s Middle Eastern musical vocabulary. Galeet then added Biblical texts to highlight the Jewish approach to caring for the stranger.  
This pairing of creative composition with deep cultural study has always been characteristic of Divahn’s music. Many of the songs on the album demonstrate the historic shared culture between Jews and non-Jews in the Middle East by highlighting the piyyut (sacred song) tradition. Beginning in the 16th century of this tradition, Jewish composers would write religious Hebrew texts to the secular songs that were popular across the Middle East and originally written in Arabic, Persian, Greek, and Turkish.
A prime example of this is the album’s first track, “Ya’alah Ya’alah,” which draws its lyrics from the language and themes of the Song of Songs, and sets them to the melody of a popular Arabic love song called “Ya Tira Tiri.” The piyyut’s author, the prolific bohemian 16th century Rabbi Yisrael Najara, is believed to have begun the practice of composing Hebrew lyrics to the popular secular songs of the day. 
Galeet points out that this practice was widespread, and that Jews were often the perpetuators of music across the Middle East because, during some periods, Islamic law prohibited Muslims from doing such work. In fact, many of the melodies that Dardashti sings on the album in Hebrew, including “Ya'alah Ya'alah,” the 20th century Syrian piyyut “Ayni Tzofiah,” and the 20th century Moroccan “Am Ne’emanay” were all originally Arabic love songs. On the album, Galeet sings “Ya'alah Ya'alah,” in both its original Arabic and as a Hebrew piyyut as an homage to the track’s musical etymology.
For Galeet, leading Divahn is as much about highlighting Arab-Jewish and Persian-Jewish culture as it is about celebrating the strength of women—a point brought to bear by the fact that Divahn performs religious songs not traditionally sung by women in the Jewish Middle Eastern world. 
As such, the all-female band’s album release is timed to coincide with Purim, a Jewish holiday with an origin story that not only takes place in ancient Persia but also celebrates two powerful women. Queen Esther is the traditional Jewish heroine of the story, who saves the Jewish people from annihilation with her wit and courage. But the other heroine for Divahn is Queen Vashti—the non-Jewish queen who stands up to the male chauvinist king when he demands that she show off her beauty to his guests.  When she refuses him, he ousts her as queen for fear that she could start a women’s revolution. “Vashti is an exemplar of standing up for your principles and fighting against patriarchy, no matter the consequences—she was ahead of her time.” says Dardashti.

Divahn got its start, years ago, when Dardashti was an anthropology graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, studying Middle Eastern Jewish musical trends in Israel. Galeet’s musical and academic inspirations came from her own family history, as her father is an accomplished and widely renowned cantor, and her grandfather was one of the most famous singers of Persian classical music in Iran during the 1950s and 1960s. As an Iranian Jew, however, Galeet didn't grow up really connected to Middle Eastern Jewish Music. Instead, both her anthropological research and her career in music sprouted from a later desire to discover her own cultural heritage and musical traditions.
Divahn formed quite organically out of that mix as Galeet met fellow musicians in the Austin music scene. The band went through several emanations before solidifying with the current membership in New York City in 2015. The diverse musical backgrounds of the current band members contribute to a unique collaboration and sound: Eleanor Norton (cello, vocals), Elizabeth Pupo-Walker (cajon, congas, diverse percussion, vocals), Sejal Kukadia (Indian tabla, vocals), and Megan Gould (violin, kamanche, vocals). Between them, the impressively accomplished crew has performed with the likes of Natalie Merchant, Adele, Alan Cuming, John Legend, David Byrne, and the late Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, to name only a few, and also perform in many Broadway shows.
Divahn’s Shalhevet release show will take place at Joe’s Pub in NYC on March 7, 2020.