As the famous story goes, Iranian-born Jazz singer Rana Farhan and American guitarist Steven Toub set their first jazz piece to classical Persian poetry on a guitar that Farhan found in a trash pile. Last week, after a Rana Farhan concert at Yoshi’s in San Francisco I cornered Toub at the post-performance party and asked him if the story is true. I was delighted to hear him confirm the tale. There’s mysticism in how the discarded guitar event parallels the way Rumi found his beloved Shams. Just as Rumi had seen through Shams’ disheveled state to discover a life-changing spirit, Farhan took the guitar home, sensing a value in it that obviously no one else could see. That day, as Toub was strumming the life back into the old instrument, she picked up a book of Persian verse that happened to be lying open on the table and began singing along. That’s how the Rana Farhan phenomenon began. The verses in the book were Rumi‘s!
For a few years, the New York based singer was actually better known among the Iranian underground music circles than in the United States. Some young Iranians in the audience at Yoshi’s who had recently emigrated to the U.S. listened with campus-days nostalgia to Farhan‘s jazz and blues, remembering how excitedly their classmates used to pass around news of the latest Farhan download. International fame came to Farhan when a scene in Bahman Ghobadi‘s film No One Knows About Persian Cats featured her song Drunk With Love.
In this scene a young Iranian musician is led to a secret recording session in a basement having been promised a “heavenly voice.” Singing is heard from behind a closed door. Here’s how the dialog goes:
--Whose voice is that?
--Who is it?
--She’s amazing. Her singing is incredible. Do you know her? She’s great. Introduce me to her.
--I’ve set you up with an ace.
--Babak, who is that?
Farhan’s voice has a soulful saxophone buzz that is both lazy and dynamic. It encompasses the magic of jazz blues, which is both humble and profound, making sleepy statements that slap the listener awake with emotions. Rumi, Hafez, and Khayam work well with this musical form because jazz artists likewise strive to find the sublime in ordinary pleasure. Now that Farhan’s musical insight has brought it to our attention, I’m amazed in hindsight that the Persian beyt-jazz beat connection wasn't made before. Perhaps it’s because of the technical problems that have to be solved before the fusion can be accomplished. In Drunk with Love, for example, Farhan sometimes approaches a verse with a nasal head voice and resolves with a breathy chest voice, artfully paralleling the familiar catharsis after every verse of a classical Persian poem. It works seamlessly! But when she attempts to fuse the more contemporary poet Nima Youshij the seams become visible. In the absence of a metronomic rhythm she has to edit and distort the poem to fit the syllables “in the pocket,” so to speak. Another technical issue she and Steven Toub face has-- ironically-- to do with classical Persian lyrics being too rhythmic. This diminishes her option to sing slightly behind the beat, which gives jazz singing a unique laid back feel. However, Farhan’s natural voice modulations along with her comfortable singing attitude compensate for the problem, which suggests that not every singer can get away with what Farhan is doing, and why the fusion of jazz and classical Persian poetry had to wait for her arrival.
Compared to other Iranian vocalists singing in Western muscial styles Farhan maintains a strikingly clean separation between the Persian language lyrics and her jazz blues style music. She makes no attempt to Persianize the melodies or the rhythm, even though subconscious influence is unavoidable. Yet she was a young adult in Iran when the Golden Age Iranian pop singers were still performing and recording in the country. For this reason I asked her which of these singers she liked. Not surprisingly she replied, "None of them." I couldn't take this mean that she shuns her Iranian roots for the obvious reason that she sings some of the finest poetry Iran has produced. Rather, the attitude reflects what she said to the audience during the show: she is happy to see the best of both cultures come together in her music. Our Golden Age pop singers were (and are) enjoyable to listen to but hardly the best art our culture has to offer the world. That honor belongs to our classical poetry, which can easily stand up to the world-class artistic accomplishment that jazz halso appens to be. Farhan had the musical sensibility to recognize this, even as child .
Rana Farhan was received with enthusiasm at Yoshi’s by both the Iranian and the fairly large non-Iranian audience. The fact that she has a non-Iranian fan base is noteworthy and a hopeful sign for many diaspora performers seeking to expand their listeners to mainstream culture without abandoning their Iranian artistic roots. The show’s producer, Nazy Kaviani seems quite aware of the need to expand the audience for diaspora artists, which may be one of the many reasons Farhan attracted her attention. Kaviani is the founder of Diaspora Arts Connection, a new organization dedicated to promoting art and music created by diaspora artists. During the post-performance gathering I heard Kaviani and Farhan discussing the possibility of Farhan coming back for another concert in San Francisco. I look forward to hearing the innovations her band will showcase next time they’re in town.