Forbidden Voices

Photograph by Diaspora Arts Connection

Listen to the curated playlist that accompanies this piece to hear the women of Let Her Sing.

“In some ways, it’s the most natural, most legitimate thing, for a woman to sing for her child. And some countries will take the voice of a woman away,” Nazy Kaviani told me. Kaviani was born in Iran, before the 1979 revolution that transformed the country into a theocracy. Under the new regime, women were prohibited from performing in public in front of men. Wildly popular singers like Googoosh—think Madonna of Iran—were suddenly silenced. Googoosh herself didn’t perform again until leaving Iran 21 years later. As recently as May 2019, Iranian singer Negar Moazzam received a court summons for performing solo in public and posting a video of the performance, as reported by BBC News.

Many other countries have similar restrictions, either in law or in practice, as authorities deem women’s voices too sensual for the public.

In Saudi Arabia, women were banned from public singing until 2017. Afghanistan has no law explicitly prohibiting singing, but religious and family disapproval in many communities function in the same way.

When Kaviani was young and living in pre-revolution Iran, she would “chaperone” her older, university-student sister to plays and symphonies. “I would find myself sitting in a theater trying to figure out what this Chekhov play was,” Kaviani reminisced. “I would be the fly on the wall.” From these early experiences, she gained an appreciation for the importance of the arts in a thriving society. After moving to the Bay Area post-revolution, she created a community for herself of fellow immigrants and artists. But the celebrations of art and music of her childhood and the rich textures of the sounds and voices of her culture lacked a public space in her new community. This is why Kaviani founded Diaspora Arts Connection (DAC) in 2013—to create connections across cultures and empower artists who need a platform.

“I always say that artists walk this thin line between genius and madness. If they’re supported, they fall into the genius side and do great things,” Kaviani said. Through DAC, little by little, Kaviani has created space for the genius of diaspora artists. “Most of the time, artists don’t need anything from you other than the opportunity to work and to show their work,” she explained.

As a witness to the censorship of female artists in post-revolution Iran, Kaviani is especially dedicated to creating opportunities for women.

For the past three years, Kaviani and Diaspora Arts Connection have presented an annual one-night showcase in San Francisco entitled “Let Her Sing: A Celebration of Female Voices.” Most of the women who perform in this showcase come from countries that censor or ban female vocalists, including Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey. 2019’s event took place at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in front of a packed house.

One of the most anticipated performers of 2019’s celebration was Elaha Soroor. She strode onto the Let Her Sing stage in a traditional gold and red dress, shimmering with a duality of defiance and nonchalance befitting her life experiences. Soroor appeared on Afghan Star (Afghanistan’s take on American Idol) in 2009, becoming the first Hazara woman to appear on television. The Hazara are an ethnic minority from central Afghanistan, historically persecuted for their ethnic and religious differences. Soroor used her platform to speak out against the government, culminating with her 2010 song “Sangsar,” which openly criticized Afghanistan’s stoning law. As a woman of Hazara descent, it was brave for Soroor to sing on TV at all—even her family disapproved of her choice to sing. The death threats started after her Afghan Star appearance. Once “Sangsar” was released, the death threats turned into physical attacks on the street, forcing her to flee to the UK. Soroor finding her way to this San Francisco stage was a miraculous endeavor, yet unsurprising given the strength and fire she has shown throughout her career.

On stage in San Francisco, Soroor performed with pure joy, closing her eyes, and singing with her whole body. Soroor connects with her history through her music, by drawing predominantly from classic Afghani folk songs. Her performance was backed by the rolling beat of a darbouka, a classic middle eastern goblet drum known for its quick, crisp strokes. Her latest project, “Songs of our Mothers,” a collaboration with UK producer Kefaya, is a tribute to her culture and to the strength of women’s voices. Soroor dedicates it “to women around the world whose image has been erased, and whose voice has been forbidden.”

Soroor’s “Songs of our Mothers” honors the women who came before her, and acknowledges the resistance of women who, when denied public recognition, continue to preserve and pass down their culture and traditions, through song, to their children. Kaviani paid similar homage in her opening remarks at Let Her Sing, when she told the audience, “The first music children hear is from their mothers, it’s lullabies. Lullabies are world heritage, and the keepers of it are women and mothers.”

At Let Her Sing, no one exemplified this private resistance quite like mother and daughter duo Özden Öztoprak and Işık Berfin. These women descend from a line of Kurdish Alevi singers, but it wasn’t until moving to the Bay Area that musical performance became a truly viable path for the two women. During their performance, Öztoprak routinely made space for her daughter, turning to the side while Berfin faced the crowd, as if to guide Berfin’s voice out into the audience. Berfin brought out a daf, a large handheld frame drum adorned with ringlets, moving around the stage and dancing with her mother as she played. The daf is a difficult instrument because of its size and required technique. It takes strength and balance to play the daf, and so it is predominantly played by men. Berfin played it expertly. The duo walked off to resonant applause—even the drummer twirled his drumsticks in appreciation.

Most western audiences, even avid music fans, are likely unfamiliar with many of the instruments adorning the Let Her Sing stage: the daf, the kamanche—an Iranian bowed string instrument, the oud—bulbous, guitar-like, and enchanting.

These ancient instruments commanded the right side of the Let Her Sing stage—a nod to the traditions that many of these songs stem from. The left side featured the new: a full drum kit, electric bass, keyboard. Combining the old with the new, the traditional with the modern, is what defines art of the diaspora. Performers at Let Her Sing criss-crossed their way through that spectrum, from bold, powerful opera, to traditional Iranian folk music, to modern pop, to improvisational jazz. Each woman brought a unique combination to the stage—sounds of their heritage and techniques of their adopted land.

“Our next singer is a lottery winner,” the show’s MC announced to cheers and exclamations from the crowd. This piece of news clearly meant something a little different to a crowd filled with immigrants. The reward from this lottery was something perhaps rarer and more valuable than a cash prize: a green card. Singer Mehrnoosh was one of roughly 55,000 applicants annually selected from a pool often topping 23 million. With this gift, she has had the opportunity to make and perform Iranian music out of her Texas home. Although Mehrnoosh sang in Farsi, with the longing timbre characteristic of Persian music, her accompaniment was notably western—instruments from the left side of the stage. Her songs featured solos from both guitar and synth, and a musical style that borrowed from rock, pop, and reggae. Out of all the performers of the evening, the crowd seemed most familiar with Mehrnoosh’s music, especially her closing song, “Cheshmat,” which translates to “Your Eyes.” This upbeat yet sultry pop ballad has racked up almost 11 million views on YouTube. It was popular with the crowd as well and had much of the audience singing and clapping (albeit sometimes off-beat) along.

Mehrnoosh’s status as a permanent resident is the rare example among Let Her Sing artists. Many singers were traveling on passports from Middle Eastern countries, and two who were slated to perform were not granted visas to make the trip. One of these performers was Niaz Nawab, a resident of France just days away from receiving a French passport. In the few years since the US instituted a strict travel ban on people from Iran and other countries, Kaviani’s job has become much more difficult. Diaspora Arts spent $7,500 on visas alone for Let Her Sing, more than ever before, and were still unable to secure documents for two performers. The fact that all this time, effort, and money still led to rejection in the U.S. was heartbreaking for everyone involved. This wasn’t the first time Kaviani had to change plans due to visa issues. She has even been forced to cancel or postpone whole tours, all since 2017.  Nawab was first censored in Iran, then denied the opportunity to sing here in America. In the spirit of the event, Nawab persisted. She sang via video, performing her adaptation of a Hafez poem, Dariyȃ, and accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. Below are Nawab’s lyrics, printed in Farsi, transliterated in English, and finally, translated into English. Much of the original Farsi has no direct English translation, so translation involves some artistic interpretation.

Farsi Poetry Translation

Hafez and his poetry have been cultural icons for Persians since the 14th century and have long inspired artists and romantics. This verse in particular refers to the beauty within, the beauty of the heart. It highlights the importance of the heart, del, and its partner, deldar—two halves that come together to make something greater. In her video recording, Nawab was a del without her deldar, a singer without an audience.

Dariyȃ is a beautiful, rolling tune, with an upbeat joy that dwarfed the melancholy of Nawab’s situation. Her performance was neither live nor in person, but from the audience’s applause it was clear her absence was only physical.

Despite forces of isolationism and discrimination, DAC and Kaviani refuse to allow the music to be silenced.

DAC produces 30 to 40 shows each year, and they have already secured Nawab for a February 28, 2020 show at Fort Mason. In addition to the massive Let Her Sing showcase, DAC does a large annual Nowruz (the Persian New Year) event at the beginning of spring.

Kaviani is the catalyst for all these celebrations, effortlessly cultivating a welcoming environment for performers and patrons alike. Much of the audience and artists are of Middle Eastern descent, like Kaviani, or of mixed heritage, like me, but not exclusively. DAC events include locals and music lovers of all backgrounds. When Kaviani smiles wide with a pre-show welcome, first in the atrium, and later on the stage, she greets the DAC community as if they’re family. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful time to have such a beautiful performance here tonight. Thank you so much for coming. I love you very much,” she enthuses before the artists take the stage. Artists keep coming back to collaborate on more shows. Patrons keep returning. And she’s not done dreaming.

“When I grow up, I would like to have a chamber orchestra,” Kaviani said with a wry smile, “and invite masters and divas to come play.” She also dreams of a world music ensemble of local musicians, of a cultural center with venues, studios, galleries and the like. While she mostly works with musical artists at the moment, a space like this would be open to “calligraphers, painters, sculptors, photographers, film makers.”

As Kaviani sees it, a space like this, and really an organization like Diaspora Arts, belongs to the Bay Area. “The Bay Area is my home and has been for decades. It’s a place where immigrant cultures are celebrated, where people of all backgrounds and languages can live as neighbors,” said Kaviani.

All of the Diaspora Arts events are special, but there’s something about Let Her Sing that feels more magical than other nights. As Kaviani said, “It’s not just for one performance. We need four days. I put them in the same hotel, have them eat, drink, and rehearse together.” For this whirlwind four day experience, the musicians become family.

The finale of each Let Her Sing event is an all-cast tribute to a silenced diva, a medley of her songs performed by all the women of the night. 2019’s diva was Pooran, an Iranian-born singer who made her mark on Middle Eastern music in the mid-1900s. She charmed a whole generation over the radio, first under the pseudonym بانوی ناشناس (Baanooye Naashenaas) or “The Anonymous Lady,” and later by the stage name Pooran. 2018’s ode to a diva honored Giti Pashaei, another shooting star of the 60s and 70s. Both women’s careers came to an abrupt end in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution, and both singers passed away in the 1990s, staying in Iran for over a decade of silence.

“The finale, which is the happiest part of the show, in fact makes older people sob openly,” Kaviani told me. As I watched, the crowd stood, clapped, cheered, and snapped (beshkan—a loud two-handed Persian snap) along to the musical tribute to Pooran. Her image projected in the background, frozen in time, a reminder of what we’re fighting for, what we’ve already overcome, and how far we have left to go.

Very few things in this world have the capacity for emotional wonder that music does.

As Kaviani said, “If you speak different tongues, if you live in different parts of the world, if you have histories that occupy your mind with bad feelings and trepidations, open your mind to music.” She continued, “If we could just leave the door open for some kind of dialog through the arts where languages and histories and all of that don’t get in the way, I think we would have more peace.” ♦

David Sasson, a regular contributor to the magazine, is a Bay Area native with boundless enthusiasm for live music. He’s been organizing living room concerts since 2015 and can typically be found at a local concert venue. When not immersed in sound, he works in creative technology and is purposefully vague about what that means.