Mamak Khadem makes her Yale debut

Iran, Greece, Syria, Turkey and Armenia often make the headlines for political conflict but rarely for the fusion of their music. Persian vocalist Mamak Khadem is the exception — her music merges the various musical traditions of this troubled region, emphasizing cultural harmony over political division.

The Yale Persian Society will be hosting a concert by Khadem next Thursday. The event will primarily feature songs from Khadem’s solo album “Jostojoo” — which in Persian means “Forever Seeking” — as well as songs from her former group ensemble, Axiom of Choice.

Khadem’s music is a fusion of Persian and Syrian melodies with traces of traditional Greek, Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian strains. The lyrics, always in Persian, are drawn from classical and modern Persian poetry, including the verses of 13th-century poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Khadem sings to the accompaniment of clarinet, percussions, viola and accordion as well as traditional instruments such as santoor, gheychak, ney and ud.

Jamshied Sharifi, who produced Khadem’s record, said Khadem’s success lies in her ability to interpret traditional music in new ways, combining an adventurous spirit with classical technique.

“Mamak sees herself as constantly exploring the world of music and never really being done,” said Sharifi. “She is classically trained, but is always interested in new areas, in finding new challenges for herself.”

According to her Web site, Khadem left Iran and moved to the United States in 1979, just before the Iranian Revolution. She found it very difficult to adapt to the culture shock she faced upon arriving at the States as a teenager and has said music became her sole companion. She continued her education in classical Persian music by going back to Iran during the summers, although she was not allowed to perform in front of mixed gender audiences under the new regime.

In the meantime, she received a college degree in math, mostly under pressure from her family, and started teaching mathematics at Santa Monica College. Khadem quit her post at the university in 2002, when she decided to focus solely on her music. While travelling in the Middle East, she started learning more about the music of other cultures, which inspired her and helped her music evolve into a fusion of different cultures.

It was Roya Hakkakian, a fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center, who suggested to the Yale Persian Society that they invite Khadem to Yale. Hakkakian — a Persian writer who specializes in human rights issues and the Middle East — said the Khadem concert would be a good way to shift the focus from the nuclear conflict with Iran to different issues relating to Iranian culture and society.

“The nuclear threat is serious, but Iran will eventually come to a reconciliation on that issue,” Hakkakian said. “The focus should be shifted on other violations and wrongs committed by Iran such as violations of women’s rights, of civil rights, of the rights of ethnic minorities.”

But Hakkakian added that Khadem’s music is generally not political, although she does have a song about a political exile. The themes of the classical poetry she selects for her lyrics are mostly love, longing, religion and the daily struggles of local folk. Peace is often an underlying theme throughout her music.

Yasmine Moezinia ’09, president of the Yale Persian Society, emphasized that this event should not be politicized.

“We do not want to be associated with the belligerent rhetoric regarding Iran,” said Moezinia. “We just want to show that Iran is still producing people with talent, and Khadem’s music is a great opportunity to make people understand our culture.”

The concert will take place next Thursday, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. in the Davenport College common room, with seating for about 90. Tickets are $25, with a $10 discount for students. A brief question-and-answer session will follow the concert.

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