Mighty Sam McClain and Mahsa Vahdat
If you follow the news at all, you know that early this year scientists all over the world shared their euphoria over the discovery of Higgs-Boson, a sub-atomic particle they called “a completely new kind of object to never exist before.” And for a moment, even though it made no sense to us, even though the scientists communicated in a language we didn’t really speak, we understood that the end result was miraculous, and so we shared the excitement, and we saw the world a little differently through their eyes.
My recent experience with an unexpected and totally new amalgamation is certainly less important, but for me the euphoria was no less profound. It wasn’t science — but music — that provided that miracle for me. It wasn’t Higgs-Boson, it was McClain-Vahdat. An alchemy of totally mismatched virtuosos that produced a sound like nothing I had ever experienced. And how they got there, is the real miracle. An American Blues master from Monroe Lousiana, who grew up under Jim Crow laws… and a Persian chanteuse who sought artistic freedom in Tehran, under Sharia law. Two incredible musical talents, and all it took to bring them together was a Norwegian poet. But I am getting way ahead of myself.
I was driving on the 405 to L.A.’s West Side when I heard a song on NPR that forced me to pull over. It was called “Two Jewels” – and it introduced me to a kind of art that takes you to a special place – and you just have to tell everybody you know.
It featured the soulful voice of blues icon “Mighty Sam” McClain and a new sound – at least to my ears – that can only be described as hypnotic. While I didn’t know Ms. Vahdat, I recognized the complex, colorful Middle Eastern tones. And somehow, paired with the rich bluesy 50-year-vocal-history of Mr. McClain – magic happened.
After scouring iTunes to download everything from the duo I could find, syncing it to my iPod for a daily dose, I find out McClain and Vahdat are playing live on the intimate stage of L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center. I felt like a kid – intent on grabbing front row seats, and inviting my Persian friend Fariba to share in the experience.
On stage, McClain shared a bit of background on this unique collaboration, and revealed that when he first heard Ms. Vahdat’s voice, “I had to turn it off.” Later, he said, “her music grew one me.” Like me, he was hooked.
I asked Ms. Vahdat what happened when she first heard McClain’s music – and she said, “I just cried.”
Each knew they were destined to work with each other. Norwegian producer/poet Erik Hillestad (known for his controversial recording, “Lullabies From The Axis Of Evil” – a compilation of traditional lullabies sung by women from Iraq, Iran, and North Korea) brought the two super talents together with his own poetry and the poems of Iranian Mohammed Ibrahim Jafari. Their melodies are based on Iranian folk music, mixed with bluesy English and classical Farsi vocals. It was pure adventure.
What a gift to see and hear this Iranian gem perform. Because the sobering truth is – after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, in Iran the female voice was banned in public and even now female singers can only perform for “women only” audiences or alongside a male voice, and they can never publicly sing solo.
Vahdat and her sister Marjan recorded a concert in 2008 in Tehran, at which the two performed without veils in a statement about oppression of women in their country. Mahsa’s bold resistance earned her the 2010 Freemuse Award – which advocates freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide.
On stage Vahdat told her audience, “Politicians may try to drive us apart. But art and culture can bring us together.”
Miss Vahdat is right — art and culture, like those unknown sub-atomic particles — can sometimes collide, and in that moment, in some small way, the world changes.