West meets East

March 28, 2008


For music lovers, the key scene in the recent animated film "Persepolis" comes when the young heroine Marjane risks the wrath of the new regime of Islamic radicals in order to buy a black-market Iron Maiden cassette on the streets of Tehran. She hears those heavy-metal sounds as nothing less than the embodiment of freedom, life and truth.

Persian-American singer Haale Gafori had a similar experience while visiting Iran in 2003.

"I was hanging out with my cousin, and everyone was riding around with Nirvana playing in their car, or Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.," she says. "They can't buy it in stores, but they're burning it for each other, and it just comes down to human beings waking up and trying to have a nice day, playing some music and getting to work or whatever."

There is an argument to be made that great music remains the most potent diplomatic tool capable of uniting the West and the Middle East. It is one that Gafori -- who performs under her first name, (pronounced like "halle-lujah") -- certainly believes, though she didn't start her career with the global merger of sounds heard on "No Ceiling," her recent debut album.

"I was born here in New York, and I heard all kinds of music growing up. I was definitely more interested in the Western mainstream or alternative rock, and I only became interested in the Persian music much later, although it had been in the background like wallpaper for most of my life.

"Initially, I was just singing songs in English, and I had a straight-up rock band," Haale continues. "But a few months before 9/11, I was in the pine forests of France, running around with a musician/builder and his wife, who was a poet. There were instruments all over the house, and on the very last night we were there, I saw a dotar [an Iranian stringed instrument] hanging on the wall, which is related to the setar, which I play on the album. I pulled it down from the wall, started playing it and said, 'I'm going to go back to New York and get a setar and start singing in Persian!'

"It was something I always wanted to do, but I thought I would do it maybe when I was 50," the 28-year-old artist says. "It felt like something that needed that kind of experience behind it. But what I found was that once I started singing the songs I had heard through my childhood, it sort of came naturally, and the next step was just to try and weave the two worlds together."

To that end, Haale's reputation as an extraordinarily powerful vocalist had been building even before "No Ceiling" or the pair of strong EPs she released in 2007: She had already recorded with Sean Lennon on "Before the Skies" and performed at festivals such as South by Southwest, Bonnaroo and France's Mimi Festival. But the new disc -- produced by percussionist Matt Kilmer and featuring several songs co-written with Dougie Bowne (Cibo Matto, Chris Whitley) -- represents the marriage of modern psychedelic rock and ancient Middle Eastern drones that had captivated her since she first heard the Beatles' "Revolver."

"When I was a kid listening to the Beatles, the song that popped out for me was 'Tomorrow Never Knows.' It was my favorite song, and I had no idea at that time why it was so droney or that it was one of their most Eastern-based songs -- it was just something I gravitated towards. There's an element of hypnosis that happens with certain types of music that we call psychedelic, and for people like me, it's something to push you into a space of letting go. It pushes me further, whether it's Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or the Velvet Underground."

The timeless appeal of the drone is helping Haale connect to a lot of diverse audiences, from jam band festivals to techno raves to rock clubs, and she hasn't experienced any hostility anywhere because of her heritage.

"We were in Hot Springs, Ark., playing the Valley of the Vapors festival, and it was amazing, it was such a warm response. I think part of it is there are so many rock bands out there with drums, electric bass and electric guitar singing in English that people like hearing a new spin on that, with a different language, different vocal techniques, different drumming. People get excited about the sonic quality of it, and that lets them feel what's in there emotionally."

The emotions expressed in Haale's songs are as warm and inviting as the sounds, and part of her appeal is that she sounds like a cross between a hippie and a mystical poet when describing them.

"For 'A Town on the Sea,' the last song on the album, we were out doing a festival -- our European debut at the Mimi Festival last year in July on an island off the coast of Marseilles -- and it was so incredible being on this island, so breathtakingly beautiful, that we all just jumped in the water after soundcheck. And then I got back to the mainland, to Marseilles, and there was an old man sleeping under a sign, and just that little image started the song. It's kind of a somewhat elusive song lyrically, but that image of that homeless man sleeping there, and us being in this state of utter bliss and relaxation -- how do you put these two realities together? He was sleeping next to a port full of yachts. The person who experiences these things, how do we process it? The world is so intense and such a big collage.

"I sing in Persian at the end of that song, and that part I didn't fully translate for the lyrics in the booklet, because sometimes Persian poetry, which is so beautiful in the language, can sound a little self-help-y when you translate it. I just translated it quickly as 'love, evolve,' but the actual Persian translation of the end of 'A Town on the Sea' is, 'Traveler, there are so many paths you can take/The path of transformation, the path of love, is your best bet.'

"It was just a kind of playful experience, but it was catalyzed by that one moment."