The Winehouse Mag

"Sometimes I have a feeling that the sound of fundamentalism is more popular than the sound of average, ordinary Iranians." Ayat Najafi 

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“Sara’s tireless optimism was always encouraging.”

Composer and soloist, Sara Najafi, is on an important mission, her goal is to see female soloists sing again, and not just sing, but sing in public, and sing for mixed audiences. But, as we discover in No Land’s Song, this mission appears impossible.

In contemporary, highly conservative Iran, the regime has taken a hardline against female musicians since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Because some religious texts suggests that the female voice has a seductive quality when it reaches certain octaves, which may then make music not simply functional but pleasurable, female singers can only sing publically when accompanying a male soloist as background vocalists, or when singing in a group of all-female singers, for an all-female audience. The female voice erasure is suffocating–even albums by legendary singers such as Googoosh, are now illegal in Tehran–and the female soloist prohibition appears insurmountable.

Googoosh

Music has always been an important part of expression, freedom, peace and unity—the South African protest film, Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony, is an example of its power to transform societies into more just places. Inspired by legendary Iranian singer, Qamar, who performed a famous public concert in the 1920s, the women of No Land’s Song are preparing to honour her legacy by doing an official public performance of their own, for both women and men. While they are willing to wear the hijab and meet other fundamental conditions, they refuse to allow their voices, at least musically, to be silenced any longer. Led by Sara, who also enlists the support of French female performers, we watch as they prepare for a powerful fight towards freedom.

No Land’s Song recently screened at Reel Indie Film Festival (RiFF). I spoke to the director, Ayat Najafi, about his sister and why he felt this film needed to be made. (Chaka V.)

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 “The female voice has been forgotten. We want to revive the female voice.” Sara Najafi

TWM: How did you become aware of Sara Najafi and her revolutionary story?

AN: Sara is my sister. We started this project together.

TWM: Why was it important for you both to make this documentary?

AN: Lack of female voice in the official Iranian music scene is, of course, the most important one. Then, we are talking about a country, which is isolated from inside and outside. I wanted to counter the current Tehran with her past.

TWM: Was there not a danger to making the documentary? When you were filming on the streets and in restaurants were you ever reported?

AN: There was no real danger. I know the rules of filmmaking in Iran very well. So, we had the right strategy during the shooting. Luckily nothing went wrong.

TWM: It took you three years to follow this story and complete the documentary, did you ever feel that the show would never happen? What gave you the courage to continue? 

AN: Quite often! But the importance of the project was my main motivation. Besides, Sara’s tireless optimism was always encouraging. As well, the engagement by the musicians from both sides of the border didn’t leave any room to give up.

TWM: For those who haven’t yet seen the film, and may not understand how important Sara’s mission was, and is, can you explain what the regimes beliefs are about female soloist? And why the female singer is viewed as such a threat?

AN: Women are not allowed to sing solo and in front of a mixed audience. Singing as a background vocalist, or in a group of women, or in an underground concert are the possibilities for a female singer in Iran.

We have to ask the Iranian authorities why they are afraid of female singers. The regime has an ideological structure, which is based on a fundamental interpretation of religion. So, anything that shakes this framework is considered a threat.

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TWM: There is that great shop keeper who said, “We were wild flowers. Now the flowers are formed.” He admired Parvin Namazi’s voice. I was surprised by how many men seemed comfortable speaking on camera and showing support to the women. Were you surprised as well?

AN: I wasn’t. The Iranian society is very diverse and complicated–like any other society. Yet, the power is not shared democratically, so many voices are being easily ignored. Also, the world outside Iran is not really willing to hear this alternative voices. Sometimes I have a feeling that the sound of fundamentalism is more popular than the sound of average, ordinary Iranians.

TWM: There was a powerful moment where Parvin shares that she used to wake up at night just so she could sing. Female artists are being suffocated? How do they deal with this or subvert it? And what do you think happens to the spirit of an artist who is so deeply oppressed?

AN: Here, Parvin talks about her childhood. But of course, there is a level of suffocation. This movie is an example of how they deal with this. Never give up! And keep fighting. There are obviously other examples as well, namely; many [artists] left Iran, many went underground and many gave up. But for me, the story starts when people are getting ready to fight.

TWM: I must be frank regarding one issue I had with the documentary. While I admire the coming together of the Persian and Parisian artists, I sensed a subtle yet persistent condescension from some of the French performers. A subconscious–on the French performer’s part–glib, slightly gloating attitude that they enjoy privileges that Iranian female soloists do not–this is just my feeling about some of the interactions. But later, this disconnect is sort of discussed by some of the Iranian artists. Can you share with me, why did Sara feel it was advantageous to include French artists in this show?

AN: There are two main goals here; first the importance of cultural dialogue, to open the door and exchange. The second one is the matter of strategy, Sara knew that the participation of the foreign artists could reduce the possibilities of the last minute cancellation of the concert.

TWM: Emel Mathlouthi is someone who actively (and fearlessly) harnesses social media to spread awareness about female artist’s plight. How has YouTube and social media helped join artists together in Iran and beyond?

AN: After the concert I was totally surprised that so many of the audience already knew Emel Mathlouthi, and they were surprised that she was in Tehran. YouTube made it possible for us to discover Emel, and a great producer made it possible for us to connect with her and start working together. I don’t like to overestimate the role of social media. Of course social media helped us to discover and find each other, but at the end of the day, they, obviously, needed to sit together and rehearse to create their songs.

Qamar

Qamar

TWM: It was wonderful learning about the revolutionary Qamar ol-Molouk Vaziri. Are there any biographies or documentaries about her life?

AN: Qamar has a strong presence in the collective consciousness and awareness amongst Iranian artists, and not only musicians. There is a short documentary about her made in Iran around 10 years ago, by a young female filmmaker–another evidence to show the importance of Qamar now, and for the new generation of Iranian artists who grew up in post-revolutionary Iran.

TWM: Has the film screened in Iran?

AN: No. And I don’t think there will be any chance of that happening, at least in the near future.

TWM: What do you hope viewers get from this documentary?

AN: I love the story of the fighters. People who don’t give up. This film is a good example of that, I believe. Moreover, the love of music can be a fight against the darkness.

TWM: What are you working on next? 

AN: I am adapting an old novel to a screenplay, which I will shoot next year. Again related to women’s rights, but a very different topic and era.

Ghamar+Almolouk+Vaziri+Ghamarlisa

No Land’s Song 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the creator of The Winehouse Mag.

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