Mamak Khadem has long wanted to do a project honoring women poets and musicians across the generations and borders of the Middle East and Mediterranean.
The Skirball Cultural Center was looking to do something special for International Women’s Day during its current Women Hold Up Half the Sky series of exhibits and programs celebrating women in the arts.
On Thursday, which is indeed International Women’s Day, both wishes will be fulfilled.
Khadem, a Los Angeles-based, Iranian-born singer who has applied her remarkable voice to music ranging from very ancient to very modern, seized the opportunity to put together a concert of wide scope, but purposeful focus.
“I’ve always wanted to do something to this extent, but was waiting for the right time and venue,” Khadem says. “When the Skirball kindly booked me for this series I was thrilled. And then I got to work, thinking who will be the right people for the project and what can they add to the bigger picture.”
The result of her hard work is a two-part concert. The first will be an all-female ensemble in which she will be joined by Iranian tar (long-necked lute) player Sahba Motallebi, Greek kanun (zither) player Sofia Labropoulou, versatile percussionist Polly Ferber, bass tar player and singer Parvaneh Daneshvar. The portion will also feature Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpe reading her own works and a special appearance by Iranian-American actress Sheila Vosough preforming poetry of by 20th century writer Forough Farokhzad to music crafted by Khadem for the occasion.
“Forough Farokhzad was definitely ahead of her time and not liked by the fanatics since her poetry was very feminine and expressive,” Khadem says. “Sholeh has done a wonderful job on one of Forough’s poems, ‘SIN,’ translated into English with music composed by me using a very traditional scale.”
The second half will have a group of both male and female musicians performing music originating in Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Baluchistan and other countries, with Bulgarian singer Tzvetanka Verimezova joining Khadem for a couple of songs. There will also be a video about Iranian women and human rights activists.
Khadem has built a career putting together disparate elements, crossing cultures, genres and eras. As vocalist with the late-‘90s and early-‘00s L.A. group Axiom of Choice she helped create a new sensibility combining Persian traditions with Western sounds and atmospheres. On her two solo albums, 2010‘s Jostojoo and 2011’s A Window to Color she’s brought a very personal vision to music drawn from many of the same traditions that will be represented in this concert, the latter album inspired specifically by the poetry and paintings of Iranian artist Sohrab Sepehri. A video shot during her performance at last year's Rainforest Festival in Malaysia gives a good idea of her talents:
Making all this work together for the concert, Khadem says, was a greater challenge, but she is quite pleased with how the disparate elements have meshed.
“It is unusual,” she says. “However, the beauty of it is that the audience will not feel the differences, but the similarities. We are different, but have found common ground to collaborate.”
And the effort has been greatly rewarding and fulfilling to her on a personal level.
“I can’t express my appreciation enough for the opportunity and to all the wonderful musicians and artists who have been with me on this journey,” she says. “All I have been seeing and thinking is this performance for the last two months -- and hopefully it will go beyond a single performance. I feel at home with this project and am able to share a part of me that has always been very important in my life.”
Information about Khadem's concert Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center can be found here.