Persian Poetry Gets the Blues

AUGUST 30, 2011
Persian Poetry Gets the Blues
New York

Sitting at a chic wine bar in the Flatiron district, Rana Farhan lounges back in her chair—a cup of hot black tea in her hand on this balmy August day. “It’s very hard to take classical Persian poetry and make it sound like Al Green or Billie Holiday,” she says in her husky voice. But this has been the Iranian jazz singer’s pursuit since 2005, when she stumbled upon an intoxicating and utterly fresh musical combination: singing the exquisite Persian verses of mystical poets like Rumi, Hafez and Omar Khayyám to the rhythms of cool American blues, jazz and soul.

Her latest album, “Moon and Stone,” is an expressive tribute to soul music. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Teddy Pendergrass and Otis Redding lately.” Through her raspy Iranian accent, she adds, “Oh, and Sam Cooke. I love him.” On Saturday, Ms. Farhan will be celebrating the release of her CD with a performance at Caffe Vivaldi here, followed by a tour in the coming weeks with stops at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles and  Yoshi’s Jazz Club in San Francisco.

While Ms. Farhan has been a renowned musician in Iran for several years now, it was not until 2009 that she grabbed the attention of the international scene with her sultry jazz song “Drunk With Love.” The song was prominently featured in the heart-wrenching Iranian movie “No One Knows About Persian Cats.” The film, which won an award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of Iran’s underground indie-rock scene.

Sung passionately in Farsi, “Drunk With Love” is from a Rumi poem that celebrates a sensual—even erotic—passion for the divine: “Oh love . . . the king of kings has gotten drunk, / Get up, grab his curls and pull him near. / Every thought that comes into my heart speaks of the Lover, / I’ll put my life before him, I want to kiss him and fill his mouth with gold, / face like a rose, voice of a nightingale, / I want to fulfill all his desires. . . .”

This is a far cry from the heartless Islam of Iran’s anti-American mullahs. But Iran was a different country during Ms. Farhan’s youth—it was the place that stirred her jazzy muse; it was her home. During her carefree childhood, before the Islamic Revolution, Western media could flow freely into Iran’s urban centers. One of Ms. Farhan’s haunts back then was a “cool” used-record store in Tehran called Beethoven. There, she could get her hands on the latest American sounds—Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones and Johnny Winter, for instance.

“I fell in love with the blues early on,” she tells me. Specifically, she fell intensely in love with Billie Holiday. “I’ve read every single biography of her.”

Ms. Farhan says that she “was constantly trying to figure out how to sing Persian poetry to the blues.” In Iran, classical poetry is a cherished part of the traditional music culture, the same way that jazz and blues define U.S. music culture. Even Iranians who cannot read or write grow up learning the poems of Rumi by heart. Ms. Farhan says she and her family would read classical Persian poetry together on their vacations. “The way I see the poems as blues really comes from my father,” she says.

But Iran’s 1979 revolution changed life completely for Ms. Farhan, who was a student at the Tehran University of Fine Arts at the time. With the establishment of an Islamic theocracy, women’s freedoms were radically and suddenly restricted. Today, women are not allowed to perform before mixed-sex audiences.

So Ms. Farhan fled her home country and came to New York, carrying in her mind a trove of Persian poetry—and her childhood desire to blend it with raw American blues.

Years later, she finally managed to get these two unlikely lovers together. It was 2005 and she was living in Manhattan when she stumbled across a guitar case sitting in a pile of trash on the sidewalk outside of her apartment. Inside the case was a beat-up guitar. Ms. Farhan was offended that someone had thrown away a perfectly good instrument, so she took it to her producer, the guitarist Steven Toub, and the two of them cleaned it up and put new strings on it.

“Then,” Ms. Farhan begins, “Steve started randomly playing a blues riff on it. Rumi’s book was laying open nearby, so I started singing in Farsi [the poem] ‘Rumi’s Prayer.'” To their astonishment, they had a sexy blues number on their hands. It was Lady Day meets the 13th-century Islamic world. And, like so many of Rumi’s poems, the song was about God, the Beloved.

They promoted the track to their friends and fans, and as Ms. Farhan recalls, “the whole thing exploded. Everybody loved it.” With that enthusiastic response from both U.S. and international listeners, Ms. Farhan and Mr. Toub released a full-length CD of Persian jazz in 2007. The album, called “I Return,” featured the poetry of Hafez and Rumi. “That year was Rumi’s 800th birthday, and it was like—yeah! Rumi wanted jazz for his birthday,” Ms. Farhan says with a laugh.

Finishing up her tea and cookies, Ms. Farhan notes that mixing “the best of Iranian culture” with “the best of American culture” is not as far-fetched as it seems. “Rumi and Hafez were the blues of their time.” Humming a melody from her new CD, she explains, “When you put their verses with the blues, it’s like they’ve always belonged there.”

Ms. Smith is managing editor of the Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas and assistant editor of The New Criterion.

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Rana Farhan: Website, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, TwitterWiki 

Listen to Rana Farhan sing this beautiful song, Tangled, from her new CD, Moon And Stone, a unique fusion of classical Persian poetry with contemporary blues and jazz.

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One Response to “Persian Poetry Gets the Blues”

  1. Rumi drunkenness | Farestrans Says:

    […] Persian Poetry Gets the Blues « The Uncarved Blog […]


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