No one may accuse Galeet Dardashti of slacking off. The composer and vocalist serves as cantorial soloist and offers lectures and performances throughout the country, alone and with her band, Divahn. She recently completed her doctorate in anthropology and will be teaching at Hebrew Union College in the spring. She and her husband are raising their toddler son, and their second is due in December. In the midst of this prodigious phase, Dr. Dardashti has plowed the fertile landscape of her familial memory and her own imagination to create a multi-dimensional song cycle combining music, dance, video art, and storytelling. The Naming is the mesmerizing result.
The Naming features original songs that take, as their starting point, female characters from the bible and rabbinic tradition. The assortment of characters Dardashti chooses includes those who traditionally have been portrayed as heroines, like Leah and Rachel, as well as anti-heroines, such as Vashti and the Queen of Sheba. “As a woman of Iranian lineage I felt I constantly came up against people’s stereotypes of who Iranian women are, Jewish and non-Jewish,” Dardashti reflects. Through the lyrics, she invites the audience to engage with the human being behind the myth. Incorporating pieces of liturgy, scriptural fragments, and spoken narrative, Dardashti tries “. . . to convey their stories, and since none of it is in English, and they’re really rich stories, I felt like I needed to do a little bit more as a performer to convey what I am trying to say.”
The music is hypnotic, and few outside the Persian and Mizrachi communities will find the stylings of Dr. Dardashti’s voice familiar. It is a rich and powerful, yet lyrical soprano, capable of low growling and sweet, heady, embellishments. Her father, Hazzan Farid Dardashti, and her grandfather, the acclaimed Iranian classical singer Yona Dardashti, are the pre-eminent influences on her style of Persian singing. “Definitely, when I sing the Persian cantorial music, I am invoking the family tradition. I am hearing, in my head, my grandfather’s voice.” Was it difficult to adapt the traditional Persian cantorial style to her female voice? Dardashti doesn’t think of it that way. “There are predominantly male singers of persian music, but I think of it more as the style of Persian music in general, which women sing. Now women, obviously, don’t sing the liturgical music, but really it’s one and the same. It is dominated by men, but there are some women that sing Persian classical music. Not so much these days in Iran when the whole country has gone haywire, and women aren’t as free as they were to perform when my father was growing up. In terms of the stuff in the Jewish world, chanting from Torah, all that was learned from listening to male role models.”
“Michal” is one of the more haunting pieces, connecting a tale of Dardashti’s own aunt to a midrash about King Saul’s daughter, both of whom, allegedly, lay tefillin. “I just wanted people to realize that these women have always existed, and it’s not just in Reform and Conservative Judaism where women have said, ‘Hey, I want to do this.’ I’m weaving these stories of these two characters together.” Dardashti explains the connection. “The sources never say why the sages never objected. My great aunt Tova wore Tallit and Tefilllin, my father saw her everyday. My father asked her, why do you pray like a man? (She answered,) ‘God did not bless me with children of my own. So I pray as I believe God would expect me to.’ So here she is, making her own drash. I loved this because, maybe she knew about Michal, and maybe she made the connection, and who knows? But for sure, these characters became linked for me. It was like this crazy lightbulb went on for me, that this story just had so much contemporary relevance, and I wanted to share this story, and I wanted to bring this character out there, and I wanted to name it.”
The Naming aims to widen the entrance to the tent of Jewish lore to include a broader, fleshier, realization of the female characters than previous religious and artistic explorations have attempted. Galeet Dardashti casts threads through generations and between cultures, binding tapestries of women of ancient times and exotic lands to women and men in the audience of the moment.
Galeet Dardashti will be performing The Naming at Temple Aliyah in Needham on January 29, 2011.
The CD is widely available, including on SongOfMySoul.com.