Iranian American performer Galeet Dardashti sings a wide range of Jewish and Muslim music, from traditional and contemporary Israeli songs in Hebrew, to songs in Judeo-Spanish, Persian, Arabic, and Aramaic. She also holds a PhD in anthropology, and lectures and publishes widely on Middle Eastern music. Perhaps this dual career path was preordained by her distinguished pedigree. Her grandfather, Yona Dardashti, was a renowned Iranian singer of Persian classical music, and her father, Farid, is a highly regarded cantor.
Yet Dardashti is also forging her own unique path. Simply by singing songs from Jewish and Muslim traditions, she is defying one tenet shared by the strictest interpreters of both faiths, which holds that women’s singing voices should not be heard in public. She is the first woman of her illustrious family to be a concert singer. Her voice powerfully combines her genetic inheritance with a passionate commitment to this music. Her extensive academic work clearly infuses all her material yet does not inhibit her deeply felt singing nor her willingness to combine disparate musical traditions.
Since the Seventies, many in the West have come to associate Jewish music with klezmer, the Eastern European Jewish music that, after many of them emigrated to the U.S., also incorporated jazz and other styles. Dardashti’s music, however, draws on Middle Eastern influences. The scales, modes, and ornamentations of the two traditions are quite distinct. While both are highly melodic, klezmer emphasizes harmony, while Middle Eastern music relies more on rhythm. Modern klezmer bands often feature harmonic instruments such as piano, accordion, or guitar, while it’s strings and percussion that drive Dardashti’s music. The result is often hypnotic, at times rising to frenzied.
Dardashti primarily performs with Divahn, an all-female backing band. The name comes from a word shared by Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic and means “a collection of songs or poetry.” Divahn is comprised of some of New York City’s finest freelance musicians, each of whom also has a strong background in Middle Eastern or related music. Violinist Megan Gould’s lengthy list of collaborators includes the Silk Road Ensemble. Cellist Eleanor Norton’s ranges from Beyonce to Frank Zappa. Elizabeth Pupo-Walker, who plays everything from the familiar drum kit to Latin congas and dumbek (a Middle Eastern hand drum), has performed with John Legend and Cheryl Crow, while Sejal Kukadia contributes Indian tabla, an instrument rarely played by women. They all sing, and Dardashti leads them in Hebrew lullabies and Ladino wedding songs, classical Persian pieces, and Turkish and Syrian folk songs. Their music is an aural homage to the common ancestry of the music and people of the region.
Dardashti gives a lecture at the Jewish Community Center on April 2 and performs with Divahn at the Ark on April 3.