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The singer bringing Iran and Israel together for the riskiest album of 2022

Liraz Charhi's new album was recorded in secret with female musicians who should be enemies. The end result is revolutionary

Source: The Telegraph

While Israeli-Persian singer and actress Liraz Charhi’s 2020 album Zan was a remote collaboration between her band in Israel and musicians in Tehran, for her third album Roya, out Friday, she has managed the extraordinary feat of recording with many of those same Iranian musicians in-person – under a veil of secrecy.

“I have someone who helps me from inside Iran,” explains Charhi – who has starred in Apple TV+ drama Tehran and acclaimed film Turn Left at the End of the World – from her home in Tel Aviv. “They say, ‘Here are the songs, but they have to stay anonymous’. The Iranian musicians find this a platform to shout out their freedom and to be artistically creative outside of Iran. So the writing process was back and forth, then I had to hire a Turkish production to fly Iranian artists to Istanbul in February of 2021, which is two hours’ flight from Iran, and it was a safe place for us to meet. It was very scary and very joyful. It was between panic attacks to this enormous happiness. I found my soulmates and my sisters.”

Over 10 days, her band of six Israeli musicians and five Iranian musicians assembled in a basement studio. They’d rehearsed in their respective homelands before meeting, in the knowledge that they would be recording live.

“With some of them, it was the first time we’d met, but two of them I’d met in Europe. It’s not an easy thing for them to make this happen. Two of them were supposed to come but two days before [leaving] they had regrets and did not come, and two others came and had regrets but they stayed. When we forgot about everything and we closed the doors to this underground studio, we started to connect musically and emotionally. After we’d rehearsed, we pressed the record button and it was like magic.”

The Farsi word “Roya” translates to “fantasy”, and the album is a cinematic trip that traverses traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, orchestral majesty, and even squelchy Daft Punk-style disco funk. Diva-channeling glitter-strewn track Azizam may convince you Charhi is the Persian Debbie Harry. Though she sings in Farsi, her Hebrew accent is unmistakable; her sweet, feline voice unapologetically feminine.

The title track whirls in great upward sweeps of Iranian lute, tar, violin, viola and woozy guitars. The finale is the same track reimagined; almost 26 minutes of wondrous, defiant joy led by the women musicians. That version was not in her original plan.

“I was telling Uri [producer/multi-instrumentalist Uri Brauner Kinrot], that maybe we could do this second version, and he said we didn’t have time. Only on the last day, with this dream in my head, I said ‘We need only the girls’. We just did it, and when we finished, I started to cry like crazy. I was mourning.

“Something got out of me that was very powerful, and then we all started to cry because we were saying goodbye and we didn’t know when we’d meet each other again. This was adventurous for both sides. I thought these Iranian women would show up in their hijabs and be really shy, but they were in jeans and sunglasses in the studio, rocking out, and they really shouted their freedom via this album.”

There are no subtle songs on this album, Charhi admits with a laugh. “In Iran, you are either very, very happy or very, very sad. So, the ballads are heartbreaking, but the electropop makes you want to get on the dancefloor.”

Charhi, 44, was born and raised in Israel. Her parents, Sephardic Iranian Jews, left Iran for Israel, where they married while still teenagers (her father left in 1964 and her mother in 1970). “They started to feel the way that Iran was going to change,” she says. “They left at a good point, let’s say.”

Charhi’s lifetime has encompassed greater restrictions and silencing of Iranian women. She has observed hijab protests for the last 15 years from afar, and now, the last few weeks of intense outrage in Tehran over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while detained by the Iranian morality police.

“I’m very, very proud of them. I’m sure that they’re going to make revolution. We are the Gordafarid,” she says of the women protestors, referencing a courageous Iranian heroine from the poetic opus The Book of Kings. “[They are] Iranian wonder women.”

After the release of Zan in 2020, women in Iran began to use Charhi’s music in their protest videos online. It was apt, since Zan translates from the Farsi to “woman”.

“Zan was an album that I wrote with Iranian musicians secretly. We recorded in Tehran and Tel Aviv via social media. We did not meet physically but that was a big journey. That whole album, the meaning of Zan, is ‘woman’ and it’s so relevant to what’s happening today. Those songs are protest songs about what’s going on in Iran.”

Charhi started making music in her late 20s, after having become disillusioned with her acting career. “I had beautiful roles and was very happy about it, but going from audition to audition and trying to make people happy did not really appeal to me. I look for meaning.”

She found it aged 26 in the Westwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles, “Tehrangeles”, where many Iranians had sought a new home after fleeing the Iranian Revolution in 1978 and 1979. “There are two main streets with Iranian grocery shops, vinyl record shops, boutiques and vintage stuff from Iran including music instruments.”

She began to collect vinyl records of Iranian pop singers. The influence of Persian singers Googoosh (beloved for her epic pop and eccentric fashion) and Hayedeh (who transformed her classical Persian Avaz vocal training into sentimental pop) is woven in with Charhi’s formative pop influences: Kate Bush, Blondie and Pat Benatar.

“I felt that the women singers I chose to listen to had a thick layer of sassiness, courage, something different from what I knew from my music history at home. I read about Googoosh, who is a big inspiration for me. After sitting on her sofa for 20 years, she left Iran where she couldn’t sing. I understood that women in Iran are not able to sing, and literally, my grandmother was muted. She was a singer but in Iranian culture, Persian culture, it’s akin to women selling their bodies on the street.”

Those vinyl records from Los Angeles prompted a string of dramatic life choices when Charhi was 30. She divorced her husband of eight years, despite fears that her very conservative family would disapprove (“they were surprisingly supportive”), and gradually eased out of the film and theatre obligations she’d been professionally engaged in since she was 11. Weeks after moving out of her marital home, she met her now-husband and father of her two daughters.

Following her marriage and the birth of her daughter in 2013, she began to write Naz. “I knew that I wanted to work with all my layers: I like Iranian traditional instruments, electronic beats and psychedelic music. I wanted to take the songs of the Iranian 1970s and make them my own, as a project that would heal me. I knew that no matter what people said, I had to do this for my grandmothers who got engaged when they were 11 and for Iranian women. I was trying to close the circle and to know myself better.”

Roya is the evolution of those layers to her identity, combining traditional Persian instrumentals with the electronica and disco she grew up listening to in Israel.

“There was a documentary team with us for the whole process, a team from Denmark which has made eight movies about musicians who create in countries that have conflict between them. We needed to film the [Iranian] musicians, but they had to stay anonymous so now we’re trying to understand, in the edit, how we can make it beautiful but not reveal their faces or their voices, of course.”

She can only reveal that it will come out “soon” – it is understandably not a simple process. She also has a tour of Europe and Canada beginning in November. “I know Iranians will come to watch my show and that’s mesmerising. Politics and boundaries, okay, but we’re making a relationship through music.”

Her music is boundary-blurring in a greater sense. Roya has a universal message, and she hopes that people will continue to share videos, protest and show solidarity with the Iranian people. “It is about freedom. I think that people have the responsibility to make life better. If people listen to Iranian music, Persian music, and perhaps via my music, they will support the freedom of Iranian people.”