Big in Iran – an interview with Rita

Rita at Babel Med

Rita at Babel Med, photo: Jean de Peña

by Charlie Crooijmans

– Marseille. Babel Med is a world music expo and conference from 20-22 of March, in Marseille. The organization likes to program showcases with an interesting story, like the Libyan hiphop crew G.A.B. and Israeli singer Rita Jahanforuz, simply known as Rita. With a career of 25 years, sold-out concerts and multi-platinum records, Rita is one of the Israeli top female singers. Since her album My Joys (2011), she became even big in Iran. As a born Iranian, Rita decided to record a personal album inspired by her Persian heritage. News & Noise joined in at the press conference and learned that her music is more than just showbiz.

When I entered the pressroom – I was a bit late – she already was answering some questions. As she was inspired to tell a lot in once, she kindly picked up my recorder to hold it close to her mouth, so I wouldn’t miss a thing.

[…]
“Her [mother’s] voice is a bit like a soundtrack of my family life. My childhood dream was to sing. I can say that my story is a bit like a Cinderella story, because overnight I became a singer! And till then for 25 years I had the privilege to perform on the most beautiful and exciting stages in Israel and all over the world. From the beginning I decided I would include one song in Persian in every album, even though it wasn’t so popular being Iranian. But I had this primal intuition and naivety that without my roots I am not complete.

Two years ago I decided to do an entire album in Persian. When I told my friends and colleagues, they were amazed. They asked me, ‘Are you insane, a whole record in Ahmajinedad’s language? Aren’t you afraid of your career, ruin your career?’ But I didn’t care because I know that the Iranian culture is so ancient, is so huge, is so rich, the music, the rhymes, the architecture, the math, the language, the instruments…

Everything is so huge that if you take those 30 years it’s impossible to eliminate. This period is going to pass away too. I felt that people have to know the real culture and the real music of the Iranian. The Yemen music and the Moroccan music is known to the world, but the Persian music is not something familiar to their ears.

This record didn’t just get the Israeli’s acceptance. It became a gold selling record in less than one month. It was a hit! Everyone listen to it. People came to me and said, ‘We are not Persian, but you made us want to go back to our roots and to feel our homeland.’ Because everybody in Israel comes from all over the world.

The most amazing thing was that I suddenly started to get emails from Iran. ‘We love you, we love your music, thank you for showing the true culture, the true colors of our culture’. One very particular cute one wrote to me, ‘I so want to come to see your concert; maybe I will risk three years of jail and 70 whiplashes.’ I called him right away.

I started to understand that there is something happening between the people that can connect. And the people in Iran are completely not the regime that represents them. The Jewish people and the Iranian people they were in good relationship and good friendship 2500 years ago, from the times of the Cyrus till then.

No, you don’t have to ask me anything, I will tell you everything (laughs).”

This was a good opportunity to ask a question.

Did you get any reaction from the regime?

“You know, I read in the Wall Street Journal that they research about this record in Iran and in Israel – the people sell it in the Iranian black market. It’s a hit; they listen to it and everything – that maybe the regime thinks that I am some trick of the Israeli government because I am talking about peace (laughing out loud). But really it’s only me. It was really something that I didn’t plan. It was like a throwing a stone in a lake, creating ripples, growing constantly.”

The other journalist comments that music is a universal thing.

But music can be used as a tool of propaganda or protest…

“No, only for love! You know what? When I performed in the UN Assembly Hall, last year, Ban Ki-moon, before going on stage to introduce me, said a few things. He said, ‘You shouldn’t take this lightly, because music can do a lot of things that politicians cannot do. You can connect people, especially that you are a woman, so you are not a thread. You have to continue, this should be your goal!’”

Speaking of women, in Iran and in the orthodox circles in Israel don’t like women to sing or perform…

“Well, the hardcore orthodox are really a minority of Israel. When I perform in Jerusalem, the people come with kipa, all the non-orthodox, the Druizi, the Arabs, every one. I have audience from all over Israel. It’s amazing to see that. It’s exciting to see that. It connects.”

What are your musical influences?

“I was born in Iran. My mom was singing the lullabies, while rocking me, and cleaning the rice; a multitask woman. At the age of eight I came to Israel and I listened to Hebrew music. When I was fourteen I started to have opera voice lessons, like Puccini. Then I started to learn acting and to sing at musicals, My Fair Lady, Chicago, things like that. Then I got married with an American guy. So I can say that I am a mixture of so many influences. When I did the Persian record, it is not authentic Persian music. That wouldn’t be true. I had to bring my roots to what I am now. I think that’s why it sounds a little gypsy. That’s why the people in Israel or in the world can connect with that because it is not something that you listen and your ears don’t understand.”

The songs of your repertoire are traditionally popular?

“Yes, I sang one song that they sing on the weddings about the bride and the groom. This is what I heard from my mother…”

Time is up… the only thing left for her to say is when her next concert will be: the 9th of June in Paris.

You can find more information about Rita on her site

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