By Mark Trainer, Staff Writer, IIP Digital (Managed by the U.S. Department of State)
Monika Jalili's love of Iranian folk music and popular Iranian songs of the '50s, '60s and '70s has become the focus of her work as a singer.
Washington - Although Monika Jalili had spent her life singing, she found the music that would become her life’s work on a cassette in her father-in-law’s car.
Driving home from the airport after she arrived for a visit, he asked her to listen to a tape. “He said, ‘Monika, I’m going to play this song for you. I think it’s a song you’re going to love and a song you’re going to sing.’" Her husband and both his parents had left Iran following the revolution. The song was "Jaane Maryam" by Mohammad Nouri. "And that pretty much did it for me,” Jalili said.
When she returned to her home in New York, her husband put her in touch with an Iranian musician who introduced her to other popular Iranian songs from the 1950s through the 1970s. Together they arranged pieces originally performed by artists such as Parvin, Simin Ghanem, Aref and others.
“I just started falling in love with these songs,” she said. “One after another.” Her husband worked with her on the language, and she spent hours on the phone with her in-laws working on diction and pronunciation. In 2003 she spent a summer in Los Angeles, where she stayed with an Iranian family and started studying Persian. “I knew this was it, that this is what I wanted to do musically. I’d found it,” Jalili said.
She put together an ensemble, comprising violin, guitar, oud and percussion, in 2004. Their repertoire consists of both Iranian folk songs and popular songs from before the revolution.
“One of our first concerts was at Trinity Church in New York City down on Wall Street,” Jalili said. “It was our first concert together as an ensemble. I didn’t realize until after the fact that the concert had been recorded and was telecast live on the Web.” This unanticipated exposure brought her to the attention of an audience around the world who were touched by the songs they well remembered.
Monika Jalili performing at Yoshi's in San Francisco in November 2011.
“About three weeks after the concert I started getting emails from Iranians all over the world,” she said. “Just the most touching notes saying ‘You took me back to my childhood.’ And from that we started getting invitations to perform all over the world. We went to Europe, we went to Dubai, to Canada and all around the U.S.”
“There’s one song I sing called ‘Ay Vatan,’ which means ‘My Homeland,’ and it’s particularly touching because I’m always singing it to an audience of Iranians who are no longer in Iran. That song and all the other songs I sing, they’re all about these universal themes, whether it’s a love for one’s country or love in general. That’s why I try to reach out to all audiences. I find people who are not Iranian are touched by these songs as well.”
Most of the songs Jalili sings are not played in Iran and are unknown to younger Iranians living elsewhere. “There’s a huge Iranian pop culture in Los Angeles, but those are modern-day pop and rock songs,” Jalili said. “I feel like I’m instilling new life in them by bringing these songs back for all the people who grew up with them, as well as the younger generation and the people who are not from Iran hearing them for the first time.”
Jalili also receives mail from fans in Iran who hope to someday see her perform live. “It is a dream,” she said. “Everyone asks, ‘What do you hope for the future? And I say I hope one day I can go to Iran and sing. It would be just amazing.’”