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CLOSING THE CIRCLE OF LOVE FOR MUSIC: Inspiring Story of An Iranian Son, Unveiling the Voice of Mother

By Elahe Amani

Upcoming Performances:
Saturday January 19 in Atlanta
Sunday January 20 in Chicago
Sunday March 10 in Sacramento
More info available on Ziba Shirazi's facebook

I went to see the first performance of 'Maman Shamsi Love Songs', a musical performance by Ziba Shirazi, Mehrdad Arabi, an internationally acclaimed master of Persian music, and faculty of ethnomusicology department at UCLA and Hamed Poursaee, a composer and classical guitarist in Los Angeles.  While I knew my good friend and well-loved artist of the City of Angels Iranian community, Ziba Shirazi, would be the main singer in the musical, I did not know what to expect.  Well, it turned out to be a joyful night of traditional Iranian music, a rather new creative musical, a combination of storytelling, singing, and music.  Ziba Shirazi had the role of Maman Shamsi and while sharing her stories, she was singing the street songs of the early decades of 20th century as Maman Shamsi sang them in the privacy of her home.  The show was a bundle of mixed feelings of joy and loss, a massive current of old memories rushing through the passage of time.  The lyrics of the songs gathered moments of my childhood memories, dusted off and revived them.  My feelings were like a murmuration of a thousand birds flying together, each carrying faint visions of my childhood. Reflections of family gatherings, Sizdeh Bedars, Nouruz, in whirling ever-changing patterns, pivoting at a moment's notice between the joy and the loss of those who are no longer with us. These were the songs of the streets that I had not heard for many decades.  They gave life and presence to faded memories of the songs that my aunts sang while Ashraf played frame drum, Ezat played tonbak, Daryoush played violin and Abdullah played santoor.

Mehrdad Arabi with his mother Shamsi

The performance was heart-warming and, as I left, I bought two CDs of 'Maman Shamsi Love Songs' to send it to my cousins in Iran.  But, beyond enjoying the performance and the bittersweet nostalgia occupying my heart and soul, there was something else that was unique about the story of the musical and it remained with me.  What remained with me and perhaps inspired the director of the show Mehrdad Arabi was that this time a son was unveiling the voice of his mother, liberating her beautiful voice from private to public sphere crossing oceans of geographical and cultural differences.

I was inspired to write this piece because such stories, stories of kindness, care and appreciation of  art from Iran where I was born and raised hardly are reflected in mainstream media.  The images of angry Iranian men dominate mainstream media discourse and many heartwarming stories are veiled and censored since they do not fit in the dominant political discourse.

'Maman Shamsi Love Songs' is the story of an Iranian woman who like many women of her generation was married at early age in Iran.  She had a beautiful voice and loved singing but it was not even imaginable for her to be a singer as it was socially and culturally unacceptable to do so.  Almost half a century later, her son, a musician from the land of Iran, completed the circle of love for art by giving back the gift of his appreciation of his mother's voice to her.   Mehrdad Arabi, who lives in Los Angeles, discovered the beautiful voice of his mother during his trip to Iran in 2015.  He was deeply touched, inspired and encouraged to embark on a journey to give back to his mother what the culture and gender roles of her generation denied her.  He not only unveiled the beautiful voice of his mother by publishing a CD, but also rendered to capture and preserve the faded and forgotten lyrics of some of the street songs in Iran of first few decades of the 20th century.  Songs that was passed from one generation to another and still were being echoed by Maman Shamsi, now 81 years old, in the private spheres of her home.   Maman Shamsi, would have not even imagined that one day, her life stories would be performed on the stage of major theater halls in U.S.  The fact that Mehrdad Arabi brought to life the stories of an unsung woman, his mother, who could have been a successful singer, from the margins to the center of the attention is the true mark of a son's legacy.

In an interview, Mehrdad Arabi shared that during his trip to Iran in 2015 while the whole family was busy gathering at his parents' home, catching up with him after several years, he heard a beautiful voice singing a song in the kitchen.  For the first time, he realized how beautiful his mother's voice was.  He quietly left the crowd and entered the kitchen where he found his mother singing traditional songs while she was doing the final check on the prepared dinner.  It was at that moment that he knew he must capture these songs with the voice of Maman Shamsi.

Like many of women in her generation, Maman Shamsi is a woman who got married at the peak of her beauty and youth.  Maman Shamsi was privileged to marry a man who provided a comfortable life for her and her children.  However, her fate, just as the fate of many women of her generation, denied her the right and opportunity to embark on a path that cultivated her talent as a singer.  But, she never gave up her love for singing and music.  She held on to it tightly and kept it alive by singing for herself and on rare occasions sharing it with women in close circles of family and friends.  She also planted the seeds of her unfulfilled desires in her children and passed forward the love for music and art in her children.

In writing this piece, I asked Ziba Shirazi what was her experience as an Iranian artist with a gender-sensitive lens while performing as Maman Shamsi and she said " The more I listened to her voice, the more I felt connected, to the point that like every other story I brought to the stage and performed, I became Maman Shamsi.  I felt the joy of singing her songs which as you know is very different from my style of music and have to say I felt the sorrow she felt for not having the opportunity to be a famous singer.

Globally, there are many mothers who cultivate the love for art and music in their children, often perhaps because they did not have that opportunity.  But, a son being inspired to showcase the beautiful voice of her mother who never had the opportunity to share it with the public is rather a unique and very rare case.   

I recall many years ago when I read the work of Virginia Hanlon Grohl,  From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars that chronicles the upbringing of 18 accomplished musicians from a variety of musical genres through interviews with the mothers who raised them, I thought of many Iranian women who did the same.  Virginia herself was, of course, the mother of Foo Fighters' frontman, Dave Grohl.  In her book, Grohl argues that the most interesting thing about rock moms who support and trust their children as musicians is that they also grant them permission to pursue their dreams.  Dave Grohl rightfully states in the book's foreword, "We are all indebted to the women who have given us life.  For without them, there would be no music."   

Cross-culturally, it is true that sons and daughters outgrow the laps and cradles of their mothers but never their hearts.  We know that the relationship between a mother and her son has provided writers, poets and visual artists with subject material throughout history.  Most of the literature about mother and son has relevance in real life and true stories and that is why we can relate to them.  Women have often had to navigate and manage their dedication, make sacrifices and endure hardships in order to cultivate the love for music and art in their children.  Maman Shamsi's love for music not only encouraged her son to pursue a carrier in traditional music but instilled creativity and love for art in other children. One of her children even left medical school to embark on a career in theater.  Indeed, many Iranians know someone like Maman Shamsi in their circle of family and friends.   

Marziyeh, a famous Iranian singer, once said, "... At a time when Iranian families rarely let their daughters study, my father albeit a clergy, encouraged me to go to school and learn the sciences of the time.  When I started singing, it was not normal for a woman to become a singer.  At the same time, it was not enough to have a good voice.  A singer had to go to school and learn classical music theory.  A large number of music masters had to endorse her.  I spent many long years studying the art under the supervision of the greatest masters of Persian music before I started singing."

Marziyeh is right about Maman Shamsi's generation.  The dominant discourse of gender roles was not supportive of women becoming singers.  It was frowned upon when women were singing, their voices were only to be heard by close family members or the company of women.  Women were singing often only when they were alone busy doing housework. 

Ali Kalaei, an Iranian human rights activist, in his article in Persian (translated by Parvaneh Torkamani) titled Women Singing: An Issue of Religion or Politics  writes that throughout Iranian history, women's voices and their singing always provoked discussion and argument.  Moreover, the 1979 Iranian Revolution led to a complete ban on women singing in public along with a serious limitation to cultivating the artistic activities of talented Iranian singers.  Ultimately, there was a loosening of restrictions that allowed women to sing after May 1997.  But the history and controversy of women singing began long before the 1979 Revolution.  In traditional religious street theater such as Ta'zieh, men played women's roles in depicting Karbala tragedy.  Women singing in public was limited to women's religious gatherings where women were singing in Mouloodi (a religious gathering of women).  Of course, in some other ethnic/tribal communities in Iran, like that of the Kurdish people, women sang and danced alongside men and they still do.

The unique and inspiring story of 'Maman Shamsi Love Songs' not only provides the soft, caring and loving feelings of an artist son for his mother, but reminds us that we each are empowered to complete the circle of love and care, breaking barriers and making the unimaginable possible by passing it forward or, in cases like this, passing it to those who instilled the love for art in us and, thus, completing the circle.


... Payvand News - 01/03/19 ... --

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