Before Haale Gafori, no singer had made me dig up my collection of Forough Farrokhzad poems to find the verse where the poet plants her ink-stained hands in the garden. Yes, Shahram Nazeri, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Khatereh Parvaneh occasionally send me scampering to the bookshelf for a familiar masnavi or ghazal, but flipping through Forough after a concert is new. Finally, after years of putting up with that stubborn staccatoed synthesizer beat in Persian restaurants, a new kind of Iranian-Western theme has arrived that does not trigger a Pavlovian response to order a koobideh.
Haale, the thirty-something Iranian singing talent is from New York, touring California. Her audience, like her music, is developing fast. These days her mystic compositions are making headway with spiritually curious Americans who delight in Eastern exotica.
During Haale's concert, I watch a young blond in the front row sway to the lazy throbbing of the music. As the rhythm builds, the woman can no longer bear to remain seated; she stands up and twirls on her toes, palms up, head to one side, like a whirling darvish. Suddenly she skips half a continent and her darvish dance morphs into a reasonably watchable Bollywood routine.
Yet this audience member is not being naïve, Haale’s guitarist, John Shannon just gave us a slight suggestion of a raga, accompanied by a hint of a tabla beat from drummer Matt Kilmer. Not just any tabla beat, this texture comes straight out of the familiar John Lennon repertoire. As the saying goes, genius steals! Haale is not merely influenced by the psychedelic sixties, she is resurrecting it. In Haale's music, the calloused fingers that Jimmy Hendrix planted alongside Farrokhzad's ink-stained hands have sprouted.
Like Farrokhzad, Haale is overtly sensuous in her artistic mysticism. Stealing a trick from the rock repertoire of stage moves, Haale surrenders her breath to the microphone, letting it rise from her chest into a sexy nasal groan. Rumi's drunken words first spill out of her mouth then cascade down a length of dark, disheveled hair that only a Hafez could describe. For a moment during the concert I really understood why the Ayatollahs are so intimidated by Iranian women's hair. As with many superbly talented stage musicians, Haale is difficult to capture in the two dimensions of a photograph. Her beauty is encoded as much in the alluring way she moves and sings as in the aesthetic symmetries of her face.
Haale was conferring with drummer Matt Kilmer when I approached her to chat. This wasn’t the best time to intrude; the performance was late because guitarist John Shannon, was still trying to resuscitate one of the amplifiers. Yet in a gesture of Persian hospitality she handed her instrument to Matt and gave me her full attention. Offstage Haale’s star quality vivaciousness turns into a Monroesque vulnerability. When I mention her parents, her face shows love but betrays discomfort at the same time. She says her mother now loves her music. Yet there was a time when Haale’s medical doctor parents wondered why their daughter did not value her Stanford degree, or why she turned down the opportunity to go Harvard Med. She says the Iranian culture’s pressure for worldly success was too much for her. She was treated for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) but it did no good. Slowly she came to recognize that her neurosis was in fact a monstrous manifestation of her confined creativity. A form of putrefied expressiveness. “OCD is serious,” she blurts out before skillfully dodging memories of the nightmare. Her insight into her condition allowed Haale to seek a cure in music. In her song, “Vatanam,” one hears clear evidence of this injured imagination. Chanting the word “vatanam” over John Shannon’s hypnotizing guitar echoes, Haale nuances back and forth between the Persian meaning “my country,” and its homophone, “and my body.” Few Iranian artists have used their personal pain to give such an explicit and uninhibited voice to our nation’s stifled creativity.
Unlike many on the rock scene, Haale doesn't use her lack of inhibition to amplify her sex appeal. She goes only so far physically before she turns inwards spiritually. This may or may not limit her marketability in the popular music genre depending on whether or not she becomes aware of some of the other ways she may be holding back. She uses the Persian setar mostly as a drone instrument, and it is clear that her acquaintance with the radif of Persian music has only just begun. At times her singing instincts bring her very close to a chah-chah, which she declines to fully develop.
The Persian chah-chah is a potentially groundbreaking development in rock music. In 1973 a singer named Clare Torry astonished the Western world by giving voice to a musical sensation that many Iranians consider routine in classical Persian music. Torry gave us the famous 'Great Gig in the Sky' in the Pink Floyd album, Dark Side of the Moon. This wordless lament is arguably the most deeply sensuous rendition of love, yearning and rapture in popular Western music, and yet, according to Pink Floyd, it is about Death and Annihilation. If you asked this most Sufi of popular Western vocals to compare itself to what Persian classical singing has already accomplished, it might say, 'Maa hanooz andar khameh yek koocheh eem.
As popular Western music turns more and more to the past, recycling idioms from previous decades, Haale has the opportunity to upend the uncreative eclecticism by giving her full commitment to fusing the soul of Iran's ancient musical traditions to the kind of profound&n