When a culture flows through your blood like it does for Mamak Khadem, passion easily bridges distance. For Khadem, born and raised in Tehran and now living in Los Angeles, her full immersion in the music of Persia has made the connection to her native Iran stronger by the day.
It has also provided her with a way to offer a brighter side of the culture and diverse country she loves, a country she and her fellow Iranians remain proud of despite the politic winds that have clouded its inherent vibrancy.
Trained in the classical Persian style, Khadem's music steers well clear of modern day politics as it adapts the verses of both young contemporary Iranian poets and revered masters like Rumi and Shamloo to the melodies of Iran's classical and folk repertoires. It's a combination she has honed in regular lengthy stays back home to study with some of Iran's greatest teachers of the tradition, and one that has earned her invitations to perform everywhere from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. to the House of Culture in Berlin and World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles. She straddles continents and cultures, recording and performing with some of the greats of Persian music while putting a unique imprint on Hollywood with her film and TV soundtrack work.
All of which is decades removed from the years prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution when a teenaged Khadem was sent to the U.S. by her parents to get an education. “It was something I didn't want to do,” she recalls. “All of my friends and family were in Tehran. And then I got stuck here because the Iranian revolution happened, and then the eight-year war with Iraq, and on and on.”
Khadem immersed herself in two languages she understood - music and mathematics. She eventually earned advanced degrees in mathematics and education and has been teaching for decades in the Los Angeles area. And the music education she enjoyed when she was young, including as part of the Children's Choir for National Radio and Television of Iran, laid the foundation for her career as a professional musician. It has informed every step she has taken as an artist, from her role as lead singer of the groundbreaking LA-based Persian fusion ensemble Axiom of Choice, to her deeper immersion in recent years into the roots of Persian classical music.
Khadem has found ways to underscore her pride in her culture even when she's performing less traditional material. “Jostojoo” (“Forever Seeking”), her most recent CD, was inspired by travels to Turkey, Armenia, Greece and remote parts of Iran, yet reflects the music and culture she considers “home” to this day with all vocals sung gorgeously in her native Persian.
The Persian music in Khadem's soul has surfaced in striking ways in another facet of her singing career: TV and movie soundtrack work. Khadem calls it “sheer luck” that she got involved in the business. “Jeff Rona of the 'Profiler' TV series asked me to try it,” she recounts about the well-known Hollywood film and television composer. She exhibited such a knack for it that she's been asked to contribute to soundtracks for the films “Peace Maker,” “The Cross” and “Dracula 2000,” and the TV shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Dark Angels,” and “Battlestar Galactica.”
What sets her apart in the studio, once again, is the culture and tradition that has been her muse. “I bring what I feel to a passage or melody, and because of my training in Persian music that sounds completely different than what a Western musician brings. Ten minutes into my first soundtrack session, I felt such a freedom. It's a challenge I really like, and my own improvisational skills have developed tremendously because of it.”
What has also developed unabated for Khadem is her commitment to the women of Iran. She is asked regularly to sing in Tehran, but declines because the country's Islamic-law strictures demand that her audience be limited to women-only.
“I refuse to do it out of respect for what I believe in,” she explains. “At the same time, in order for the women who live in Iran to share their music, I understand that that's what they have to do. So my own views are by necessity balanced by the deep respect I have for my Iranian female counterparts.”
Khadem is working to support women there in other ways. A new project, “Hidden Poets of Persia,” shines the spotlight on unknown female poets of Iran whose identity as women has had to be kept secret because of Islamic law. “It's been something that they've had to hide,” she says, “and I feel strongly their works as women poets should be celebrated.”
Even when it came down to choosing support staff for her CD, “Jostojoo,” Khadem made a conscious decision to hire a talented Iranian woman. She was encouraged to bring a male sound engineer on board, yet Khadem gave the job to Somayeh Habibian for the Tehran session. “She's one of the best in a country where people think women don't do anything but stay home and have babies,” says Khadem.
As always, the singer is ready and willing to stand up for what she believes is right - and she continues to feel that the culture of her native land holds the key to everlasting promise both for herself and her people.
“I've chosen this music for myself to stay connected to my culture,” says Khadem. “That's very, very important to me. This is deeper for me than music. It's about who I am as a person. Am I an Iranian or an American? I’ve decided I don’t have to be only one, I can – in fact, I must -- be both. To me, people can make their own culture, and the music I make inspires me to do exactly that.”
MAMAK KHADEM FALL 2008 TOUR
Wed/Thurs Sept 10 and 11
A two-day event hosted by Iran’s House of Art
at the University of Minnesota
Wed Sept 10
Coffman Memorial Union Theater
Screening of “Back Vocal” documentary on female voices in Iran,
Mamak Khadem is guest speaker (free)
Thurs Sept 11
St Paul, MN
St Paul Student Center Theatre
Concert by Mamak Khadem
Fri Sept 12
Madison World Music Fest/Union Theatre
Sun Sept 14
Global Union 2008 / Humboldt Park
Thurs Sept 18
Los Angeles, CA
World Festival of Sacred Music
Japanese American National Museum
Sat Sept 20
Chicago World Music Fest/Morse Theatre
Thurs Oct 2
New Haven, CT
Yale University, Davenport College
Sat Oct 4 (2pm)
New York, NY
Iran Human Rights Documentation Ctr
Sat Oct 4 (8pm)
New York, NY
Rubin Museum of Art / Naked Soul Series
Sat Oct 4
New York, NY
Iran Human Rights Documentation Ctr
Sun Oct 12
Los Angeles, CA
Ancient Persian harvesting festival
”On her remarkable solo CD, "Jostojoo" (Forever Seeking), Tehran's Mamak Khadem (formerly with Los Angeles' Axiom of Choice) sings deep-rooted, world-fusion melodies from Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Armenia as traditional and modern instruments percolate behind her. ‘Through the 15th century, people traveling on silk caravans would gather around fires at night, playing music,’ says Khadem, who performs tonight in Watertown. ‘Our ensemble creates the same mood, becoming those travelers who shared the essence of their cultures through music."
"...one of the ground-breaking vocalists in a new Persian fusion sound that challenged the boundaries of classical purism, and forged a fresh new stylistic context for a generation of young singers.”
"Khadem was extraordinary Wednesday, drawing her listeners in via the pure, emotionally communicative powers of her voice…she is one of the wonders of world trance music."
Los Angeles Times
“Artfully crafted and expertly arranged, Jostojoo is simply an invitation to something magical…a triumph of a jumping off point for Ms. Khadem’s solo career.”
World Music Central
“On her first solo album, Mamak Khadem creates a seamless tapestry from different cultures, unified by Persian poetry and centered on the theme of love. Innovative and beautiful musical arrangements combine with powerfully evocative vocals, conjuring myriads of images and landscapes. The delivery is deeply heartfelt and sincere. As we listen, we are awakened to a stream of emotions as Mamak takes us on her journey beyond time and space, on a quest for union and wholeness.”
Yatrika Shah-Rais, world music DJ :: KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles
"As a seeker of truth, beauty and peace through music, Mamak Khadem wants to ditch the dogma and embrace the love...Khadem and her collaborators plumb the mysteries of what the poet Rumi called “the place where everything is music.”