Unpacking her cultural baggage

Iranian-born singer Maureen Nehedar says she has acquired the ability to change her vocal qualities to fit the genre.

November 17, 2010 21:51
3 minute read.
Iranian-born singer Maureen Nehedar.

maureen nehedar_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Sometimes a title almost tells the whole story or at least gives a good idea of the bigger picture. Singer Maureen Nehedar’s “From Isfahan to Jerusalem” concert, which takes place at the Jerusalem Theater Thursday night (9 p.m.), is about just that.

Thirtysomething Jerusalemite Nehedar was born in Isfahan in Iran and made aliya with her family as a very young child. “That was in 1980. The revolution had taken place and things were starting to get tough,” she recalls. “We came here with nothing except our cultural baggage.”

In many ways, From Isfahan to Jerusalem is Nehedar’s way of reconnecting with her family history in Iran and revisiting the trauma of being physically and culturally transplanted to a different country.

The concert is something of a grand affair.

Nehedar will be backed by the Raanana Symphonette, and distinguished musician and academic Dr. Michael Wolpe is the musical director and conductor. Also on board are stellar guests pianist Daniel Shefi and oud player Or Tzarfati, with arrangements contributed by the likes of Itai Rosenbaum and Wolpe. It is a highly impressive line-up. Nehedar says she feels there is a strong similarity between Persian folk music and classic Hebrew songs and that the former is a flexible art form. “The second half of the show will include songs like ‘Hayoo Leilot’ [sung by Shoshana Damari and later Esther Ofarim] and ‘Yesh Makom,’ which Yehoram Gaon sang. You know, Persian music is not Arabic music. The Persian culture has Indo-European roots and, unlike Arabic music, it is easier to harmonize in Persian music. Persian music can even sound Irish, and I am called Maureen which is an Irish name,” she says.

Besides her vocal prowess and mixed cultural baggage, Nehedar will also bring her rich training and experience to bear on the program. “I have a Western classical music education at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. I have sung opera and modern songs too, so I have a rounded training in different areas of music.”

She has also delved into the history of her chosen genre. “I have done a lot of research into Persian music and discovered all sorts of material, rural and liturgical and others. A couple of years ago, at the Oud Festival, I performed piyutim [liturgical songs] that went down well with the audience, including Ashkenazim. I think there is something about Persian music that has a universal appeal,” she says.

Nehedar’s breadwinning activities to date have included composing for shows, teaching, making presentations and performing Israeli Song Book material by iconic songwriters such as Moshe Vilensky, Mordehai Ze’ira and Sasha Argov. Nehedar can handle it all.

“Over the years, I have acquired the ability to change my vocal qualities to fit the genre. I can sing like a muezzin or in Western styles, including jazzy material and more exotic Eastern songs. “

The singer says it will be quite something to be backed by the Raanana Symphonette. “It is an excellent ensemble, and it is great to have Michael Wolpe with me. He has known me since I studied with him when I was only 10, and I was his student later at the academy. I have also performed at Confederation House over the years and [Confederation House director and Oud Festival artistic director] Effie [Benaya] also knows me well. He has done a wonderful job with the festival.”

After all these years in the business, From Isfahan to Jerusalem represents something of a summation for Nehedar. “We hear stories of aliya, but we don’t always hear the music people bring with them from the cities and villages of their countries of birth. I couldn’t have done something like this, say, 10 years ago. Today I don’t bring just my musical skills to my work but also my cultural and personal baggage. And I am still learning and will continue doing so for the rest of my life.”

For more information about the Oud Festival: www.confederationhouse.org/english/

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