Ode to a woman

Maureen Nehedar, the first female performer of Persian liturgical music, is coming to Confederation House.

Maureen Nehedar (photo credit: ORIT PNINI)
Maureen Nehedar
(photo credit: ORIT PNINI)
Maureen Nehedar has the perfect pedigree for her line of work.
Born in Iran, she made it over here with her family as a small child and has been promulgating Persian music – and a wide swathe of piyutim, or liturgical music – for some time now.
Part of that effort is currently being channeled through a series of weekly workshops she is running at the Beit Daniel Center for Progressive Judaism in Tel Aviv; it is also being put out to a wider audience through an album she released several months ago, which goes by the somewhat wordy but highly pictorial title of Asleep in the Bosom of Childhood.
It caused quite a stir in and around the world and the ethnic music sector, and has done pretty well in record sales.
Nehedar has been touring the country intermittently with material taken from the CD, and the national circuit will culminate with a show at Confederation House on July 2 (8:30 p.m.). The album, and the show, comprise Jewish piyut scores rearranged by Nehedar, and for her Jerusalem date the singer will be supported by oud and saz player Sefi Asfouri, percussionist Yishai Apterman, acoustic guitarist and harmonica player Liran Bador and pianist Uriel Oshrat.
Now 36, Nehedar has been a leading exponent of Jewish Persian liturgical material for some time. You could say she imbibed the sounds of the community in her birth country with her mother’s milk.
“I grew up with piyutim without knowing they were piyutim,” she notes.
“There were also women’s songs and songs sung at the synagogue; it was a sort of mish-mash of things. But I didn’t set out to sing piyutim or to become a paytanit [female performer of piyutim], or be a standard-bearer of this or that. It happened naturally.”
She really got into the material while a student at Rubin Academy of Music and Dance of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and decided to do a doctoral thesis based on Persian Jewish music under the aegis of musicology professor and director of the university’s Jewish Music Research Center, Edwin Seroussi.
It quickly transpired that if Nehedar was going to make serious headway in the field, she would have to put in the footwork. “Edwin told me that I had all the requisite attributes for doing the thesis, but he warned that there was very little written material and few historical records of the music.”
Nehedar duly rolled up her sleeves and got her nose to the grindstone. “I soon realized that I would have to get out there into the streets, go from house to house to speak to people, and collect the material.”
The PhD eventually fell by the wayside, but her research endeavor gathered apace. “I thought to myself that I would never get the thesis done, and felt that what I really wanted to do was to be a singer. I wasn’t formally doing a PhD, but every time I met someone who could tell me something about the history of Persian piyutim, I’d make a mental note of it and accumulate information.”
The initial upshot of that street-level exploratory work was a show Nehedar launched in 2008.
“It was the first time anyone had done anything like that – a show based on ancient piyutim of Persian Jewry,” she recounts, adding that it was not just about reviving and preserving traditional fare, but also very much about bringing it into the here and now. “I wasn’t interested in just learning the material and reproducing it in parrot fashion. I also wanted to see where I came into the picture, how I brought my own voice and baggage into it.”
That involved adding new strands to the traditional material, including incorporating non-traditional instruments such as the electric guitar and even harmonies, which are really extraneous to Persian music.
“I also composed new material, but I adhered to very strict guidelines that I set for myself – to stick to the Persian musical framework and scales. I allow myself to play around with the material and even introduce new arrangements, but I don’t change the fundamentals.”
It proved to be a good route to travel.
“[Haaretz music critic] Ben Shalev said that the works I wrote were genius, and I got all sorts of amazing responses. This music is a way of life for me, and I wanted to make it accessible to the general public.”
Nehedar may be pushing the boat out, but she has certainly paid her dues. “I have been singing in public since I was 18, to the older generations who were really hard-core, and that was while I studied at the academy. It was sort of living in two worlds at the same time.
“I can say, with a sense of pride, that I was among the pioneers of world music in Israel, and then I helped to lead the way with piyutim. I am glad there is so much interest in piyutim now.”
Nehedar has clearly contributed to the increase in popularity of Persian liturgical material, not least through her CD.
“I tried to create a new sound for each song on the album,” she reveals. “I think I managed that.”
With an instrumental lineup clearly tailored to fuse sounds and textures from the eastern and western sides of the ethnic music divide, the Confederation House can expect to get a richly interwoven offering, capped by Nehedar’s seasoned mellifluous vocal delivery.
For tickets and more information: (02) 624-5206 and www.confederationhouse.org/