From Persia with songs and hymns

Maureen Nehedar honors her family’s heritage by updating the Jewish art forms of her homeland.

Maureen Nehedar (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maureen Nehedar
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The year 1979 was a bloody time in Iran, during the heat of the Islamic Revolution and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power. That was when Maureen Nehedar’s parents whisked her as an infant out of their home in Isafan and enduring a long and dangerous journey, made their way to a new life in Israel – via Sweden.
Parsi language, the traditional melodies, and the words of the piyutim (liturgical poems) were the first sounds she heard in her new Jerusalem home. After completing studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance with emphasis on voice, conducting and composition, she have blossomed into a classically trained musician who dedicates her career to performing the Jewish art forms of ancient Persia and bringing them up to date.
Nehedar’s performances in Israel and abroad have received rave reviews for their originality and excitement, and her three CDs have topped the radio charts. She has sung with the Ankor Choir, the Isafan Ensesmble, and collaborated with Israel’s leading orchestras and artists, such as Rona Keenan, Ehud Banai, Barry Sakharof and with the Israel Philharmonic, Ra’anana Symphonette, and Beersheba Symphony.
On December 19, Nehedar will headline the first concert at the Jerusalem Theater as part of a series called The Voice and World Music produced by Felicja Blumenthal Music Center in cooperation with the Jerusalem Theater.
She has titled her performance Persian Songs and Hymns. On the program are her original arrangements of ancient piyutim, prayers between Man and God, pleas for mercy, salvation, and thanks. “These are prayers which are very beautiful but not well known,” she explains.
“Originally, the music that accompanied them was sung in unison,” explains Nehedar. “I have added harmonies, a modern touch so the audience can connect with them. Even though, I use the scales of Persian music to give the music authenticity and ancient instruments, such as the oud, harmonica, traditional Eastern percussion instruments, and the santar, a stringed instrument played with wooden spoons, [which is, in fact, the forerunner of the piano], there will be a complement of musicians on stage playing modern instruments: Yuval Gerstein, guitars; Alon Azizi, bass; Oren Gilad, drums; Shahar Ziv, piano and French horn, and the arrangements are mine.
“I am very excited about being part of this series, because I believe the combination of East and West will foster appreciation and respect for Jews across the spectrum. Persia was one of the cradles of civilization. At the height of their cultural glory, they developed a system of music that was as structured, mathematical and beautiful as Western music. They also left room for improvisation which gives the music an energy and drive of its own. I regard this music also as spiritual and wise.”
When asked about the woman’s role in singing this music, Nehedar’s voice filled with pride.
“Women take part in singing the piyutim,” she declares explicitly. “Traditionally, men, women and children sit together in groups and sing together. It is a natural development, without shame. I see it as an example for future enjoyment of music together.”
The focus of Nehedar’s performance at the Jerusalem Theater will be traditional piyutim. Nevertheless, the performance will include folk music in the Persian tradition, and Nehedar’s original musical settings of the words of modern Israeli poets, such as Leah Goldberg, Yehudah Amichai and Haim Guri.
“You do not have to travel to far-away Eastern countries to enjoy the diverse musical traditions that are available in Israel,” she concludes. “They may not be mainstream, but are beautiful, important, and entertaining – a part of our culture – a source of enjoyment and pride.”