Liraz Charhi (42) – or Liraz, as she is commonly known – is a popular Iranian-Israeli singer, who made her musical debut in 2004 coinciding with the kick start of her film career with the flick Turn Left at the End of the World. She takes inspiration from the music of pre-Revolution Iran, in particular the likes of female greats Ramesh and Googoosh. Owing to mutual animosities between Iran and Israel, Liraz can neither visit Iran nor can the Iranian musicians she works with travel to Israel.
Cut off from the home of both her parents, as well as her self-proclaimed spiritual and artistic home, she discovered other ways to gain access to culture of Iran. In 2006, upon arrival in L.A. under the aegis of the Israel Film Festival, she broke into Hollywood, and in doing so, stumbled upon Tehrangeles, the million-strong Iranian enclave community, mainly located in Beverly Hills and Westwood. The diasporic L.A. milieu was an eye-opener and inspiration for Liraz. She found many long-lost cousins and ultimately the community lead her on a profound musical voyage of self-discovery.
This December she is coming out with her second album Zan, a collection of eleven tracks steeped in the mood of Iranian music of the seventies. After repeated listens via Sound Cloud I am able to imagine myself momentarily transported back to the pre-Revolution era when mainly female vocal artists blended Western rock and roll with vernacular folk forms and traditional instrumentation.
A lot of acts these days, it seems, are taking their tip from hybrid sounds from the seventies, in particular from the Near and Middle East. One thinks of Altin Gün and Trio Tekke. Liraz also fits the bill.
Zan kicks off in a manner that is deceptively contemporary and au current – with a halting, slow-motion, Middle-East inflected snaking synth line accompanied by some folky hand drums and a heavy, thumping bass. The message is clear – right from the outset we are made to feel that we entering newer territory than what we are used to from Liraz, courtesy of her previous album, Naz (2017). Gone the lyrical, quirky, loungy feel. Enter instead something heavier, rockier (and at the same time more Oriental), deeper, more profound – psychedelic even.
And yet it’s not merely the instrumentation that is so striking in “Zan Bezan”, and elsewhere in Liraz second album Zan (“Woman” in Farsi) – but rather the vocal style itself. By turns coy and energetic, soaring and inspiring, demure and feisty, Liraz makes no bones of borrowing from such Persian pre-Revoltion female greats as Googoosh, Ramesh and Mahasti, who were in turn inspired by the Western psychedelic rock and alternately Oriental folk roots, modes and traditional instruments.
Hers is a hybrid style, shot through with electronic laser bolts, telling the story of cultural recycling, forays east and forays west, inspiration of Iranian forms which were themselves the product of a Western infatuation tempered by an appreciation of local, Oriental modes.
The second track, Injah, is also a good one. The mellow and meandering synth line that kicks in initially isn’t as powerful as that in the first track, but the guitar playing is interesting and takes one places, rendered in a baglama style mixed with elements of surf guitar, which make one think of Egyptian reluctant Oriental rocker, Omar Khorshid.
This guitar sound incidentally, appears to have become something akin to an Israeli-Levantine, Nu-Med incidental music, cropping up in Israeli acts like from Boom Pam, Balkan Beat Box and Jewish Monkeys.
Here also, we have the famous Iranian “naz” which Liraz is so keen on – a bit of a mysterious term, well-nigh untranslatable in English, which nevertheless can be approximated to mean a kind of female coquettishness and allure put at the service of wilful determination. In “Injah”, Liraz veers between naz and full-throated and high-flying rock and roll attitude packed with reverb, placing her in league with Iranian female folk-rock heroines.
By comparison, Liraz’ first album is shallower, more poppy, loungier, lilting, more steeped in naz. It lacks the sonic heights and depths of Zan, in which she appears to have found her groove.
Unfortunately most of Liraz’ audience will not be able to understand her lyrics. Liraz says this is not important. However, because a great deal of the appeal and charm of this latest album resides in Liraz’ vocal power, being able to sing along to her folk ballads would be an added plus.
I’ve listened to your new album Zan – which means “Woman” in Farsi, non-stop for the last couple of days and it’s great. I feel myself transported to another era. How did you get interested in this retro sound?
It started with my first Iranian album called Naz, which I released two years ago. It’s the sound of pre-Revolution Iran. Both my parents arrived in Israel from Iran when they were teenagers in ’64 and ’70. And I grew up with these two extremes of cultures. Inside my home I was very Iranian, and outside I was very Israeli. I realized as the years passed that I was trying to understand who I am, because I have these two extremes, and each time I got home from school I felt like I was moving between countries. My parents talked to me in Farsi, and till today I answer in Hebrew.
So far you have released two albums in Farsi. How did you get involved in this language and culture?
In addition to music, I have a great career as an actress here in Israel. Years ago when I went to a film festival in Los Angeles to promote my movies, I got very well connected with managers and agents, and then I started to work there, and went to lots of auditions and found out that Los Angeles is literally Tehrangeles.
Yeah, I heard about it. How many Iranians are there in L.A.?
A million…So finally I started to understand that this hole in my heart that I was carrying for so many years that was trying to be filled. You know, because my parents, they really tried to live their lives as Israelis, but still Israel was a very, very new country. You really didn’t know how to be Israeli, when Israel is not really Israel yet. And they really struggled to find a new identity while I was looking for mine. I think when I got in my twenties I understood that it gave me layers upon layers. And when I got to Tehrangeles it seemed as though I had come to my “holy land”.
What specifically did you discover?
Tehrangeles is a very, very emotional ground with Iranian neighborhoods, and I got to explore everything that I could from the Iranian culture. From food to theaters to cinema and good music. And then I started to collect lots of vinyls and records from the pre-Revolution seventies era of music. I went back and forth from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv with overloaded suitcases full of beautiful music.
Who were some names?
Ramesh, Googoosh, Mahasti…And then I understood that I was dropping out from the auditioning school, saying, OK, I have had enough. I felt – I swear to God – it is as clear as though I am standing there now – like a baby fell into my arms, and said, “Hey, I’m a baby, raise me please. And sing to me in Farsi.” And I was like, huh? What?
What were the lives of your grandparents like in Iran?
I heard so many stories growing up. How my grandparents were muted (silenced) in Iran, and one of them wanted to be a singer, and couldn’t. And, you know, they got married when they were 13 and they got engaged when they were 11! So, I grew up with so many crazy stories, about oppression of women. And I felt that my femininity was very delayed, and I needed to break my own walls and to speak up and raise my voice inside my very, very Iranian home.
What’s it like not being able to visit Iran?
I use music to heal myself, to be close to the Iran that I cannot visit now, and which I long for so much. It’s crazy to be longing for a country that you don’t even know. I know the country from beautiful stories about the snow, the weather, the food, the people, the culture. But what I see on television, it’s the opposite. About extreme Islamic people and muted women who cannot even sing for the last forty years.
But isn’t that the truth, though?
It’s true that they are oppressed, yes they are. And the fact that they didn’t even have the choice of being an artist, if they so wish. I’m not talking about singing at home in the shower or performing in weddings. If you want to take it and make it a profession – even men (not just women) – it’s crazy, excuse me for the word, but it’s like being a hooker! It’s like, no way, you are not able to do that. And I grew up on my grandmother’s knees, and she told me that she sneaked almost every night to shows that happened to be in a basement…with heavily smoking men, playing these beautiful old instruments, like tar and santur. And she just wanted to breathe in this musical environment because she needed it; she was an artist.
So I found out – I started to collect the pre-Revolution women singers, and I understood bit after bit that I got attracted to these ladies because they have a very thick layer of courage inside their voices. Their voices sounded to me very protesting. And it was something else.
How did you grow up? Did you grow up in a traditional household?
I grew up in a house that you have to be polite, with good manners. And you have to obey, to be a good girl. You can speak, but at some point you have to be quiet. And the environment I grew up in was one in which there were lots of women. And I watched each way in which each of them broke through walls, how each one of them broke her wall in her own time beautifully. And I understood that music was the only way for me to be myself as an artist, to grow, to go back. Because I want to go forward and know who I am and where I came from. And from the other side I have so many good stories in my pocket that I need to write about and sing about.
So you released Naz. What does Naz mean?
So I released Naz, which means – I don’t think we have the name in English or Hebrew or German. It’s like coquettish, polite manners of a lady. And from the other side she is very determined. She wants to ask something from someone. She will do it with “naz”. But if she doesn’t get it then you are in trouble. So this was the name of the first Iranian album – Naz. And when I released it I realized that I was getting a lot of support from men and women in Teheran, in Iran. And I think they flipped when they understood that a singer from Israel, she has an Iranian heritage, but she is Israeli; she sings in Farsi, not in Hebrew. And she sings freely. And she dances freely. And she talks about her emotions. She doesn’t have to cover her head or her face. They really supported my freedom. And I understood that the next chapter of my Iranian music is to peel off this naz and sing about us women. And, you know, I have two daughters and I grew up believing that I have to speak up as much as I can. Even in our very liberal country we have very extreme religious people here – Orthodox.
So, you got it into your head to put together an album with Iranian artists, from Iran.
Yes, and I thought it would be very easy. I wanted to sound the same way that we recorded it. Actually, it took me a while to collab with them and to gather them for one piece of music environment. Because I just posted on my Facebook and Instagram stories – “Hello my Iranian friends, I am looking for Iranian musicians, tar player, baglama player, drum player, because when I worked with the producers of the album we understood after we wrote the first song together, we really understood the environment that we wanted to have and which Iranian instruments we wanted to participate with. So, we actually posted, and there were many, many people who approached me. And it was very nice. And then I needed to collect the most powerful, mesmerizing and the ones that really touched me and were in my environment. We started to record and the more songs we got the more complicated it got. First of all because technically – I don’t know if you know, but not all of them use WhatsApp. For us it is basic to use WhatsApp. They use Telegram, Instagram and mails. They don’t use Facebook –
This was something that you did secretly, as well.
Yes, so technically this was the way, and the most emotional and powerful feelings that I have ever had is that I needed to connect them – each time I connected them via Skype, let’s say, I was afraid that someone was following us. And there were lots of times when the people really disappeared. Like they said, okay, we’ll meet you at four on Skype and we will be in the studio, and you are in the studio and they disappeared. Some of them changed their profiles and got back to me after weeks, telling me that they were afraid to work with me because they are afraid that someone will follow them.
Did the women collaborate with you on a condition of anonymity?
I am sad to say that the women that we participated with really didn’t want their names to be on my albums. Some of them agreed, some of them it took a while to convince. Some of them having different names.
And each time I recorded something and thought, that’s it, after mixing and mastering, some of them got back to me and said, “Liraz, I’m taking this song back – I’m afraid. I don’t know whether this is the right way to do it. They know where I live, where my children’s school is. It’s too crazy.”
And suddenly I got lots of calls from my dad, saying that I had to take care of myself and my family. Because I wrote about female revolution, about the fact that, even though we are muted for 42 years, we still can speak up and rejoice and sing and dance. And I wrote about the opportunity to be happy together. And I could write a chorus in Farsi and the rest of the lyrics in Hebrew, and send it to artists, and they got back to me. And I started to play the music here and then send it to Teheran, and it went back and forth. The craziest thing is that – I don’t know if you remember the explosion with the Soleimani in January. My friends, my fellows in Iran, told me that I had to take care of myself and run away and take my family from Israel. And that was really crazy because I started to have anxiety and have sleepless nights. But the fact that I always answered to myself, asking myself the question: Why am I doing it? Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing the wrong thing? Should I stop? Should I hold my dream for a while? Nothing will happen to me if I record as normal here in Israel, a normal album. It doesn’t have to be the dream that I had. Maybe it’s dangerous for them.
What was your conclusion?
The two answers I came up with – one of them was: the only way that we can create, both artists from both “enemy countries” – they say, “enemies” – I don’t agree with this word – the only way we can connect and love each other is to be in the arts and do what we want. Our bridge, our only bridge, for me. And for them. And the second is: I sing because of these women. It doesn’t matter if it’s my grandmothers or it it’s the women who are now living in Iran. I sing because of them to them and with them. I actually wrote the album with them. It’s a big thing. And for your first question – “What was the background?” – I remember you question – we agreed (the producer of the album and I) that we really wanted to sound like how we recorded it. An underground project with the hiss that comes from the forwarding of music via the internet media. I’ll give you an example – we opened a Skype in the recording studio in Tel Aviv, and we opened a Skype recording studio in Teheran, which is like the Iranian Abbey Road. All my singers and idols actually recorded there. Many albums that I admire. I sent my vocals and they put their instruments on. Back and forth. It was such an amazing experience. We really loved the sound that came out of it. And it even stayed in the vibe of the seventies, which I really, really adore. I don’t know anything about Iran from my parents.
On the album cover it shows you with a headscarf. Why did you choose to have your hair veiled like that?
Good, good question. As long as I stayed in touch with my Iranian ladies and fellows, you know, I got inside their Instagram and learned their stories and learned about their families. And they did the opposite. And we actually cooked together and sang together and danced together. And I literally felt that I met my family that I had been longing to meet for so many years, you know. We became like a family. One of the songwriters even wrote a song about my daughter. “Joon Joon” it’s called. Her name is Joon. So we actually gathered as one big family. And I started to relate with them and identify with them, asking myself the question, what would happen if I was born there? How would I react? Would I be an artist, as I am today? Would I wear a headscarf? Would I be of the protesting women who take the headscarf off on the trains and holds the biggest flags, saying “I don’t want to be a woman in Iran. I want to fight for my freedom!” Who would I be in the midst of all of these figures? So, it actually started from one of my shows that some costume designer designed one of my outfits. And I asked her to give me a cut; just a piece of the fabric, the same fabric as the outfit. And I went on the stage with this, and with the glasses. And I felt that I was peeling off my glasses, I am peeling off my scarf, I am waving with my scarf. And there was a point after three songs where I am asking the crowd to participate in my own private revolution and to dance like Iranian people. And they are starting to dance. It kind of became my…I don’t know, one of the ways to handle this situation, in so far as I can really identify with them.
And the people that you were in touch with, their travel is restricted as well. Or can they come West?
They cannot visit Israel. Not even the other country, because if it says in their passport that they have visited Israel, they would never be able to go back.
Yeah. But I mean other countries as well. Like the US and Germany.
Yes. Actually I met a couple of them in Istanbul and in Europe during my tours. But it was very quiet. I couldn’t really speak about it and talk about it and have a selfie with them. It was very, very quiet. I had almost two years ago a show in Denmark at the Roskilde Festival. I sang and then in the middle of the show I noticed a guy with a big flag coming towards me, just underneath the stage with a flag. And he started to wave the flag. And I thought, “OK, here comes the inevitable political incident.” Because as an Israeli I understood that some of the singers got Palestinian flags. And I asked myself what would I ever do if it ever happened to me? Should I keep singing? Should I smile? And this guy was approaching me, and I saw, it wasn’t a Palestinian flag. It was an Iranian flag! And I said, “What!?” This is a scenario that I could never imagine happening to me. Tears started to run down my face. It was such an emotional moment. I stopped and had to take a breather. And then I started to talk about the muted women in Iran. And I think that everyone can identify with everyone else’s story. Being a foreigner. Everyone is a foreigner somewhere.
Who is your audience? Israeli? European? Iranian? And who do you foresee listening to this new album?
When I released my first Iranian album, I thought people were thinking that I was crazy. And some of them, even my manager, said, “It’s a niche.” And I said, “Yes, I’m going to the niche because I’m singing in Farsi.” Most of them are not Iranian, and in my tours, it’s people like you and me. I will have a couple of Iranians, who I know because they sing the lyrics really well. Tan people. But thousands and thousands of people are not understanding a word in Farsi. And they hear music as music. And it’s connecting everyone together.
And what about in Israel? What’s been your reception there in terms of music?
I think the same as outside of Israel. But the crowds are not as big as abroad because Israel is a very, very small country.
I wanted to ask you about your trip to the States. Was that also a bit of a culture shock for you? Or had you already been familiar with American society?
I was shocked. I was shocked to know many cousins that I didn’t even know that I had, and they were like, real Iranians. They were born actually in the US, but they have this thick Iranian accent. And the naz culture is running in their veins. I know ten percent of it from my own home. But they are using it, the naz. To give you an example I think the Kardasians are a good example of naz. I can laugh about it. I can be cynical. I have so many emotions with regards to this naz culture. But, yeah, it was a big thing for me to understand. I have cousins that actually live like Iranians in Los Angeles. Luxury life and very Iranian. Deep, deep iside the roots. It’s crazy.
I wonder if you could describe the Iranian scene in L.A. I confess, I know little about it. I know it exists, but I had no idea there were something like a million Iranians there. So I checked out some videos on youtube, and the image that I got was of a group of people that weren’t necessarily trying to preserve their Iranian identity, but rather of a people that were trying to be more American than the Americans, love Trump and give their children American names. Also that they were very materialistic. One guy was saying how all Teherangelans drove Mercedes and BMWs etc. This is just the image that came across. What was your impression?
First I found out in Los Angeles a lot of family that I never met before. they kind a live On Jewish neighborhoods , very Iranian. actually very close Iranian community, having a thick Iranian accent even though my cousins for example were born in Los Angeles. About luxury , yes I guess most of the people in Los Angeles are enjoying the good life and a very high luxury apartments, houses and also cars. But I didn’t feel it’s the most important thing. They are investing most of their time to be with each other; having good times with their family.
So right now, for the past ten years or so there was been a kind of Oriental underground scene in Israel with bands like AWA and Balkan Beat Box and Dudu Tassa. Where is this scene headed? Is it going to get more and more popular?
I really like your questions. Listen, we are like a mix of cultures in the country, okay? When you know someone, it’s like “Oh, your parents are from Iraq. Morocco. Yemen. Iran.” It’s normal that you have a big heritage. So I think our generation – just the musicians – understood that they cannot – some of them – like me – I cannot speak in Hebrew now. It’s so natural for me to sing in the language of my home. I don’t think it has become a trend. I think people became more aware to be themselves without thinking. Just to be the artist thing. And the audience really loves it because it’s their background, too.
But can you remember a time when it wasn’t so easy to put this music across? Like twenty years ago was it more difficult?
Twenty years ago artists realized that they needed to be Israeli. Because Israel is a new place. You know what I mean? Because they needed to go with the flow. But when Israel became more and more Israel and people got more in touch with themselves, and they understood that they cannot be the artists that they wanted to be and not talking about their heritage and writing about it – and I do believe, that not just in music, if you are not clear with your thoughts and your heart, you cannot dream, you cannot dare, you cannot be yourself.
Are you more well known in Israel as an actress or as a singer?
Both. I’m one person.
What came first? Was it the acting or the singing?
I released my first album when my first feature film came out. It was actually at the same time.
And music-wise, while you were growing up did you listen to some of these Iranian singers? Like how was your growing up marked by music?
The playlist of my family was the same playlist – like the wedding songs, the parties. I actually hated it because I could not connect to anything of ladies who just dance nice and sing very nice. It wasn’t like extreme music. Nice, and then I hear it again and again for most of my life. I had enough of it, actually. I didn’t want to hear it. But meeting the music, and knowing the seventies music in Los Angeles – Tehrangeles – was a very big surprise for me. I really, really hooked and fell in love with this music.
Right now, what kind of stuff are you listening to? What’s on your play list at the moment?
Oh, I really live Tootard. I adore Altın Gün.
Speakig of Altin Gün, what about all this psychedelic Turkish music from the seventies?
Yes, yes…I think from the moment that I realized that I am built out of so many layers, and the same people that does this music, Tootard and Altın Gün, are also in my environment, and I am very curious to hear whatever they are doing, and we are sharing the same stages on tour, on festivals. And it’s nice to sneak to one of their shows, and listen. And this is why I fell in love with Iranian seventies music. These musicians moved from Iran to other countries in Europe and listened to different music and then went back home to Iran and wrote the music inspired by the music that they took from different places in Europe. So they are very layered and mixed up and I love it.
Thanks for the interview.