Sparking Vocal Inspiration, an Interview with Mamak Khadem

Mamak Khadem
Mamak Khadem
Formerly lead vocalist of the popular Persian ensemble Axiom of Choice, Mamak Khadem is a classically trained singer who has studied her art in both Iran and the United States. Inspired by her travels throughout the Middle East, Khadem adapts Persian poetry to rearranged traditional melodies from various regions of Iran, Baluchistan, Armenia, Turkey, Greece, and Kurdistan.

Born in Iran, Khadem was part of the Children’s Choir for National Radio and Television, and immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager in 1976. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, her passion for singing and learning traditional Persian vocal styles grew, and she regularly traveled back to Iran to study with prominent vocalists and musicians. She also studied classical Indian singing at Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in northern California and Eastern European singing with the Los Angeles-based women’s choir Nevenka.

Mamak Khadem Ensemble will be performing Sunday, February 3 at Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center, which is located at 1317 San Pablo Ave. at Gilman Berkeley, CA 94702. Doors at 6:30 p.m.; Show at 7:00 p.m. $25. Khadem performs with her ensemble featuring Jamshied Sharifi on keyboard and accordion, Naser Musa on ud and vocals, Chris Wabich on percussion, Hamid Saiedi on santur (hammered dulcimer), and Ole Mathisen on clarinet and saxophone.

World Music Central’s Angel Romero interviewed Mamak Khadem in January 2008

1) What circumstances led you to begin a solo career?

For a number of years now I have been traveling to Armenia, Turkey and Greece. I find their cultures and music particularly inspiring and have had a desire to explore the differences in these traditions from my Iranian background. Instead I ended up discovering how many things we all share – especially in music. I felt an urge to work with the traditional melodies I had encountered. As you know, with Axiom of Choice, we primarily were composing original music. With this project I wanted to start with existing melodies that had been haunting me – sparking my imagination and inspiring me to take on a very personal journey. This solo project “Jostojoo”, has given me an opportunity to widen my musical family and I am so thrilled to collaborate with the combination of players on this album from folk traditions, contemporary world music and from the jazz scene.

2) What characterizes your latest CD?

As I mentioned to you, I began with melodies from regional music of Iran, Armenia, Greece, and Turkey. I first thought about doing these beautiful songs in their original languages but I soon realized that I can express myself more openly and effectively in my native language, Farsi. So I married the work of some Persian master poets such as Rumi and Shamloo to the melodies. They are voices that I continue to turn to for inspiration. I also collaborated with some young Iranian contemporary poets based in Iran who wrote the lyrics for a few songs. Their work amazed me. Add to the mix my producer, Jamshied Sharifi who has an extensive knowledge of jazz, rock and folk music from many countries and I was able to innovate and feel free to meld the traditional with the new. I believe “Jostojoo” really captures the passion of these songs with an immediate and contemporary beauty.

3) Who participated in the recording of the album?

Jamshied Sharifi is a New York-based composer, producer, and keyboardist of Iranian descent. He is a fantastic arranger and I felt that he would really understand what I wanted to do with “Jostojoo” esthetically. I had worked with him previously on his first CD A Prayer for the Soul of Layla, on which I sing on three tracks. I was also impressed with his arrangements and production work on Yungchen Lhamo’s Ama CD. I really admire his musical skills, professionalism and the ease with which he works with musicians. His contribution is pivotal to “Jostojoo”. We worked together on the CD from its inception and it has been the most enjoyable recording process that I have been through. I give Jamshied credit for that.

Ole Mathisen is a superb soprano and tenor saxophonist and clarinetist, as well as an accomplished composer and arranger. In addition to performing on “Jostojoo”, he has become a member of our live ensemble. He was involved from the beginning of the recording, both improvising and playing written parts. His sound and concept were key for me in developing the tone of the record – listen to the way his clarinet improvisation sets the mood for "Varan". Also notable is the transparent and almost mystical sound he gets from the tenor saxophone on "Lalaii,’ – it creates a beautiful bed for my vocals.

Benjamin Wittman and Simone Haggiag have played percussion on most of this album. There are examples of their playing throughout the record, but I’m really taken with the way they create a driving, grooving feel on the technically complicated 10/8 rhythm of "Baz Amadam". In lesser hands this rhythm can be mechanical, or worse, but Ben and Simone make it natural and swinging. Ben’s cajon playing on "Heydar" and his darbuka solo on "Gelayeh" are also high points for me. We were also lucky to include the unique talents of Habib Meftah on dammam (percussion from south of Iran) and Pezhham Akhavas on tombak (Persian goblet drum) on the tracks “Gelayeh” and “Avareh.”

We were blessed with two wonderful (and very different) oud players on this recording: Brahim Fribgane and Dimitris Mahlis. Brahim plays a tasteful and understated solo on "Varan," and handles with aplomb the difficult part on "Baz Amadam." Dimitris is an old friend and like a brother to me. He combines the technical prowess (and reading ability!) of a schooled player with the unpredictability and passion of a "natural," and his improvisations on "Avareh" and "Jostojoo" are just glorious.

Turkish multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek collaborated on “Heydar.” He was the one who actually first introduced me to the song. He sings on that track in Turkish while I sing in Farsi and he plays saz and darbuka.

And then there are some friends from Iran…. Hamid Saeidi on santur (hammered dulcimer) and Reza Abaee on gheychak (Persian bowed instrument) who gave their best. Hamid and Reza have been trained in Persian classical music but have a feeling for fusion and cross over music. I admire them tremendously for their fusion work because they do it intelligently and with understanding. Their crossover work is informed. They played an important role on “Gelayeh,” “Mandeh,” and “Avareh.”

The other musicians who lent their talents were Sofia Lambropoulou from Greece on kanun, Rubik Haroutunian from Armenia on duduk , and Kourosh Moradi of Kurdish descent from Iran on tanbur (long-necked lute from Iran) and voice. They all brought the essence of their respective cultures to the recording.

Skuli Sverrisson is for me unique in the world of electric bass players. His sensitivity and musicality create a sound that has the fullness of the electric with the delicacy of an acoustic instrument. His imprint on this particular recording is subtle, but gives added width and dimension to the songs he performs on. I love the way he locks with the percussion on "Baz Amadam," and becomes part of the overall feel, without drawing attention to his instrument. It keeps the track organic.

Eyvind Kang is on viola. I treasure his expressive sound and inventive lines, and his wide-ranging awareness of music from many cultures. He has a particular passion for Persian music, and you can hear that ardor on the beautiful introduction and interlude he plays for "Lalaii."

4) Your vocal style is stunning and not easy to replicate. What kind of vocal training did you have?

Well my training is in the Persian Classical repertoire called Radif. This music has been taught from master to apprentice for many generations. After years of traveling to Iran to study this music I realized that I didn’t want to be a pure traditional singer. I was an immigrant to the U.S. when I was a teenager and was exposed to many different cultures and music. I wanted to create my own style of music – accessible to everyone, but with an Iranian signature. It was a challenge. We were at the beginning of a revolution in music called World Music and such ideas were not appropriate to the classical music purists. We were breaking some new ground with this Persian Classical fusion that now has become an alternative style for many singers.

5) Which are your main primary musical influences?

I moved to the U.S. from Iran when I was a teenager so I came of age listening to American popular music and rock and roll. But I never ceased to long for a meaningful connection to my roots and culture. Passionate about Persian Classical music, I would travel to Iran regularly to study with singing masters Parisa, Sima Bina, Saleh-Azeimi and setar master Hossein Alizadeh. They of course are my primary influences along with my continued fascination with Bulgarian, Indian, Greek, Turkish and Kurdish music.

6) Your voice is used frequently in Hollywood movies. How easy is it to work for film scores? Are you currently working on more music for film or TV?

My first recording for films was in 1997 with a dear friend Jeff Rona. I had to sing for a television series called “Profiler”, looking at the scene and doing an improvisation over it. This was the first time I had ever experience music in a different context. Film work can be tedious and technically difficult but it is very exciting to see what an impact the score can have on a movie – how it really helps to tell the story. After a few minutes, I knew I wanted to do this as a part of my career. I’ve had a lot of fun working on movies like “Peacemaker” and “Traffic” and on different television series including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Battlestar Galactica”. Most recently I sang and recorded Mohammad Reza Darvishi’s score for a play written and directed by Bahram Beyzaii called Afra that is currently playing in Tehran.

7) Is Axiom of Choice over or will you reactivate it in the future?

Axiom of Choice is a way of thinking, living, and looking at things around me and can never be over! It is the space from which I experiment and learn. At this time there are no definite plans for another recording but I hope we can do another great album after we fulfill our respective needs to explore our own separate projects.

8) You participated as a guest in Jamshied Sharifi‘s debut CD. Now he is a member of your band. What does he contribute to your music?

It has been a great experience working with Jamshied. He is an extremely talented musician who creates music that respects folk origins, but looks afield with contemporary orchestrations both simple and rich. I am so thrilled with his arrangements on “Jostojoo”. And, it is an absolute delight to share the stage with him on this tour.

9) Which are your favorite musical places in Los Angeles?

Los Angeles has such a dynamic music scene. The city itself is a giant melting pot of cultures and people. For a world music fan it is nirvana! LA’s got an amazing club scene for world music that is always changing and evolving. It is especially fun here in the summer with free concerts at the California Plaza, the Santa Monica Pier, and at the museums. Every night of the week you can hear any number of musical styles and traditions outdoors and under the stars. I often go to the Skirball and UCLA for their world music performances.

10) What other projects are you collaborating with?

I am starting to explore some ideas for my next album but truthfully, I am really focused on putting most of my time and effort into presenting the “Jostojoo” album and performing with this amazing ensemble of friends.

Mamak Khadem - Jostojoo
Mamak Khadem – Jostojoo

As complement to this interview, we reproduce Patricia Herlevi’s interview, made in 2002:

Interview with Axiom of Choice‘s Mamak Khadem

Mamak Khadem
Mamak Khadem
For many years I have harbored a growing interest in the healing qualities of music. I had read many articles about the healing properties of Mozart and Beethoven and I had read about music from the celestial spheres, but reading expert opinions is one thing and experiencing the healing effects of music even for something as simple as a cold is another story.

I sat in a crowded theatre at Meany Hall at the University of Washington campus fighting off chills and certainly not wanting to deal with a crowd, music enthusiasts or not. However, when the members of Axiom of Choice, a group that blends Persian classical music with Western influences hit the stage, I felt my fever abating somewhat as I absorbed the music that emanated from their ancient instruments. The group started the set with Mystic and Fools from their latest release, Unfolding then continued through a set of hypnotic drum beats and flowing, exotic melodies. The audience responded with clapping to the exotic beat on one song and appeared memorized by the performance in general.

I spoke with vocalist Mamak Khadem during the group’s intricate sound check. Duduk player-clarinetist Ruben Haratoonian’s musical gift eddied throughout the green room while Mamak and I discussed the musician’s role in achieving world peace and planetary harmony. While it’s comforting to know that some people have heard celestial music, many of us have experienced the healing effects of music from various cultures here on earth. And by the way, the next day when I awoke, my cold had left my body and music had replaced it.

If music can cure a cold, can it also bring peace to the planet? I believe that it can and so Mamak and I discussed the healing effects of music and the magic of cinema as a way of transcending the chaos of contemporary times.

Patty-Lynne Herlevi: Cranky Crow World Music is about promoting cultures and music from around the world in order to promote world peace so my first question is in regard to my site’s agenda, which is to promote peace. The question that I ask musicians, "do you believe that music can sooth the beast in us and create an environment of peace within the chaotic times we are facing?"

Mamak Khadem: I definitely think so. Just even amongst our selves and the nature of this band includes people from different cultures that have gotten together. And there is a lot of love and respect for one another as a person and a culture, also. I think that if people can communicate musically, I think that really opens up your soul and it opens you up to other people’s way of thinking. I mean for right now as Ruben plays his clarinet and just listening to it and I feel there is something in there that touches (me). And that just makes me a better human being to be honest with you.

PLH: I have noticed two types of musicians. I have noticed the more mature ones that have day jobs. You have a job teaching mathematics to high school students. And I have noticed that some musicians never grow up and they are stuck in a perpetual childhood. But in order to do music, you have to have a sense of child because it is about play. And it can only make you a better musician to reach that place of innocence.

MK: I have heard this from other people and it’s exactly what I feel when I am performing. When I am with the band singing there are moments that I am absolutely in the moment. I don’t even know what’s going on within myself. I am in a very tranquil, peaceful place and I think just for me to experience a few moments of that is a blessing. Other people live their whole life and they don’t ever experience one second of that. And that’s very unfortunate. There are so many distractions around us, especially in this country. You know there is hardly any time anyone can take for them selves so for us I think it’s a blessing to be able to really get present with life and in a place where everything is peaceful and nothing matters. Nothing really matters because you make that connection.

PLH: That’s exactly what I had in mind. I know little about Persian music, I was a film journalist and the thing that I do know is Iranian cinema. And what I discovered with the music on your CD and also Iranian cinema is that in Iranian cinema you have these images that are so strong and there is all this universal storytelling that you really don’t even need the dialogue to understand the story. And with the music you play it’s almost that you don’t need a translation of the lyrics because the moods are so strong. And you as a singer evoke different emotions so it becomes obvious and you can figure out which songs are heartbreakers and which ones are about joy.

MK: I am so happy to hear that because I have lived here for so many years and of course, Farsi is my first language, but every day I am using English to teach and to get by with life. And a lot of times there have been suggestions or thoughts of singing in English were made. But up until this point there hasn’t been a necessity to sing in English because absolutely what you’re saying is that a lot of our audiences are non-Persian. But they get the feeling and I think that is one thing because I could sing in the same language. And people could hear it and not even get the feeling of what’s going on or it could be in a totally different language but the feelings and emotions are there. And I think actually I much prefer to go that way because if I can bring that emotional thing that exist in every human being no matter if you’re American, Iranian or whatever because we all have that. We just have it in different places and we randomly pull it out.

Since you’re talking about film, I have to share with you the movie that I saw by Abbas Kiarostami, Where Is My Friend’s House (English title). It was made many years ago.

PLH: Wait a minute, I know the film. It’s the one where the little boy is searching for his friend’s house so he can return the friend’s homework to him (and adults basically ignore the boy as he tries to locate his friend)

MK: Yeah. It’s called khane-ye doust kodjast (Iranian title). And that’s the title of one of the songs we did on our last CD, Niya Yesh. That’s poetry from a late (Persian) contemporary poet, Sohrab Sepehri. I just wanted to let you know that when I saw that movie maybe ten years ago, I was sitting in the movie theatre and I was crying the whole time. I mean just absolutely crying. I am a teacher and I work with kids and you know there was a place in my heart that hadn’t been touched for years. And that movie just touched it. So I was just crying and people were looking at me like woman this is just a movie.

PLH: Yeah, but it was the director. He has that effect on most of us.

MK: It was the director and I think that it was the fact that the kids had no idea there were cameras so it was real. I mean I get to see kids with all their fears and anxieties. So just being there in the moment with that kid, he was so innocent. I just kept crying. So when I saw the poetry by the poet that was titled Khane-ye doust kodjast which was the same title. So when I singing that song I kept remembering all the pictures and it was unbelievable. So I think that we all have different kinds of feelings and emotions and music is one of the arts that can absolutely touch that. And when it touches that it doesn’t matter what language it is or where you are at or who you are. It touches it.

PLH: And of course, there is Persian music in Iranian films. And my first real exposure to world music was when I reviewed world cinema. I was raised as a musician so the first thing I notice with cinema is of course the music. I understand the language of music and I don’t care what country it comes from because it’s still going to affect me as a musician. So a lot of the times when I was watching films I became so absorbed in the music that I couldn’t keep pace with the story.

MK: I experience the same thing.

PLH: I read that you had studied Bulgarian and Indian music. What other types of music are you interested in and what type of music do you listen to on a daily basis?

MK: To be honest with you, some times nothing. Especially when we are recording and all I am listening to is our music just to see how we can enhance it or see what’s wrong with this or what’s wrong with that. And unfortunately sometimes that’s all I listen to because you have to go into the mode of listening to yourself. I love music from all over the world and there was a period of time when I was listening to Indian music a lot and there was a period of time when I was listening to Bulgarian music a lot. There are times when I get hooked on something, but usually I just love music all around the world. Flamenco and Spanish singing is wonderful.

PLH: As a vocalist are you first attracted to the vocals when you listen to music?

MK: Well, not really. I think the melody is the first thing that has to touch me, the melody overall. And then the instrumentation definitely a voice with this or that, the feeling of the song rather than the voice. Of course the voice is very important, but you know, I think melody is the first thing that hits me. You know if it really hits me good or not. I listen the voice critically, but when I listen to the song it’s overall. Do you know what I am saying? I really want to listen the whole song and get a feeling for that instead of listening and saying, ooh, did she sing this well or not? That just kills the whole thing.

PLH: Some times it’s the emotions that count and not the technique. Do you think that vocalist with training have a difficult time listening to other vocalists?

MK: I can see how the classical musicians and the traditional musicians of Iran (would affect that). I have friends who absolutely can not tolerate one off note. They are looking for perfection and perfection is more about technique and not emotion. They could be listening to something and say that’s perfect and I would think what is this? Back home we have these old guys, street musicians and that would totally touch my soul even though the guy had never been to school. And (I say to my friends) "you guys are listening to this and you think this is perfect?" It’s just a matter of training and in a way, I think it’s good not to get hooked into being trained all the time.

PLH: Axiom of Choice refers to artistic freedom within your group, but in the world many people are either afraid of losing their liberties or have already lost those liberties. What type of world do you envision for our future and again, do you believe that creativity will allow us to manifest a more harmonious world?

MK: I think that if any human being can actually get into their true self, definitely there is harmony. I have been to places at times where it was a poetry or Rumi class and I have been around people who have been around for a long time or are special people. When I am singing poetry that is ancient, you know that the poet was able to reach that level of self. Rumi achieved a sense of self so when you get familiar with it, there are times where I have actually been one with myself. Not very many times, but now I have a taste of that and I crave that. If we could all get to that, I think the world would be in harmony.

PLH: I just read that if you learn to love yourself, you won’t need to get love or anything from anyone else.

MK: That is absolutely true. I think those of in life who at least have been introduced things like that such as there is a self and there is a self love you are blessed. Even if you haven’t reached it you know that’s where we want to get. That gives our life a purpose and that gives us that we have something to move towards. I feel sorry for people who don’t have that and I feel that there are absolutely lost. But that is their thing and that’s their journey. That’s what they have to go through, but anyone who has been there can think that’s why we are living on this planet.

PLH: But some times I think we need something to trigger that response to spirit. Music is one way and poetry is another way.

MK: Music is definitely one way. Poetry and poets such as Rumi (can help us reach that place). The more I learn about Rumi the more I admire him because he was someone who actually lived it. When they talk about (self) you know that they were physically, spiritually and mentally there.

(This interview took place during the fall of 2002 before a concert).

For more interviews and reviews of the healing powers of music, visit& Patricia’s The Whole Music Experience blog.

Patricia Herlevi is also the author of the magic realism comic novel, All Saints Day.