Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Iranian artist Mahsa Vahdat defies ban to preserve female vocal tradition

By Heather Longley

Beloved among world-music circles for her vocal perfection, Persian classical singer Mahsa Vahdat has been internationally recognized for raising awareness of freedom of expression for the female Iranian musical voice.

In 2010, Vahdat was presented the Freemuse Award based on her defiance of Iranian restrictions on female musicians and her work with American blues musician Mighty Sam McClain. In 2017, an entire chapter—“Silencing Artists: Music Censorship in the Case of Mahsa Vahdat”—was written about the singer in the book Researching Music Censorship. And in 2019, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto declared September 6, 2019, as “Mahsa Vahdat Day” for her advocation of freedom of expression in music.

Those distinctions might otherwise present a picture of an artist fully enveloped in a culture of resistance. But Vahdat insists she isn’t intentionally political. Her work with experimental chamber ensemble Kronos Quartet on 2004’s Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, and more recently with the concert series The Banned Countries, have been opportunities to preserve the vocal treasure in spite of a ban in Iran against her and the tradition of female vocalists.

In Iran, a woman who sings solo to a mixed audience, in public, or without a veil might be subject to punishment. Vahdat now lives in San Francisco. And while she technically is permitted to sing in her homeland—but only to a female audience—the Iranian native prefers to stay true to her principles.

In the face of Iran’s restrictions on women in the arts, Vahdat’s mission is to share with audiences worldwide her vocal expertise to keep classical Persian singing techniques alive for future generations—and to help bridge cultural divides. She says she hopes that by performing vocal music set to the celebrated medieval Persian poets, such as Hafez and Rumi, that she can present the sense of beauty and humanity to people unfamiliar with Iranian and Middle Eastern culture that get forgotten in times of tension.

“I think now the task of art is incredibly important, and that it can build a relationship based on dignity and respect,” Vahdat says.

Vahdat will accompany Kronos Quartet at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 18, for Music for Change: The Banned Countries. The program highlights the diversity and humanity behind cultures included in President Donald J. Trump’s 2017 Executive Orders limiting entry from Muslim-majority nations to the United States.

“I think this concert is extremely important, especially now when the politicians try to increase the fear and make people more separated from each other,” Vahdat says.

In an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, Vahdat discusses whether there’s a place for politics in her music and the importance of being open to learning about other cultures.

Question: In the 1930s, the veil ban was introduced in Iran by then pro-Western ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi as a way for Iran to be “taken seriously” by Western countries. As a result, women there could be arrested or assaulted for continuing to wear the veil. After the 1979 Revolution in Iran and under current rule, the headscarf is obligatory for women. It’s ironic that the headscarf may be seen by some now in the United States as a signifier of a group of people the U.S. president wants to ban.

Mahsa Vahdat: I never confirm and never agree to what Reza Shah did for making the ban on the veil, and also I don’t agree to the obligatory veil after the Islamic Revolution. I think people should have the freedom of choice in this case.

Some people believe to (mandate the) veil, and some people don’t believe (to force wearing a) veil on their heads, and their beliefs should be respected. And if a ruler anywhere in the world bans a group of people because of their belief, it does not fit the democratic gesture that they have.

Q: It was written in the 2017 book Researching Music Censorship that you embraced a role on the “international activist stage” (with your recordings on Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, a response to President George W. Bush’s post-September 11 proclamation of the “Axis of Evil”).  

It was also written there that you don’t consider yourself to be a political activist, and that you remain loyal to the art. How do you separate politically charged current events from an intimate performance of Lullabies or The Banned Countries?

Vahdat: From the time I remember, the political situation in my country had a big effect in my life and in my everyday life till now ... so, of course, my art is also a reflection of these matters. But I cannot label myself a political artist. In general, I avoid labeling my art. Some people regard me a political artist and some not, it depends on the interpretation of the listeners and followers.

For me, the true art has an element of being political. When it serves the freedom and brings transparency, it has element of being political. I can express my protest in my tones, in my expression, in the way of my singing. … My presence on stage without a veil can be regarded as political. Even keeping the path of singing as an independent female singer can be regarded as political. But my main point is that my art does not serve a special agenda. It is beyond all these labels.

Q: How does the ban against you in your homeland affect you personally, especially because you’re committed to preserving the traditions of female Persian vocal music?

Vahdat: It’s a tremendous sadness that women have been forbidden to freely sing in Iran, and for many talented artists at some point, the path became so challenging they had to give it up entirely. It’s brought a very sad feeling into Iranian society and has removed a certain tenderness from it. To prevent people from participating in one of their great cultural and human treasures is extremely sorrowful.

However, the fact that this female vocal tradition has still been preserved in spite of these restrictions is incredibly inspiring; this proves that it’s impossible to keep some artists from pursuing their art, regardless of the consequences. In fact, many have chosen to walk their paths with even stronger conviction and dedication.

I’ve personally suffered from injustice and have found the only thing I can do is continue to sing. Every tone is a protest, like the shedding of seeds that allow new plants to grow. I’ve always felt it’s so important that I stay true to this path, not only for myself, but so this art form can be preserved and passed down to future generations.

Q: You and Kronos Quartet have been performing The Banned Countries since at least 2018. In light of the White House’s recent proposal to extend the travel ban, do you have any new hopes for this performance?

Vahdat: I think this concert is extremely important, especially now when the politicians try to increase the fear and make people more separated from each other.

It is so important (that) even a small group of people in the United States see the story from another angle. They can discover the realities of these countries that are mostly hidden in media and in the picture that politicians try to impose. I feel even if I can bring awareness to even one person, I feel good and important about this project, and I have seen it had a strong effect on many people. They can see how we have lots in common. 

As humans, through art and through music, you can relate and penetrate to the heart of people regardless of any border.

Q: The poets who inspire your vocal works are most often rooted in Persian history. Explain how those texts are as applicable today to people in Western countries and throughout the world.

Vahdat: In Iran, poets are so important. Their messages and words are placeless and timeless. The way they embrace people free from their religion, ethnicity, and geography is amazing, and the humanistic value they share is so important. They are like mirrors that we can find ourselves in. … I think they can talk to all humans in the world.

Q: You have been exploring personal themes musically with the quartet for much longer, such as on the album Placeless(with sister Marjan). How has your continued collaboration with the Western classical ensemble influenced your own music?

Vahdat: Working with other musicians in the world for me was a great experience, and the journey has been so rewarding and still it is. I did very many projects that are dialog based, and I believe in this project strongly.

The friendships formed between us through this project are very precious to me. The fact that this music happened between people from countries that are in a very difficult political phase, and are often regarded as enemies, showed me how artists can come together to create something that goes beyond the boundaries of politics and geography, and is rooted in deeper human and musical truths.

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.