Jewish Journal: Iranian-Israeli singer and songwriter Maureen Nehedar recently made her solo debut in New York at Temple Israel of Great Neck. It was an unadorned yet extraordinary performance. Given her authentic voice and her impact on the audience, she seems poised for global acclaim.
Sitting on the center platform of the synagogue, Nehedar, 41, embraced the maxim “less is more.” There were no electric instruments. It was just Nehedar, modestly dressed in a long, floral tunic, with an acoustic guitar and a stringed instrument called a cümbüs.
Performing solo (her accompanist reportedly was refused a visa), Nehedar had no problems enthralling the crowd. Her voice was delicate and pure and showed off her tremendous range, honed from years of rigorous training with revered musical masters. She opened her performance with an original composition called “A Prayer for Peace,” a meditative song in Hebrew, and followed up with well-known Iranian folk songs.
Nehedar has dedicated herself to preserving Iranian folk music and its rapidly disappearing Judeo-Persian variant. Her authenticity is powerful and was beautifully showcased in an introduction she gave to a traditional Iranian lullaby. These lullabies (or lalaee) are among the saddest in Persian tradition. Many depict lonesome mothers lamenting their traveling or working spouses and babies who refuse to give their mothers respite.
Nehedar spoke of these tragic figures as young mothers, perhaps 12 or 13 years of age, raising children. She characterized lullabies as possible moments of solace and self-expression, when these adolescent mothers could grieve their vanished hopes and interrupted lives.
The crowd listened with silent reverence. Nehedar continued, talking about her beloved grandmother, Homayoon, a quiet and traditional lady who had been taught never to sing in public despite her beautiful voice. She talked about how she recorded her grandmother’s voice on one of her albums and then delivered her own rendition of the lullaby, in what she described as “the soundtrack of our lives.” It was emotional, powerful and profoundly tragic. As she sang, Nehedar unlocked coffers of emotions that had been lodged in the subconscious of so many in the room. Tears streamed down faces of women and men. And yet, it wasn’t all nostalgia, but rather a cathartic release of pent-up sorrow that had been held in the hearts of mothers and their sons and daughters for generations.
Despite her love of Persian music, Nehedar did not spend her formative years in Iran. The descendant of Iranian-Jews from Esfahan, she discovered Persian music as an immigrant child living in Israel. Her path has not been easy. At a private gathering of local women the day following the concert, Nehedar opened up about her struggles with infertility. Raised by a single mother and now a mother herself, Nehedar spoke of her strong belief in a woman’s financial independence and path for self-determination.
In her journey to discovering and reinterpreting Iranian folk music, Nehedar said she increasingly scrutinized the lyrics. She recited the lyrics of a wedding song: the bride’s neck is white as crystal, the groom wants to visit her, 40 camels are carrying her dowry, she’s walking delicately. Nehedar said underneath these beautiful words lies a “cruel culture. Everyone sings about how beautiful the bride is, but has “anyone sung about her soul? How old is this bride?” Nehedar asked.
It’s personal with her, because, Nehedar revealed, her own mother was married off at 15 and her grandmother at 9. These revelations unleashed a wave of confessions from women at the gathering.
Nehedar’s powerful message of advocacy for women is one she has applied to her own career. She spoke of how she embarked on field research, going door-to-door, asking older Iranian Jews to sing her old songs. She also refused to sign contracts with several recording companies because, she said, she had her own standards about how her music should sound. Instead, she saved her own money to pay for the recording of her three albums. And it’s paying off.
Nehedar’s music is more about introspection than entertainment. It’s music that reminds us who we are and where we come from. Its message is a reminder that our cultural heritage is not a thing of the past but a timeless treasure to inspire the future.
Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, who was born and raised in Iran, is a human rights advocate and an amateur musician.