Zohra Atash is a singer, songwriter and musician. Her projects are Azar Swan and Religious to Damn. She is an irregular columnist at slutist.com. Her family founded and runs the Nooristan Foundation. You can follow Azar Swan on Twitter here.
(photo credit: Julia Comita)
After taking Sexwitch (Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes, Toy and producer Dan Carey) to task for indulging in cultural appropriation of Eastern music without appreciation on the group’s self-titled debut album, I received some requests for musical suggestions similar to the tracks referred to on the record and in my article.
I made the following playlist as an addendum to my Talkhouse piece. It’s a sampler of traditional stuff from some of the regions covered in the record, as well as music that relates to themes that Sexwitch touches upon. Plus, I threw in some psych and avant-garde vocalists that really move me. While the avant-garde tradition was not credited by Sexwitch with regard to their music, if you take a listen to “Ha Howa Ha Howa” and “Kassidat El Hakka” on the record, you’ll hear what Khan calls an ancestry of witches, but I call music in the tradition of experimental vocalists like Yoko Ono, Diamanda Galas and Junko Hiroshige.
There are nearly forty songs on the playlist — too many to go into in detail here — but I’d like to break down why I chose a few of them. I’m hoping that some of this stuff resonates with the listener, because it’s music I grew up with and that I love.
I included Diamanda Galas, an American legend of Eastern descent whose music reflects her love for Southern blues, avant-garde jazz and Middle Eastern and Anatolian music. This coming together of “disparate” influences is not a study in contrasts, but its own distinct being with so much power running through it. Watching her play live is like watch a beautiful storm over the Black Sea.
I also added in the tune that inspired English singer-songwriter David Sylvian’s 1984 song “Nostalgia” and Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard’s 1995 solo track “Persian Love Song (The Silver Gun)”: Iranian singer Shusha Guppy’s 1971 track “The Silver Gun.” Sylvian sampled Shusha’s piece in “Nostalgia,” although he forgot to credit it. Tsk, tsk.
I chose singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie’s track “The Vampire” not only because her 1969 record Illuminations is brilliant and one of the first experimental folk records, but because she was born in Piapot Cree First Nation Reserve in Canada. Josh Strawn — my partner in Azar Swan — is part Cherokee, and Native Americans are an oft-appropriated group as well.
On this playlist, you’ll hear “Western”-infused gems by Turkish singer-songwriter Erkin Koray (“Cemalim”) and Egyptian musician Omar Khorshid (“Solenzara”), as well as songs seemingly pulled out by the roots from Eastern soil — tracks such as “Bane Mé Dargué Dargué,” by one of my favorites, the Pashtun singer Zarsanga of Pakistan.
None of these songs are super religious; the playlist is interfaith because I’m not an asshole, and what kind of list would this be if it were anything but?
Obviously, there’s a ton of music omitted here. I’m not familiar with all the regions in which psych flourished, so I won’t pick tracks to represent, say, South American psych here. It’s amazing music, but I couldn’t do it justice — which goes back to the point of my essay: not being cavalier about what you’re not informed about.
Speaking of which, here’s a list of terms to enhance your listening experience:
Allah: “God” in Arabic.
Khoda: “God” in Farsi/Dari.
Cheikha: A North African term given to divas of the Algerian rai music scene (Cheikha Rimitti of Algeria being the most popular).
Ustad: A master of an art, especially music — from the Urdu ustād.
Maqām: In Arabic music, a maqām (plural maqāmāt) is a set of pitches with traditions that define relationships between them, habitual patterns and their melodic development.