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Iranian-Born Artists Kick Off Jazz Poetry Festival

Iranian-born singer and composer Mahsa Vahdat is known around the world for her songs inspired by traditional Persian music, with lyrics drawn from classic and contemporary Iranian poetry. Her collaborators have included the famed Kronos Quartet (with whom she’s performing a pair of concerts in Georgia next week). Yet she’s never sung in public in her home country, where since the 1979 Islamic revolution has banned concerts by solo female singers. 

Freedom to Create performance and public conversation with Mahsa Vahdat and Sholeh Wolpe: 3 p.m. Sat., Sept. 7. Alphabet City, 40 W. North Ave., North Side

Saturday, Vahdat joins award-winning, Iranian-born poet and translator Sholeh Wolpé to open City of Asylum’s month-long Jazz Poetry Festival. Saturday’s program will blend music and poetry, and include a discussion between the two about the importance of free expression. It is both artists' first time in Pittsburgh.

Vahdat, 45, has performed internationally since the mid-1990s, giving concerts in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. She’s released albums on Norwegian label KKV; in 2004, she contributed two tracks to the KKV album “Lullabies from the Axis of Evil,” a collection of bedtime tunes by singers from Iran, Iraq and North Korea, the three nations President George W. Bush had branded by that title.

Vahdat now lives in Berkeley, Calif. She has taught music in her birth country, and sung for private gatherings there. But while she is disappointed that she can’t perform there publicly, “in my creativity I feel so free,” she said. “No power, or no political [authority] or anybody could tell me how you should create.”

"No power, or no political authority, or anybody could tell me how you should create."

Wolpé grew up in Iran, Trinidad and England; she now lives in Los Angeles, and likewise travels the globe performing her own work– she’s published five books of poetry -- and the works of others she has translated.

Saturday, Wolpé will read her poetry; Vahdat will sing, accompanied by a harpist; and the two might collaborate on a piece or two. (At press time, the program had not yet been set.)

They will also conduct what City of Asylum – which in addition to its arts programming shelters and supports writers persecuted in their home countries -- calls a “Freedom to Create Public Conversation.”

Wolpé said the discussion will touch, in part, on the idea of home. She describes herself as an “exile” and Vahdat as someone similarly cut off from her homeland.

"We cannot allow politicians and dictators to speak for us"

“One of the things it seems both of us have been searching for most of our lives is the sense of home,” she said, and quoted one of her own poems: “Home is a missing tooth. The tongue reaches for hardness but falls into absence.”

“I feel that the true home for me is my voice,” said Vahdat. “As long as I can create, and as long as I can sing, and I do what I want, I can create what I want, it is happiness for me.”

Wolpé said she also plans to address the recent diplomatic and military tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which have led some observers to speculate about war.

Such tensions have been a near-constant in some fashion ever since the 1979 revolution and Iran’s taking of U.S. hostages, said Wolpé. But she said she believes it’s largely because powerful people have set the terms of the debate.

“We cannot allow politicians and dictators to speak for us,” she said. “We’ve got to allow our artists, our poets, to speak for us, and that way we can bring people and nations together.”

Vahdat said she and her fellow Iranians routinely look for inspiration to classic poets like Hafez, Rumi, and Omar Khayaam. She said even their tombs draw Iranians from all walks of life.

“Art, poetry, literature, is really, really beyond all of [these] restrictions and stupid walls and separations that politicians try to put in front of us,” she said. “It’s the miracle of art that always brings people together. It proves how we have things in common as human.”

Saturday’s event is the first of nine Jazz Poetry Festival programs through Sept. 28, featuring poets and musicians from Pittsburgh and around the world.

All events are at Alphabet City, on the North Side, and admission is free, though reservations are recommended.

More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: