The election’s been all about the economy, but a surprising amount of airtime has been devoted to the standoff between Iran and Israel over Iran’s nuclear program. All that tension makes it an especially interesting time for Rita Jahanforuz, a mega pop star from Israel, to be touring across the US right now.
Her fans know her simply as Rita, and she’s Israel’s biggest-selling pop star. For years she’s been packing venues in Israel and overseas. But her new album has gotten a different kind of attention because she sings almost entirely in Farsi, her first language.
Born in Iran, Rita moved to Israel in 1970, when she was eight years old. The new album, called My Joys, presents Rita as a kind of cultural ambassador. But she insists she has no political agenda.
“Not at all, I’m so dumb in politics, I’m so ignorant in politics,” Rita said. “For millions of dollars and diamonds I wouldn’t touch such a thing. The thing I relate to is people, between the hearts of people, what is really true, and the only thing that really matters.”
The album is a mix of traditional Persian songs infused with electronic music, Central Asian flutes and strings, and Balkan brass. But to some, the mere fact that Rita is an Israeli singing in Farsi makes this album political.
“It’s a political act for Rita to be speaking in her native tongue, after all Farsi is her native tongue, her first language,” said Jordan Elgrably, executive director of the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. It’s a group dedicated to bridging cultural divides in the Middle East. “In fact it’s a political act if you’re an Israeli Jew and you choose to speak Arabic in public, because the Arab culture is seen as the enemy culture. And now Iran is the enemy.”
For UCLA musicologist Oded Erez, Rita’s new album reflects a recent shift in Israeli culture. For a nation of immigrants, the Hebrew language had long been the glue that held Israelis together.“The aim of the cultural project of Zionism was to create a monoculture, a homogenous culture based on Hebrew and on Hebrew creation and art,” said Erez.
But over the years, Israeli artists have started singing in other languages. Erez says now that a huge pop star like Rita is doing it, it proves just how safe it’s become to not sing in Hebrew.“Since then Israel became a kind of multicultural society, or a society where this mono-culture is contested by various ethnic groups, linguistic groups, political disputes between different groups inside Israel, and it became much more of a plural culture. And in this sense Hebrewism is heavily challenged, or we can say, collapsed.”
The Farsi album was kind of an accident. Rita was practicing with a Moroccan rock band when the music touched her in a way she hadn’t expected.
So she switched gears.
“I slowly went back to the records my mother brought back from Iran, we lived all our family lives on those songs, and I felt that this is the thing that I need to do for myself, first.”
It’s illegal in Iran to import an Israeli CD, but Rita’s new songs were posted on the Internet and played on Farsi satellite channels. She started getting a lot of fan mail from Iran. Those letters, she says, are nothing like the messages coming from Ahmadinejad’s government.
“If I wasn’t in contact in Iran, I would think maybe this was the voice of the Iranian people,” Rita said. “But it’s so not, it’s the regime, the people that are ruling with power. The people in Iran are so not like this, they write me that they love Israel and they want everything to be more normal, they suffer there.”
And here in Los Angeles, both Jewish and Muslim Iranians are excited to discover Rita too. Atena Sarmast is a college student who works part-time at Ketab Books on Westwood Boulevard. Her family is Muslim and left Tehran when she was 15. She heard about Rita from customers asking about the new CD and buying tickets to her LA concert.
“I went on YouTube and searched for her music and saw her, and it was really nice. She’s mixing the eastern style with some western style, which is very nice, and a lot of young generations like that.”
Rita says she’d like to go back to Iran, to see her hometown, to meet her fans there. As an Israeli citizen, she’s not allowed to return.
“I have a dream that someday I would go there to Iran and maybe some magic will happen, and I will have a concert there too.”
Jordan Elgrably from the Levantine Center says that, like most Israeli pop artists, Rita is very cautious about her message.
“They talk about peace, but it’s in very general terms. They don’t give it any teeth. And yeah, Rita’s not going to criticize Shimon Peres or the nuclear project or, you know, she’s not going to name any names or talk about anything specific. She’s just a singer, just trying to make people feel good. Which has its purpose, right?”
For now, Rita wants her popularity at home and abroad to help promote her message of peace. But it might be that her fans are just there to dance.
Rita performs at UCLA’s Royce Hall at 7:30 pm on Nov. 1. You can buy tickets here.