This might be the best world music album of the year, a frequently haunting, unabashedly romantic collection of popular acoustic songs from Iran from the era before the mullahs took over after the fall of the Shah in 1979 (to call what happened there a revolution is revolting). New York-born Monika Jalili comes from a musical theatre background, which makes sense when you hear her clear, minutely nuanced soprano, to which she’s expertly added the trademark ornamentation of Iranian classical song, using a delicate vibrato which often trills off at the end of a phrase for emphasis. The songs, mostly dating from the 60s and 70s, combine the austere microtonality of traditional Iranian music with the vivid emotionality of French chanson and a lush Mediterranean romanticism. Jalali sings in Persian and Azeri as well as English and French on two songs. The musicianship is equally nuanced and haunting: for this album, her second collection of songs from Iran, she’s enlisted the extraordinary New York-based oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis as well as his bandmate Megan Gould on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Riaz Khabirpour on acoustic guitar, Marika Hughes on cello and Silk Road Project percussionist Shane Shanahan. To call their performance inspired is an understatement.
Jalili communicates an intense sense of longing on the opening track, Ghoghaye Setaregan (Dance of the Stars), a jangly cosmopolitan ballad in 6/8 with incisive violin. Arezooha (Wishes) evokes 60s French folk-pop with sparse violin and cello behind Jalili’s subtle vocals. Gonjeshgake Ashi Mashi (Little Sparrow) is not a Piaf tribute but an upbeat take of an old folksong, done anthemically with some stirring oud work by Kontanis and the string section.
Ay Rilikh (Separation) is masterfully evocative, Gould’s violin dark and distant with reverb, a chilling contrast with Jalili’s warm interpretation. The upbeat, happy medieval folk dance Evlari Vaar (To Bemaan) has an almost Britfolk feel; by contrast, Biya Bare Safar Bandim (Let’s Be on Our Way) has a slightly Asian tinge, especially on the vocals. Kontanis’ oud holds it to the ground as Gould’s violin soars skyward, Jalili following in turn and then adding some spectacularly flashy vocalese at the end.
Peyke Sahari (Messenger of Dawn) builds to a crescendo with a haunting three-chord descending progression at the end of the verse, illuminated by a beautiful string chart that grows more insistent. The mood turns in a considerably brighter direction with the coy, percussive, bolero-ish Bia Bia Benshin (Come Sit by Me), Kontanis and Gould again taking brief but memorable turns on the bridge. The cd ends with its best song, the darkly swaying, dramatic Ay Vatan (Oh, My Homeland):
Freedom’s here, not in the distance
Oh, my land…
You’re the hero, oh this madness
Oh, my land,
Jalili wails delicately over Kontanis’ eerily swooping oud riffs. The ensemble takes it out with an elegantly fluttering, understatedly chilling conclusion. With the people of Iran uniting against the repression of the past thirty years, there could not be a more auspicious time for this album to come out: the anthem for the next real Iranian revolution could be on it. Watch for this high on the list of the best albums of 2009 here at year’s end.