Fereshta: Cultural Collision, Fierce Love and an Afghan Rock-Poet

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     Introduction:  When things collide, you always hear the sound.  And the new sounds of Cultural Collision, the latest album by Afghan-American rocker Fereshta, are now being heard around the world.

     After I was introduced to Fereshta and her music by Hollywood actor Fahim Fazli, I knew I had to learn more. 

     Cultural Collision was recorded late last year in Rio de Janeiro, and shows the beauty that results when a talented artist causes several great cultures to “collide” in music.  Produced by Grammy Award-winner Alan Sanderson and acclaimed singer/songwriter Zach Ashton, the album combines Fereshta’s love for American rock n' roll with her Afghan roots, authentic Brazilian grooves, the sounds of the world’s top rubab player, and much more.

      It’s hard to categorize Fereshta and her music, which is becoming popular in both alt-rock and mainstream channels.  Most music critics have not succeeded at defining her music, because it comes from such a broad collage of global and personal influences.  But one thing is for sure - no one confuses Fereshta’s music with typical “new age” or “world music” genres.  Her music is much edgier and more listenable than that.  Fereshta moves with ease between alternative, hard rock, international, Afghan, and even classical rhythms and beats.  

 

     An eclectic poet and lyricist, Fereshta draws her inspiration from musical artists ranging from Jim Morrison and The Doors to a thrash metal band called Overkill and lead singer Bobby Blitz. Some music critics have favorably compared her sound to that of ZZ Ward, KT Tunstall, and Heather Nova.  Others see hints of Nirvana, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, PJ Harvey, The Black Keys, and a mix of Indian artists.  But no one has yet pegged Fereshta’s musical style, and it might be impossible to do.  Her musical style is all her own.

 ESCAPE FROM COMMUNIST AFGHANISTAN     

     Fereshta was born in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.  Prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion, her university-educated parents led a relatively carefree and happy existence. The 1970’s were a time of freedom, discovery and tolerance for most Afghans. Centuries-old traditions remained, but many Afghans also enjoyed Western clothing, music, movies and culture, adapting them as needed to Afghan ways. 

     Fereshta’s mother Rebecca played on the women's basketball team at Kabul University.  Her father Rabani and his friends used to strap their Afghan musical instruments - harmoniums, tablas and rubabs - to the backs of their motorcycles, then head out to jam with European students and tourists who were enjoying their holidays in the Afghan countryside. Life was good, and getting better.  

      But things changed fast for young Fereshta and her family after the Soviet invasion.  If an Afghan citizen got the Soviets’ attention, there were generally only three options:  join the Communist Party, go to jail, or be killed.  Fereshta’s mother, an educated and strong-willed woman, spoke up fiercely against the new regime and was being targeted for “re-education”.  Two of her uncles were imprisoned for refusing to join the Party. Every day at her father’s workplace a government car would pull up, call out a few names, and take people away for ”questioning”.  Most of them were never seen again, and Rabani knew that one day they would be calling his name. 

 

      Fereshta’s parents stubbornly refused to join the Communist Party, and so were forced to either flee Afghanistan or face prison or death.  Leaving almost everything behind, they dressed as poor shopkeepers in tribal wear and smuggled their family – including little Fereshta – on a dangerous eight-day trek through high mountains to Pakistan.  They were hunted along the way by both Soviet helicopters and various mujahedin factions, but they finally arrived safely in Karachi.  Fourteen months later, sponsored by a Baptist church, they arrived in America as refugees with little more than the clothes on their backs, a few suitcases, and their love for each other. The church gave little Fereshta a bed and helped her parents begin the tremendous task of starting over.

 NEW LIFE, NEW PASSIONS

     Fereshta’s family eventually began a new life in Virginia, where she discovered joy, liberation and healing in rock music.  She began combining her poetry with this new musical style that she had never heard before, but loved instantly.  The first rock song Fereshta remembers hearing was The Knacks' “My Sharona.”  After that she was hooked on rock n’ roll, and since then has never looked back. 

 

      Fereshta eventually was drawn to the bohemian music and art cultures of Southern California.  She moved to LA, where she blossomed fast from what she calls an “introverted poet girl” to a popular rock musician with her own band and signature sound.  She released her debut album in 2011, the critically-acclaimed Global Citizen. Its alt-rock and college radio popularity led to her second album, Cultural Collision, in 2013.    

       Fereshta has what Afghans call a dil-e kalaan - a ‘big heart’. She isa leading peace activist and is known forsupporting a variety of charitable causes.  She has dedicated a portion of net proceeds from Cultural Collision to the Half The Sky Movement, one of her favorite charities for girls’ and women’s education. She also supports the Sound Central Festival(Afghanistan’s first rock festival), Combat Apathy, the Central Asia Institute, and others.

      As you might expect from a multilingual rock-poet, Fereshta expresses herself in vivid words and phrases that stick in your mind like the drumbeat in a good song. One of my favorites is what she calls ‘fierce love’ - a theme that seems to run through everything she does. 

     But let’s hear Fereshta herself tell the rest.  

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Fereshta speaks here with Edward Zellem, author of the award-winning books Zarbul Masalha: 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs and Afghan Proverbs Illustrated.

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MAKING CULTURAL COLLISION IN BRAZIL

Film Annex:  Your latest album Cultural Collision (2013) was recorded in Brazil.  It’s an amazing “collision” of Afghan and Brazilian beats with American-style rock and roll.  What do Afghan and Brazilian music have in common?    

Fereshta:  Thank you!  I really wanted to make a record that sonically represented my belief that cultures can “collide” in a powerful and beautiful way.  I wanted to show that we can, as a human family, celebrate our diversity, honor each individual heritage, and be enriched by blending our best gifts together to create a greater whole. 

     By respecting the beauty of each nationality and embracing the good in every culture, we can find common ground and peacefully coexist on this planet.  That's my deepest wish for the world.  If we're able to discover, despite our differences, that we are very much alike, then we'll likely choose to take care of one another.

FA:  Why Brazil? 

F:  Looking back, Brazil was the perfect place to make Cultural Collision.  The people are incredibly warm.  They are quick to include you in everything and make you feel like a part of the family, which I very much appreciated. 

    What inspired me most was seeing how music was a part of their daily life, how deeply ingrained it was in their cultural heritage.  That was the common ground for me with Afghan and Brazilian music.  Both cultures live and breathe music.  It's in their veins, it's been passed down from generation to generation, it brings them unspeakable joy, and it is how they connect with one another on a deep, spiritual level.  I felt very much at home and enjoyed it immensely.

FA:  What was it like working with Grammy Award-winning producer Alan Sanderson on Cultural Collision

F:  Alan and I met a few years back, when I needed to make some changes to the mixes on Global Citizen.  We got along smashingly, so much so that when it came time to make a second record he was my first and only choice. When I contacted him, he was in Brazil.  I loved the idea of bringing another country's heritage into the music and I thought it would be a great opportunity to work with him and the talented musicians who were in his highest praises.  It didn't hurt that it was 3 weeks in Rio de Janeiro either!

 

FERESHTA’S INSPIRATIONS

FA:  You’ve said that one of your inspirations is the music of The Doors. You even did your CD release party for Cultural Collision at The Roxy, one of Jim Morrison’s more famous haunts on the Sunset Strip. 

What is it about The Doors that appeals to you? 

F:  Oh man, where do I begin?!  Graham Greene once said, “There is always one moment in childhood when a door opens and lets the future in.”  Jim Morrison was that door for me.  I related to him in a very deep way.  He was a poet first.  He had no musical schooling.  He was so left of center from the status quo at the time, yet that was his charm, his power, and his appeal.  I appreciated him as a poet and a mystic, and I fell in love with his humid baritone and his soft-spoken magnetism. He exuded a primal intelligence that wasn't necessarily respected at the time, but it was undeniable to me.

     As a pre-teen becoming aware of the world around me, I began appreciating artists who delivered political and social commentary so unapologetically.  That was powerful to me.  It alluded to a sovereignty one could have as an artist, and that inspired me.

     The Doors ushered in an awareness for me that music could be deep, esoteric, poetic, rich, diverse, and even controversial.  And they had this great melding of influences, so there was this fusion to their music.  I found something really exciting in their ability to be genre-less, limitless in their co-creations.  They could go from bluesy, swampy rock n' roll to worldly, poetic protests to rich, cinematic landscapes all in one record.  I appreciated that kind of freedom, that kind of fluid, unhindered self-expression.

FA:  How has The Doors’ music influenced yours?

F:  Truth be told, it shaped my idea of what a band dynamic could be.  Jim Morrison was a poet and a lyricist first, and he made no qualms about that.  His band members were true musicians who were gifted enough to hear him sing and create a sonic landscape around what he was doing.  He needed them as much as they needed him.

   I work in very much the same way.  I come to the table with lyrics and a melody I'm excited to sing, and everyone else works around me to paint the landscape to really carry the song's message.  I need them as much as they need me.  That synergy - that ability to merge strengths - to respect each other - to know down to your bones that it takes a village - was a powerful education for me, and I got that from The Doors.

ON AFGHANISTAN

FA:  In Cultural Collision’s hit single and music video “Global Nation,” you sing “The only way is truth and love, the only way compassion…the only way we'll ever become a fine global nation.” 

What can the Afghan diaspora do to promote the cause of peace and security in Afghanistan? 

F:   Oh my gosh, they can do so much.  When I read that one third of the Afghan population fled Afghanistan during the Soviet war, I realized that those who could afford to be smuggled out - which cost a year's salary back then by the way - were the teachers, scientists, government officials, leaders, and innovators of the country. 

     While I don't think it's fair to ask people to weather the hardship of going back, I do believe each and every one of us can use our gifts to further the cause of peace.  Each contribution will be as unique as the person.  I can't speak for how they should contribute, but I do believe we are primed and ready to make a positive impact on the future of our homeland, and we can each do that in whatever way our hearts guide us to.

 

THE MUSIC

FA:   It is well-known that the Taliban made almost all music illegal when they were in power.  People who played or listened to music were severely punished.  What would you say to someone who says that you should not make music? 

F:  Afghanistan has a very rich history of poetry and music.  It's the legacy of our ancestors.  It's a deeply cherished element of our spirituality.  It's what awakens our spirits, quickens our hearts, and makes us feel joyful connection with one another.  It's in our blood and no one can take that away from us. 

     Besides that, I believe we should each hold ourselves in a way that allows others to feel free.  No one can censor your soul, and anyone who tries simply illuminates their own fears and self-oppression. It's just that simple. 

     Projections can be very subversive, I've learned.  If people are involved in self-oppression, they will feel discomfort in the presence of self-expression.  It's not because the musician is doing something wrong, it's because the other people are policing themselves in such an extreme way. Seeing freedom makes them feel uncomfortable or afraid.  So instead of resolving to look within and see why they have this reaction, they decide to police others which is an elusive game. If you think you can control external variables to have inner peace, then you're missing the whole point of inner peace!    

     Creating music is a very spiritual experience, and can connect you deeply with the divine.  If someone doesn't care for it, that's their prerogative, but I don't think they should become the ”general manager of the universe” and tell others what to do!

FA:  Humayoun Sakhi, regarded by many as the world’s greatest classical rubab artist, backed you on Cultural Collision.  What was it like working with him?   Will you tour or collaborate with other world-class Afghan musicians?  

F:  It was an incredible honor to work with Humayoun Sakhi.  He is a renowned rubab player and an incredibly kind human being.  He actually tracked his parts up in Northern California while we were in Rio, so I didn't get a chance to work with him in the studio. But he did a stellar job and I am grateful to have his amazing work on my record.

     I would love to collaborate with other world-class Afghan musicians for sure.  I've got a few things brewing so we'll see how they unfold later this year! 

     More than anything, I'd like to continue inviting other cultures into my music.  I have a dream of recording each record in a different country, allowing their beautiful instruments and nuances to seep into the songs organically. It's such a rich and beautiful experience when you let it be co-creational like that.  And truth be told, it's always better than what I had in mind to begin with! 

 

WOMEN HOLD UP “HALF THE SKY”

FA:   In your hit single ‘Year Zero’ you sing, “I won’t let you take us back to the Year Zero…women hold up hold up half of the sky.”  Some have called it a classic protest anthem, even controversial.  Please tell us about that song and your support of the Half the Sky Movement.  

F:  ‘Year Zero’ was my heart's cry, in response to everything that I saw happening in Afghanistan.  It's definitely a protest anthem, but not in a defiant, militant way.  It's about protecting what is sacred in the most loving, determined way.  It's a call to action, because we are well aware of what was lost.  We cannot let it go back any further.  

     Ever since I was little, I saw pictures of my parents from Afghanistan in the 70's and they look so peaceful and free.  We're talking bell bottoms, leather jackets, and mini-skirts here.  Motorcycles with harmoniums and tablas strapped to the back, and big cheesy grins on goofy kids who felt hopeful and inspired. 

     Over the last few decades, when I see pictures of the rubble where trees and homes once were, or women begging on the streets because they're not allowed to work, or the dangers young women face in going to school, I see a country that has been decimated by several wars, fundamentalists, ignorance and poverty.  In the face of so much adversity, sometimes our love must be fierce.  It has to stand up for what is right and stand so boldly, so united that we ignite the hearts of the masses into right and compassionate action.

     On top of that, I was really moved by Half The Sky (a book and documentary) and the work of Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn.  They went to these countries to unearth the root causes for why women were being treated so horrendously.  Obviously, these are complex issues tied to many things like culture, tradition, superstition, misinformation, fear, poverty...etc., but understanding these underlying issues is how we begin find healing solutions.  

     I love their work in turning oppression into opportunity for women, and I wanted to support that through my music.

MUSIC AND AFGHAN PROVERBS

FA:  Many Afghan Proverbs sound like they could be song lyrics or even titles. What is your favorite Afghan Proverb?  Have you ever considered writing one into a song?  

F:  My favorite one is: پشت هر تاریکی، روشنی است Pusht-e har taareekee, roshanee ast.  It means, “After every darkness there is light.” And I’m so happy to see it’s in your book, too!

     This Afghan Proverb resonates with me so much, both in my own life and as a promise for all mankind.  Afghans in particular have been through such great pain and suffering these last three decades.  Unspeakable amounts of trauma, of darkness, of loss beyond anything we could even comprehend here in the 'developed' world.  Afghans want peace desperately, in their lives and the lives of their children, and they deserve our commitment now.  Those of us who were born into war have become the activists and peacemakers, rallying resources and galvanizing the masses behind a real peace movement.  I really do believe that from the soil of this tragedy, heroes are being born, and that is the light after all this darkness.  Perhaps I will write a song about that!   

 

WHAT’S NEXT FOR FERESHTA 

FA:   How has your music evolved since your debut album Global Citizenin 2011?  

F:  Global Citizen was me coming out the gates, with all my musical influences and a very empowered rock n' roll stance.  I was basically learning how to sing then, how to write songs, and finding my voice as an artist.  I was very self-conscious, unsure of what I was doing and jumping into the fire anyway!  It's easy to feel empowered and brave with a rock n' roll swagger. 

      That album really helped me break through a lot of my own fears and doubts about being a singer.  That's what I feel looking back on it.  It allowed me to step into the ring, and for that I'm grateful.

     I do feel an evolution took place in the years between those two albums.  I had some personal life experiences that changed the trajectory of my writing for one thing.  Because of those experiences, I felt compelled to invite more social and political commentary into my music.  And the natural evolution that happens for all artists with time, getting comfortable in my own skin, finding my own voice and signature sound, delving into the issues that matter the most to me, and baring my soul a little more each time. 

FA:   Where can people find and listen to your music?  What’s next for Fereshta in 2014?     

     People can find everything on my website:  http://www.fereshta.com/.

     As for what’s next, I'm getting ready for a few adventures this year.  I'm always working on songs, so I know a new album is definitely brewing in 2014.  I'm also thrilled to be joining forces and speaking, writing, and singing for organizations like International Orphan Care, Mountain 2 Mountain, and Combat Apathy which are all doing amazing work to bring peace, equality and education to the people of Afghanistan.

     I just received news that my book proposal has been accepted, so that's a whole new project for me!  I'm inspired to share my story and shine a light on the importance of education for war children.  I am the flip side of the coin from what you hear on the news.  We all know what the problems are, and I'm proud to stand as living proof of the solution - education.

     And a grant I've been dreaming of has been approved, which will allow me to return to Afghanistan and teach songwriting as a healing modality to Afghan youth.  I'll be sure to share updates with you as these projects develop, and also will keep fans posted on http://www.fereshta.com/.   

FA:   If you were to sum up the messages of Cultural Collision in a few sentences, what would you say? 

F:  That we are better off together than we are apart.  As we all know now, divide and conquer hasn't worked for thousands of years.  Unify and prosper is the new paradigm we need if we're going to survive as a human family.

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Links to Fereshta’s music and much more are available at http://www.fereshta.com.  A portion of net proceeds from Cultural Collision will be donated to support the Half The Sky Movement.

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About the author

EdwardZellem

Captain Edward Zellem is the award-winning author of three bilingual English-Dari and English-Pashto books of Afghan Proverbs published in 15 languages. He is a U.S. Navy officer and trained Dari speaker, and spent a year and a half embedded on native Afghan teams in Afghanistan. This included a year inside…

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