Music is GOLNAR SHAHYAR’s treasure, with which she shapes the world. With her evidently omnipotent voice, she is able to spread deep splendor in the inner and outer world, creating musical connections between the Orient and the Occident with her songs. And more and more loudly she also uses this voice for democratic values, makes herself heard with open statements and forms alliances, as with the We:Shape network. In a few days, her first solo album “Tear drop” will be released, which tells of the inner world of a migrated Iranian woman. A conversation about inner freedom and the power of encounter.
Right now you’re playing the lead role in “Negar” almost every night on the stage of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Today there’s a break, and on the weekend it continues. How do you feel?
Golnar Shahyar: It is my first opera with a very dense performance schedule. But I have already gotten used to it. The rehearsals were challenging for me because I had to sing in French. The director Marie-Ève Signeyrole is French and conceived and wrote it in her language. But since the story is set in Tehran, I think it has to be multilingual. Besides, the different languages bring very different colors to the piece. Originally, three languages were planned: French, Farsi and English. I have no ties to French, which irritated me a lot at the beginning.
How was it possible to carry such a topical subject onto the stage in such a timely manner?
Golnar Shahyar: That is pure coincidence. The development of the play had already begun two years ago.
And you were slated for the lead role from the beginning?
Golnar Shahyar: The production manager Dorothea Hartmann put my name forward, along with others. In auditions, it became clear that Marie-Ève Signeyrole envisioned a voice that was not only trained at the opera, but that also brought completely different nuances.
On Nov. 27, 2022, your debut as a solo artist will be released: “Tear Drop.” What is the dramaturgy of the album?
Golnar Shahyar: While I’ve always played in bands, I’ve also been performing solo as GolNar for years. Now I could put that into an album and decide everything myself: my music, my arrangements. I always talk about one’s own feelings as the only way to orient oneself. But like in “Ode to Trust” – also about how music expresses one’s power. This song contains a lot of Kells that signal that strength.
What is a Kell? It sounds a bit related to yodeling in the mountain regions of Austria …
Golnar Shahyar: It is “a cry” in both. There is also such a thing in Croatian folklore. Kell is a vocal expression of emotions, especially in the West Asian and North African regions, which only women use to show their own joy or sadness and pain – extreme emotions, that is. On a very high note, the tip of the tongue is vibrated either vertically or horizontally. The tone is kept simple and formed into waves by the movement of the tongue. It can be heard in morning ceremonies or at wedding celebrations of women’s groups, especially in southern Iran.
“[…] I speak OF THE VERY DEEP PAIN OF NOT BEING ABLE TO OPEN UP”.
“Ode to Trust” begins very quietly, almost reservedly. The ear is sucked into the piece and then lifted with it into the heights of such Kells. There is such a lyrical atmosphere created.
Golnar Shahyar: This atmosphere is created by the music, but also by an energetic occurrence. I like to celebrate the whole range of emotions in my music and especially in this song, from delicate and fragile to tremendously strong. Empowerment for me comes from an acknowledgement of the full range of emotions. And I celebrate the connectedness. “Tear Drop” is about that: I speak of the very deep pain of not being able to open up. But an unexpected encounter can suddenly be the outlet to show oneself. I talk about exactly this moment, when people come into such deep contact with each other.
Golnar Shahyar: Yes, of course. I draw so much inspiration from personal encounters. This has resulted in a lot of songs. It was hard for me to make a selection for “Tear Drop”. The songs for the album were written either on the piano or on the guitar. For me, the music always comes first, then I write lyrics for it. Then I arrange the pieces for an ensemble if necessary.
You sing, play guitar, piano and berimbau so naturally, as if music were the basic concept for you, the entirety – regardless of how you express it.
Golnar Shahyar: That’s why I’m not afraid to perform with these instruments. I just find my music within them. And that is my independence. Music is freedom for me. As a vocalist you are always connected to an ensemble and determined to a certain function. It is very difficult to assert your own position. I really enjoy playing with others, but it’s also very important to create my own space for my ideas.
“my first language is music […]”
You sing your lyrics in English, Farsi, Arabic. Does it benefit the expression of your content that you can choose between different languages? Would you also sing in German?
Golnar Shahyar: Especially dialect I find very beautifully melodic in German. Due to my stays in different countries, my relationship to language is strange: my first language is music, followed by Farsi, English, German. But of course I can’t express myself in all languages like a native speaker. After all, I learned the new languages as an adult, when there were completely different things to deal with at the same time. On “Tear Drop” I sing mainly in English, maybe also to be understood universally, but I write in Farsi. I always find myself in between.
You were no longer silent and have since been invited several times to represent Austria for NASOM (New Austrian Sound of Music). A seemingly paradoxical development.
Golnar Shahyar: Austria has very corrupt politics; it’s always left to individuals when it come to things developing. But what really pains me is how few Austrians recognize and make use of their effective power. That is a dangerous signal for democracy as a whole. We are living in a very polarized time right now. That is why it is no longer possible to remain silent. It is time to say something, to do something. If you do nothing, you are complicit in what’s happening. We must take action to strengthen a community with humanitarian goals.
And define humanitarian goals, hold on to them, and make them universal around the globe. An understanding of how to use terms like “music” or “classical” would be a start.
Golnar Shahyar: We need to get into a conversation. But many marginalized groups in Austria believe they have no voice. Often this same group also competes with each other and believes it is being denied something. In fact, we need to come together to achieve something for all of us. Individual struggle is doomed to failure. We need a culture of discussion in order to convey points of view and to learn to tolerate differences. And we need systematic methods and thinking about how to create an understanding of diversity, inclusion, fairness, and openness to it.
Is WE:Shape the voice that stands up against prevailing conditions?
Golnar Shahyar: It’s the maximum effort possible right now. WE:Shape was created in 2020 during the pandemic, when we suddenly had a lot of time. Before that, I was invited to the Amadeus Awards in Vienna and felt that enough was enough. I couldn’t be quiet any longer and raised my voice there for the first time. On this occasion I tried to initiate a critical discussion in the Brunnenpassage with the title “Amadeus what?” and got offers of help from Yalda Zamani, Rojin Sharafi, among others. Due to the pandemic, in-person meetings never took place, but Zooms where we wrote a statement and found strategies to bring our concern to the public. However, as mere individuals, we lack the financial, time and energy resources for large-scale activities. We have shown up, trying to be alert and analytical in observing and speaking out what needs to be said.
So we represent the topic in curating, in panel discussions and the like. Through our statement on WE:Shape we get more and more inquiries, for example also for concepts forWiener Stimmen [note: a series at Vienna Musikverein] or D/Arts. That’s how we get involved in writing, discussing, playing, becoming visible and showing our attitude.
Does this attitude also find its way into your music?
Golnar Shahyar: For me, music is storytelling, practicing a sense of unity, strength and trust. It is a practice for musicians as much as for the audience. There is very little talk about these qualities of music. Music is practice, communication, language. It transforms energy, thoughts and expands the imagination.
That’s why your art is always political.
Golnar Shahyar: It is always political not only because of that, but also because of my history, my background. As an Iranian woman, I am not allowed to have a solo career in Iran, not allowed to sing freely, the female voice is banned from public life there.
So how does the Kell that only women sing in Iran come about?
Golnar Shahyar: Of course women sing, even if they are not allowed to. Singing is like breathing or the need for water. Singing cannot be suppressed; it has never been done in human history.
That this is the reality in Iran, is hard to imagine.
Golnar Shahyar: It shocks every one of us. Although we know how it is: they have been stabilizing their power for 40 years through absolute violence. And we know what it means to stand up against it. Now it is visible to everyone, but it has been like this for a long time. I am a first generation migrant, coming from this region, having roots in the West Asian region, a region that is considered the center of disaster, chaos and brutality. Yet I live and work in Europe and find my way in a society that has already decided what its view is of this West Asian region. Meanwhile, they don’t have a clue.
“[…] music is the most socially, politically and generally developed discipline.”
So it’s a very complex challenge for anyone who comes from this region to live and work here, especially for cultural workers. Because Europeans also have a firmly cemented concept of culture. Artists and musicians work with the whole range of different people, so they are constantly entering new and different spaces. In my opinion, music is the most socially, politically and generally developed discipline. Music is one of the last truly democratic professions we know.
The European understanding of music ends at the borders of the continent and tries to fill the terms with it.
Golnar Shahyar: There are labels for music. And everything that is not European – or not understood -is put into the label “world music”. I am anti-“world music”. I consciously position myself against this system. Europeans needed this label to be able to present their non-European performers. I call it: “commercial exoticism”. And it has little to do with the music that is happening around the globe at the moment. It is probably impossible to describe the diversity of all existing cultures beyond Europe. But here, there is only one word for it. This is crazy!
“I am anti-‘world music’.”
This problem is systematic and starts in schools and academies, where there is no place for “others”. In Austria there is elitism and classism and no collective protection for artists. Artists or freelancers are politically very weak because they have to fight for everything. There is also no subject in artistic education for these economic aspects. They learn to be quiet while they strive for perfection. No one talks about the abuse of power in the academies either, because it is accepted and taken for granted, especially in classical music.
Labeling yourself is essential for survival, to be seen. But at the same time, you need a new term to name your music.
Golnar Shahyar: I avoid a new term. I use a hundred terms. As long as there is only one term, we will have problems. We need to open the music industry and its infrastructures to the rest of the world. Classical music, opera, rock, pop, jazz, electronic music, film music – why do we think that such diversity does not exist in other cultures? We need to look at the functions of music.
“I become, with my voice, the connection between the instruments.”
Often your voice seems to want to merge with the instruments played around it. There, the conversation leads to a resounding connection – in “Ode to Trust” with the trumpet; in the trio Gabbeh with the clarinet of Mona Matbou Riahi, sometimes even with the bass of Manu Mayr.
Golnar Shahyar: I embrace this great ability of the voice to behave like an instrument. I don’t think of us as singing with accompaniment, but treat everything the same and consequently use my voice rhythmically and harmonically. Thus I become, with my voice, the connection between the instruments. The voice opens up an enormous variety of possibilities for me to compose, but also to sing. For this, no vocal training is enough. You have to practice it, like a craft. To feel and understand the voice, you have to use it.
This spring, Nadja Kayali opened the Imago Dei festival with a large song cycle that brought cultures together, and you also appeared on stage as a vocalist for Wiener Stimmen at the Musikverein. Isn’t that the epitome of your statement?
Golnar Shahyar: My focus is not on tradition. I try to formulate my personal voice. But politically, of course, I represent exactly this attitude. Wiener Stimmen at the Musikverein was symbolically tremendously important and an incredibly strong statement. The fact that the Musikverein is opening up to our voices is a great signal. Now the implementation processes begin: How can European classical music and our music be brought together? We have to find arrangers who really know the cultures, who speak the languages and who are very familiar with the content. This requires openness, a willingness to learn, research, and larger networks of relevant people. Otherwise, performances turn into token projects; works of cultural appropriation.
Golnar Shahyar: For the last production of Fraufeld, I recorded the two songs “Jeeve II” and “Jeeve III” with Rojin Sharafi. We are both so busy and are totally happy when we can collaborate and record in a concentrated way for a change. The two songs we played at Wien Modern were created during a joint improvisation session two years ago. Rojin uses elements that sound like “Jeeve”, which means “mercury”.
After Berlin, you were at the KLAENG Festival in Cologne and at Wien Modern in mid-November, at the beginning of next year you’ll be in the United States …
Golnar Shahyar: Thank God I get to travel again to work. I am not the kind of artist who knows what will happen next year. There is also a lack of structure in education on how to have sustainable artistic activities. For example, we need teams and collaborations with/for artists to serve networks in the scenes for PR, booking, management. This is a gap that solo artists are not able to fill. For marginalized artists this is ten times as much an issue. We need more lobbies!
Thank you very much for the interview!
Golnar Shahyar – “Tear Drop“ – Album presentation
November 27th, 2022
Porgy & Bess, Vienna