Music review: Iranian avant-garde singer Sussan Deyhim smooths feathers on 9/11


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Sussan Deyhim is one of Iran’s most potent voices in exile for the simple reason that she possesses a marvelously potent voice. She wails and coos and ululates, the sound of the soul in translation. When she sings low and gravelly, she transforms herself into an earthy, erotic chanteuse. When high, she flies free with the birds.

After leaving Tehran in 1980, Deyhim -- in partnership with composer, keyboardist and electronics conjurer Richard Horowitz -- became an exotic, alluring presence on the New York new music scene. The pair flirted with mass popularity in the 1990s, with an electro-pop/new age/world music Sony Classics crossover project, ‘Majoun,’ that should have caught on. In New York, Deyhim has collaborated with the Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat in politically probing and exquisitely poetic videos and a mystically arresting theater piece, ‘The Logic of Birds.’


Given how seldom she is seen in America these days, Deyhim’s appearance with Horowitz and a host of American and Iranian musicians at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Saturday night was notable. She chose the date for a reason. The ninth anniversary of 9/11 did not look, in the weeks that preceded it, to be a day of tolerance. She wanted her program to serve as antidote to those who threaten to burn holy books and separate peoples.

And it did, to a some extent. Half of her audience -- the better dressed, more sophisticated half -- appeared to be perhaps Iranian. But ticket prices were quite high, and that should have been a giveaway. This wasn’t a new music concert.

Deyhim, in recent years, has neither realized her potential as a new music diva nor become quite the puissant advocate of free Iran she has the unique capability to become. She has instead moved into a tame techno-pop crossover universe where cultural differences are not so much vein for revelation or revolution as something to be smoothed over by a backbeat. On Saturday, she put on an entertaining show of jazz and pop singing that included harmless Persian hybrids with only the very occasional vocal flourish providing momentary goose bumps.

The program, which Deyhim called ‘Panoramic,’ careened here, there and everywhere (Brazil, Spain, America, Africa, Iran, India and outer space). Accompanied by an accomplished jazz trio (pianist Mitch Forman, bassist Jon Ossman and drummer Will Calhoun), Deyhim was sassy South American in Joao Gilberto’s ‘Estate’ and touched on the ecstatic in John Coltrane’s ‘Naima.’

‘Sketches of Persia,’ though, was a peculiar take on Gil Evans’ and Miles Davis’ arrangement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez,’ with the help of the Persian-flamenco fusion guitar of Ardeshir Farah, one of the evening’s guest artists. Rather than forge a new music language from these sources, Farah relied on common decorative elements. Deyhim joined in, her voice capturing the cool of Davis’ trumpet, but only a new timbre, not new music.

Politics were flirted with but skirted. ‘It is difficult to be an Iranian woman and not bring up causes in my beautiful country,’ Deyhim told the audience without really bringing up causes other than to say that things would change. By avoiding the more strident, vocally extreme aspects of her singing, Deyhim indicated that feathers needn’t be ruffled.


She did, though, invite on stage Mohsen Namjoo, an Iranian protest singer and guitarist who has modernized traditional Persian music with a little Western pop. ‘He disturbs the ones who need to be disturbed,’ Deyhim said. In his two ballad-like songs, with Deyhim singing along, a political force could be felt here even without understanding the language.

Horowitz played a relatively small part in the program. He, like Deyhim, has moved over some into the commercial world, including scoring the occasional Hollywood film. He played a Satie-esque, electronically enhanced piano intro and the ney, a Middle Eastern flute. Deyhim, whose voice was subtly and smartly electronically enhanced all evening (she ran the controls herself), offered at last a taste of her ability to elaborately sail on a tone into curious realms. Calhoun gave a startling, arresting solo on an electronic drum that needed reining in only at the end when the instrument turned into a toy.

Deyhim ended by presenting the formal premiere of ‘Dressed in Leaves,’ a collaboration with Horowitz that is somewhere between pop and Persia, its groove likable, a small space left for vocal embellishments. It went down easy, and its beat beat around the bush. Outright ‘70s Iranian pop was the encore.

Deyhim and Horowitz have more in their musical arsenal than that. Her country, where she cannot return, now discourages music. Maybe the time has come for her bigger musical guns.

-- Mark Swed

Photos, from top: Sussan Deyhim, accompanied by bassist Jon Ossman, Mohsen Namjoo, middle, and Richard Horowitz, bottom, perform at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Saturday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times