A California sound, by way of Kabul


Three years ago, a suicide bomber changed Ariana Delawari’s music career. The singer was on the phone with her mother, Setara, and Afghanistan was coming undone.

“It’s not looking good here,” Setara said from her home in Kabul. An explosion had just destroyed a building a few blocks away.

Safe at home in Silver Lake, Ariana, then 27, feared for her parents. But she also feared for her music. Since childhood, she had dreamed of making a record in Afghanistan with local musicians, and she worried that the chance might soon be lost. The Taliban had banned secular music during its rule, and with each new bomb blast it seemed to be closing in once again.

Later that day, she made a decision. She called her father, Noorullah.

“Dad,” she said. “I want to record my album in Kabul.”

“What can I do to help?” he asked.

Western rock acts, from the Beatles to Vampire Weekend, have often looked abroad for new sounds or ideas about art and spirituality. Ariana had something more personal in mind. She wanted to explore her identity as an Afghan and an Angeleno, to explain her feelings about being from two places at once.

“I wanted the history of the land and the story of the land to come through the musicians,” she said recently. “The phone call sent me on a quest. It also sounded really exciting to me -- the idea of bringing my friends on a caravan.”

The Delawari family moved to Southern California from Afghanistan in 1970. Noorullah had recently graduated from the London School of Economics. Setara had family here, and the couple settled in La Cañada Flintridge to be close to her brothers and sisters. Noorullah became a vice president at Lloyds Bank California, but they were never far from the politics of Kabul.

After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, their house grew crowded with relatives fleeing the violence. Ariana grew up listening to stories about their country and to the traditional music her family played at all-night dinner parties.

A cheerleader at La Cañada High and an avid Madonna and Jimi Hendrix fan, she often found her Afghan heritage ignored, misunderstood, even disparaged. She knew her country deserved more respect, and she thought she could convey that message through music.

In 2002, after the defeat of the Taliban, the country’s finance minister invited her father to join the government as an advisor. Noorullah and Setara moved back to Kabul.

Ariana, who was about to graduate from USC with a degree in film production, stayed behind. A folk singer and songwriter, she was working her way into the local music scene. She had performed at Eastside clubs and caught the attention of film director David Lynch, who told her he’d like to produce her album one day.

In 2007, four months after that conversation with her father about recording in Afghanistan, Ariana and her two-piece band stepped off a plane into Kabul’s dust-choked traffic.

Her father’s bulletproof car jostled past wary locals and ruined buildings. At the gates of the family’s home, armed guards waved them in, and soon the band was walled off from the chaos of the city. Peacocks and doves pecked in her father’s aviary.

Relaxing with tea and peanut butter sandwiches in the yard, Ariana and the group prepared for the recording sessions. Lynch’s wife, Emily, began filming. She thought the sessions would make a compelling documentary.

Ariana’s bandmate Max Guirand had agreed to produce the album; on the flight from Los Angeles, he plowed through “Pro Tools for Dummies” to brush up on his recording skills. Paloma Udovic, a classically schooled violinist, would help create a musical bridge between the western sounds and the traditional Afghan instrumentation.

By then, Ariana’s father had become a respected government figure. He had overseen the revaluation of the Afghan currency, and in 2005 President Hamid Karzai appointed him governor of the country’s central bank.

He borrowed audio equipment, hired an engineer and recruited three musicians -- virtuosos of the rabab, dilruba and tabla, sitar-like and percussive instruments that form the core of Central Asian music -- to accompany his daughter.

These men were known as ustads -- instrumental masters -- and when Ariana listened to them play, she wondered if her songwriting and arranging skills were up to their standards.

They told her how they’d had to wrap their instruments in cloth and bury them in their yards when the Taliban took over.

Ariana hoped their collaboration could help music-loving cultures in Los Angeles and Afghanistan empathize with each other. But reality kept intruding on her idealism. The electricity went out frequently, and the musicians had to use noisy gas generators and line the studio walls with blankets and carpets to mute the sound.

Tensions arose among Ariana, Guirand and Udovic over their vision for the music. When they bickered, Ariana felt she was letting down both her friends and her family. She wondered if she had set her expectations too high.

The problems “stripped my heart down,” she said. “But I had to ask myself, ‘How badly do you want this? This is more important than fear.’ ”

After two weeks, Ariana and her friends returned to Los Angeles with a laptop full of unmixed sound files. Guirand and Udovic stopped playing with her; the recording had emotionally exhausted them. With no band and no record label, Ariana didn’t know what to do next.

Surrounded by her rabab rabab and tapestries and photos from previous Afghan trips, Ariana listened to the Kabul session files. The music seemed broken. The songs dominated by Eastern instruments didn’t cohere with her California folk songs. She heard the friction of her own identity in the music.

When she shared her difficulties with the Lynches, David took her to his Hollywood Hills studio to re-imagine the music. His film soundtracks often showcase a spectral female voice, and he had grown interested in producing an album of similar material.

Lynch refined each of the Kabul tracks to make it sound pristine, then added rich reverbs and echoes and new string arrangements by L.A. composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson that charged the Afghan sounds and Ariana’s folk tunes with haunting, incantatory feelings.

“Every artist has a family history, but hers is so timely,” Lynch said. “Her music paints a very different and more beautiful picture of Afghanistan than what you usually hear about that country.”

“Lion of Panjshir,” released in October on Lynch’s label, David Lynch MC, confronts the idea of Afghanistan as a violent, unknowable land. The album uses hypnotic Eastern instruments to explore classic folk themes. In the ustads’ accompaniment, flurries of melody ride a single bass note to create a trance-like sound similar to that of Indian raga music. When those sounds are paired with Ariana’s clear alto and strong acoustic guitar strums, the songs become intimate and accessible.

Her lyrics similarly live in both worlds. In “San Francisco,” she’s the insouciant Californian: “Tried some dresses on in upper Haight, and those skirts fell above my knees. They made me want to . . . say, ‘Ooh, come my way.’ ”

In “Be Gone Taliban,” she finds the kiss-off spirit of punk in images of her ancient country: “My name’s the land, it’s older than you,” she sings over a spooky tabla arrangement. “What you don’t know is this land is older than the snow.”

The album’s title is the nom de guerre of mujahedin leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud left an upper-class life to fight the Soviets and later Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of orchestrating his assassination in 2001.

Many Afghans revere Massoud for fighting imperialists and religious zealots alike. Ariana saw him as an artistic role model as well, someone who recognized how a shared culture could hold a people together in the face of war.

“He knew the West, and could have gone and made a life there,” she said. “But he stayed and fought. Yet he always encouraged his soldiers to read poetry.”

If her political songs seem naive, they nonetheless show a young American woman brimming with hope for her family’s country and rage at what others have made of it.

On a bright October morning in 2009, Ariana met her parents at Casbah, a coffee shop in Silver Lake.

After Karzai’s disputed reelection last year, Setara had returned to California. Noorullah, by then head of the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency and an advisor to Karzai, was in town for a brief visit.

Over tea and sandwiches, they talked about their country and shared stories of Ariana’s childhood. They were proud of her debut album.

Now, Ariana is putting together a new band to go on tour and is finishing the documentary with Emily Lynch.

All her life she struggled to explain her identity and her country to Americans. As a child, she’d been mistaken for Mexican. As a young woman, she’d listened to friends talk about Afghans and terrorists as if they were the same, and after graduating from USC, she worked as an actress and often read for Central Asian roles that felt like cheap stereotypes.

Now she had something real.

In January, Ariana’s phone rang again. It was her father in Kabul. He was OK, but a bomber had struck the central bank.