Monday, September 11, 2006

SPOTLIGHT: Sussan Deyhim

Sussan Deyhim was born in Teheran to an old aristocratic family, the youngest of eleven children. Her upbringing during the rule of the Shah was ultra-progressive. Her father was an economist, scientist and violinist; her house was filled with every conceivable style of music, old and new.

"There was unbelievable variety," recalls Deyhim, reflecting on the creative odyssey that has taken her from pre-Revolutionary Iran, to the cutting edge conceptualism of the progressive music scene. "There was all this growing tension between traditionalism and the modern world-a lot of schizophrenia at the time. So much was open and available and you had this young generation trying to make up its mind about what was real for them."

What was real for Deyhim was dance and music. Her life was consumed with ballet and her teacher was a choreographer who combined works by Stockhausen and Bartok with traditional and folk Persian music. Summers were spent at a special dance and arts camp at the Caspian Sea, and at the Shirazz Festival, the largest avant-garde gathering in the country, which featured the likes of Robert Wilson, John Cage and the Living Theater. By the time she met Maurice Bejart and was offered a scholarship to attend his School of Performing Arts in Brussels, Deyhim had been exposed to an amazing variety of music: from India, Egypt, Andalusia, and every part of her own country-the African-influenced styles and trance ceremonies of the south, Saudi Arabian, Kurdish, Luristani, Baluchistani, Afgani, the immigrant tribes of the central regions. "I was trained to recognize all of these sonic dialects and we studied dances with the real musicians of all the traditions," she explains, "so I grew up thinking that that was the way to go. Either it was pure roots, or completely conceptual in a very pure way."

Both approaches would shape Deyhim's creative sensibilities in critical ways. She studied and performed with Bejart's Ballet of the Twentieth Century and had been dancing with the company for almost two years when she moved to New York and plunged into dance classes, only to realize that ballet was no longer her calling. "I had been trained to do unusual vocals and I started doing choreography and composing music myself, using my voice as my instrument. Gradually I started getting very excited about music. My apartment was in the Village and I got into the downtown music and arts scene. I wanted to do something cool and an interesting hybrid relevant to our times."

Her opportunity arrived soon enough when she met and began working with Richard Horowitz, a musician, composer and producer schooled in free jazz, steeped in the music of Morocco and many other forms of what would become known as "world music." Their collaboration would produce Majoun for Sony Classical-a unique synthesis that married the strains of traditional Middle Eastern music with cutting edge technology and a very progressive sensibility. Billboard described her vocals on the album as "an overpowering presence. Her wordless incantations are amplified in harmonized layers and recycled into sampled loops, beckoning you into this virtual desert ritual."

It was this same haunting quality that inspired Peter Gabriel to use Deyhim's voice to evoke Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Deyhim eventually collaborated with Depak Chopra for A Gift of Love, with the poetry of Rumi being read by Madonna, Martin Sheen and many others. She also began a solo album in London called Maze, mixed by Adrian Sherwood and Keith LeBlanc in London and produced by Bill Laswell in New York, which is still in production.

At the same time Deyhim became a presence on the international scene as a multi-dimensional vocalist and performance artist combining music, movement, and media. "I don't really consider myself an entertainer from the showbizz tradition," she points out. "I come more from Artaud, where performance and shamanism are connected, where going onstage is like being ready to fall off a cliff."

Her appearances have ranged from productions like John Claude van Italie's Tibetan Book of the Dead at La Mama in New York to playing Euridice at La Scala in Milan, from performing with Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble to recording and performing as a soloist with Bobby McFerrin's vocal ensemble. Deyhim wrote and performs the music in Shirin Neshat acclaimed short film, Turbulent, which has toured major international museums, with Deyhim also performing live in a solo piece at the museums called 'Vocadeliks'-"her face and voice are the center of attention", noted Holland Carter in the New York Times, calling her work "thrilling music that sounds in the ear long after you've left the show."

This year Deyhim released Madman of God, a self-produced album of the divine classical love songs of great Sufi poets like Rumi, Saadi and Djami from the eleventh to nineteenth centuries, which reunites the artist with her own "gracious old culture", as she calls it, but at the same time continues her journey into new sonic dimensions. "It's a completely acoustic album played by master musicians and yet it has a very modern sound," she observes. "It has the precision and vibe of a groove album--and yet there's something about it that's ancient, and that engages you on a journey."

While Deyhim's ongoing musical odyssey reflects her broad diversity of interests and tastes-current projects range from writing an opera to performing the music of Mahler-other interests are clearly heading her right towards the mainstream.

"What I'd really like to do is an album of great R&B and soul songs--but as an Eastern singer," she says, describing her vision for an upcoming album project. "It would be a real vocal album that blends the traditions that exist here with traditions that exist there and stretches it into a new synthesis--really takes it someplace it hasn't gone before."


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