Mamak Khadem: Connecting the Old to the New, One Culture to Another

It was 1994, and I was living in New York. One night, as I tuned into a radio program called “Hearts of Space,” I heard a song that stopped me right in my tracks. On the air was a Los Angeles–based band called Axiom of Choice. Though distinctly Persian, the music was nothing like I had heard before. It was innovative, a perfect fusion between classical Persian and modern sounds, between East and West. I was hooked. The band defined a new sound in Persian music and has influenced many musicians of the younger generation.

Acclaimed solo artist Mamak Khadem—who will perform at the Skirball on International Women’s Day,
March 8—was the frontwoman of progressive world music band Axiom of Choice, a personal favorite of
mine for years. In this clip, the trio performs their beloved tune “Valeh.”

The vocals in particular were arresting. I did some research and found out that the singer was Mamak Khadem. A couple of years later, I moved to Los Angeles, where I had the opportunity to connect with the band and become friends with Mamak.

From her beginnings as the core member and lead vocalist of Axiom of Choice to her incarnation as a solo musician, Mamak has been on my radar. I have followed her career closely and marveled at her consummate artistry. Her prodigious voice has always moved me in a way that few Persian vocalists do, and I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. Fans have told me that the range of emotions and moods she evokes through her performances have led to deep inner experiences. I also admire that she is always looking for new and original ways of expressing herself. Though trained in the Persian classical style, Mamak is open to diverse cultural influences and collaborations—and it shows.

Mamak wrote this song off her first album in memory of those who died in the Iran-Iraq War.
She is passionate about global issues, with particular interest in human and women’s rights.

Mamak’s first solo album, Jostojoo (Forever Seeking), explored traditional melodies of the Middle East and Greece and the poetry of Persian masters. On her second album, A Window to Color, she set to music the evocative poetry of much beloved Persian poet and painter Sohrab Sepehri (1928–1980). While her one-of-a-kind voice gives her music a distinct quality, her approach to each album was different: Jostojoo has more of a folk quality, while A Window to Color renders into music the concept of space and the painter’s palette present in Sepehri’s work.

Mamak’s powerful voice brings life to Sohrab Sepehri’s verse. The English subtitles come from the translation by Sholeh Wolpe, who will join Mamak on stage at the Skirball.

While I loved Axiom of Choice and often wonder how the band would have evolved had it not disbanded in 2003, Mamak’s solo journey has been highly rewarding. She has grown not only as a singer, but also as a composer, bandleader, international stage performer, and teacher. When I asked what it was like to study under Mamak, one of her students, Bela Ennes, told me, “The reality is that as women we rarely hear our own sounds, our own voices, and even more rarely are we invited to sound from the soul. That is the great gift Mamak Khadem gives to the women lucky enough to study with her. There she sits on the floor in front of you and she holds you in such esteem that you cannot help but be reminded of your own.”

Befittingly, Mamak is performing at the Skirball on Thursday, March 8, on International Women’s Day in association with Women Hold Up Half the Sky. The program has been carefully curated by Mamak, who has assembled a band of female guest artists—instrumentalists, singers, and poets from Iran, Bulgaria, Greece, and the United States—to play with core members of her own ensemble. I will be there with bated breath to witness what new offerings she has in store for us.

Mamak Khadem

Pictured here, left to right: Dancer/choreographer Shahrokh Moshkin Ghalam, Mamak, santur player/composer Hamid Saiedi, flautist Omar Faruk Tekbilek, and me. We’re backstage at the Skirball on the night Omar performed one of our Sunset Concerts in the summer of 2009. Mamak performed with Omar on one song. Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

Posted in Music, Recommendations, Women Hold Up Half the Sky and tagged , .

About Yatrika Shah-Rais

Born in Iran, Skirball Music Director Yatrika Shah-Rais studied and lived in the U.K. and France before moving to the U.S. in 1984. Tune in to Yatrika every Wednesday morning when she hosts "Global Village" on KPFK 91.5 FM. What is she listening to right now? I am currently enthralled by Ethiopian jazz pianist Samuel Yirga and his album Guzo. With every new post by Yatrika, we'll update her profile to share the latest and greatest from her personal playlist.

One thought on “Mamak Khadem: Connecting the Old to the New, One Culture to Another

  1. Pingback: Sunset Concerts at the Skirball Week 4: Mamak Khadem and Ensemble | Skirball Cultural Center Blog

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