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.

Dr. L. Subramaniam’s Global Fusion Knows No Borders

It was 1988, I was living in New York. Mira Nair’s award-winning movie Salaam Bombay! had just been released. I remember its strong impact on me and how I was riveted by the poignant and highly effective soundtrack which gave it another dimension. The score was by Dr. L. Subramaniam, the esteemed master of Karnatic (South Indian) violin.

Here’s the trailer for Salaam Bombay! with music by Dr. L. Subramaniam.

Exploring further, I discovered not only Subramaniam’s Indian classical recordings, but also his East/West fusion works and cross-cultural collaborations. The recipient of many awards since a young age, and equally trained in classical Indian and Western music, Dr. L. Subramaniam is a prolific recording artist who has worked with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Stéphane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khan, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Zubin Mehta, and the New York Philharmonic, to name a few. Continue reading

“Persian Lioness” Meets “American Soul/Blues Master”

While working for the Skirball, I long hoped to curate a concert series entirely dedicated to cross-cultural collaborations. This idea was propelled into action when I first heard Scent of Reunion: Love Duets Across Civilizations by Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain. I was moved by the beauty of the songs, their soulful vocals and the unforced rapport between a Persian singer and an American blues artist, each securely anchored in their respective traditions.

The blues has influenced a number of Persian musicians, most notably Mohsen Namjoo, Kiosk, and Rana Farhan (click on the links to see video clips I especially like from each artist). But in the case of Mahsa and Mighty Sam, the encounter takes the form of a musical conversation. For me it works because melancholy, nostalgia, and longing are at the core of both traditional Persian and blues singing. Although stylistically different, it is the emotion conveyed by both singers that makes this musical marriage so fruitful. Mahsa and Mighty Sam explore the connection between their musical heritages with grace and fluidity.

Their collaboration goes beyond two people and in fact spans three continents: Norwegian producer and poet Erik Hillestad met Mahsa on a journey to Iran while working on the album Lullabies From the Axis of Evil. They ended up working on several recordings together and eventually met and befriended Persian poet Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari. The lyrics of Scent of Reunion and the newly released follow-up, A Deeper Tone of Longing, were written by the two poets, in Farsi and English, and set to music composed by Mahsa and Norwegian musicians Sigvart Dagsland and Knut Reiersrud. To give the English lyrics just the right voice, they could not have come up with a better collaborator than Mighty Sam McClain.

The songs on both albums are about love, longing, separation, reunion, and hope. In an interview, Mighty Sam explains how Mahsa’s singing touched him to the core and that he did not need to understand the words to hear and feel her. He chokes up when he reveals the project’s emotional and spiritual meaningfulness for him. In turn, Mahsa explains that both styles of music express sadness and yearning but also hope and aspiration. She discovered through this project that the human heart is one and this oneness is the conduit allowing them to sing so easily together.

Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain live in concert.

Such is the beauty of music, an art form so fluid and universal that it speaks to us across, time, cultures, geography, politics, and language barriers. Music is healing, and in these times, a series based on the notion of connections without boundaries gives us more reason for hope and rejoicing. It is with anticipation that I look forward to the California premiere of Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain’s at the Skirball on Thursday, November 8.

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

“Ocho Kandelikas,” Reimagined

Ocho Kandelikas

Erran Baron Cohen and Yasmin Levy teamed up for “Ocho Kandelikas.” Both have performed at the Skirball in years past.

Hanukkah is almost here, and if you’re looking for a twist to your holiday playlist, here’s my recommendation: a simple yet sweet adaptation of the Sephardic song “Ocho Kandelikas,” re-arranged and produced by Erran Baron Cohen and featuring the Ladino vocals of Yasmin Levy. If you haven’t heard it yet, check it out. Here’s a snippet.


This fresh take on the song hails from Baron Cohen’s 2008 album, Songs in the Key of Hanukkah (thanks to the iconic Stevie Wonder for inspiring that title). As Baron Cohen told NPR upon the CD’s release, his intention was simple: to bring new energy to the holiday by transforming a number of classic tunes associated with it and adding a few new originals. Continue reading

Riffat Sultana: “Music Is in My Blood, My Soul”

I admire people whose lives are fueled by passion and are undefeated in the face of obstacles. Pakistani vocalist Riffat Sultana, who received a standing ovation after her performance at the Skirball last week, is one such person. When I began to plan concerts that could be presented in association with Women Hold Up Half the Sky, Riffat instantly came to mind. During her visit to Los Angeles, I got a chance to talk to her and learn much more about her personal journey.


Riffat and her new acoustic ensemble during soundcheck at the Skirball. During the concert, her deep and modulating voice and ecstatic singing were enthralling.

Riffat Sultana did not always have the freedom to sing. Although she is the daughter of esteemed classical Hindustani (North Indian) vocalist Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and raised in a family of musicians that goes back eleven generations, she was forbidden to study classical ragas and perform in public because of her gender. Her brothers were taken under her father’s tutelage, but she and her sisters were denied his vast musical knowledge. For Riffat, the prohibition to sing was a torment.

The status of women in Pakistan varies considerably depending on the woman’s class, whether she lives in a rural or urban area, the state of socio-economic development where she lives, and the impact of tribal, feudal, and social customs on her life. What is generally true is that Pakistani culture considers it inappropriate for a woman—at least one from a “respectable” family—to perform publicly. Ironically, Riffat’s father taught one of the greatest Sufi singers of all times, a female, Abida Parveen! Then again, Abida’s case is rare: her father, legendary singer Ustad Ghulam Haider, decided when she was only five years old that she, a daughter, would inherit the family tradition instead of his sons. Thank goodness even the strictest of gender codes allow for an exception or two! Continue reading