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.