Kefaya + Elaha Soroor: Songs of Our Mothers

Radiant and Subversive

Listening Post 243. Kefaya’s 2016 debut album was a sumptuous stew of world sounds, but when Giuliano Modarelli and Al MacSween, founders of the London-based pan-cultural collective, met Afghan singer-songwriter Elaha Soroor, they discovered a radiant and particularistic voice they were happy to make the focal point of their universal ethos. Songs of Our Mothers unites Soroor’s story—of seeking equality but finding exile, of flourishing in defiance of oppressive patriarchy—with the band’s intoxicating mix of jazz, dub, electronica and Indian classical music. Soroor was born in Iran to a family from Afghanistan’s Hazara minority; after the Taliban fell the family returned to Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, where, still in her teens, Elaha worked as a journalist and taught literacy and math to girls barred from attending school. Her personification of women’s empowerment elicited death threats and the family moved to Kabul, where she found her passion for music, appearing on the TV talent show Afghan Star—prompting more threats and ultimately her move to London. On Songs of Our Mothers, Soroor deftly refracts traditional songs of Afghan women through a contemporary lens, channeling pain and pleasure, joys and taboos, love and separation, meeting age-old struggles with relentless positivity, all in her beloved Farsi language. In the vivacious Charsi (Pothead, video 1) she advocates equality in the pursuit of happiness, while in Arose Jane Madar (Sweet Bride, My Daughter, video 2) she articulates a mother’s lament. Mellow despite its bitter message, Gole Sadbarg (Hundred-petalled Rose, video 3) evokes Abey Mirza, the mother of Hazara folk, who was jailed for her music. Though Afghan lullabies typically comfort sons, Soroor adapts Lalay, Lalay (Sleep, Sleep) for a girl (video 4). “What you see in yourself,” says an Afghan proverb, “is what you see in the world.” Kefaya and Elaha Soroor subversively envision a universe where genders and cultures value and enrich one another. (Bella Union)

Kefaya + Elaha Soroor*: Songs of Our Mothers / آهنگ های مادران ما
Elaha Soroor: Vocals
Al MacSween: Piano, keyboards, synths, accordion
Giuliano Modarelli: Classical guitar, electric guitar
Joost Hendrickx: Drums
Gurdain Singh Rayatt: Tabla
Sam Vicary: Double bass
Cormac Byrne: Percussion
Mohsen Namjoo: Vocals
Tamar Osborn: Baritone saxophone
Yazz Ahmed: Flugelhorn
Jyotsna Srikanth: Violin
Manos Achalinotopoulos: Clarinet
Sardor Mirzakhojaev: Dambura
Grant Hunt: Drums
Sarathy Korwar: Tabla, dolak

*Kefaya—Arabic for “Enough!”—was the rallying cry of the Arab Spring in Egypt
Elaha Soroor is a pseudonym meaning “Goddess of Happiness” in Farsi

 

Charsi / Pothead / چرسی بچهگک
From the album notes: “In Afghanistan weed smoking, partying and generally having a good time in a mischievous way is something only men can do and is associated with macho culture. Women are forbidden to take part in any expression of hedonism and pleasure. In this song a woman challenges this culture by inviting a man to be together & enjoy life in an equal way.

From the Farsi lyrics
Hey, weed-smoker with the come-to-bed eyes/Y
ou’re high as a kite!
Listen to your lover; I need to tell you something
You’re not my owner, handing out the orders
And I’m not the napkin in your pocket/On which you wipe yourself any time you want!
Let’s get high together on our love/I will show you what we can do as equals

Hey, weed-smoker with the come-to-bed eyes/You’re high as a kite!
Listen to your lover; I need to tell you something
Hey, boy, forget about all that macho stuff/It won’t help us to be happy together
Forget other people’s rules – and let’s drink!

Hey, weed-smoker with the come-to-bed eyes/You’re high as a kite!
Listen to your lover; I need to tell you something
Don’t listen to the mullah’s empty words/Or the call to prayer across the rooftops
Let’s take to the dancefloor like whirling dervishes/Doing religion the way drunks do!

Hey, weed-smoker with the come-to-bed eyes/You’re high as a kite!
Listen to your lover; I need to tell you something.

 

Arose Jane Madar / Sweet Bride, My Daughter / عروس جان مادر
A traditional wedding song. Most marriages in Afghanistan are arranged and often the bride and groom meet for the first time on their wedding day. The bride becomes the legal property of her husband and must obey him. Sometimes a married woman will never see her family again, as the mother of the bride in this song fears.

Come close, let me kiss you goodbye/Sweet bride, my daughter
You are leaving, and leaving a pain in my heart/Sweet bride, my daughter
This is your first journey and your last/Sweet bride, my daughter
From now on, only the birds can tell me how you are
Sweet bride, my daughter! – tonight your bags are packed
And tomorrow will tear you from me, setting my soul on fire.

From now on, I don’t know where you’ll be/Sweet bride, my daughter
From now on, I’ll know nothing of how you are/Sweet bride, my daughter
No one can take a message to you from now on/Sweet bride, my daughter
Only memories will I have to comfort me/Sweet bride, my daughter! – tonight your bags are packed
And tomorrow will tear you from me, setting my soul on fire.

If you see my daughter on your travels/Sweet bride, my daughter
Say hello from me, say I pray for her/Sweet bride, my daughter
If she asks you how her mother is/Sweet bride, my daughter
Say I am dry and shrivelled as a wisp of chaff/Sweet bride, my daughter! – tonight your bags are packed
And tomorrow will tear you from me, setting my soul on fire.

 

Gole Sadbarg / Hundred-petalled Rose / گل صدبرگ
This song was written by a woman called Delaram, also known as Abey Mirza, who played the dambora, a two-stringed folk instrument. She was born in 1929 in the town of Malestan and sang at family and community events. Religious leaders and traditionalists frowned on women making music & Abey Mirza was arrested and spent two years in prison. After her release she never sang again, passing the rest of her life as a wife and mother in a small village in poverty. She died in 2016. For Elaha, a fellow member of the persecuted Hazara people of central Afghanistan, Abey Mirza is a symbol of Afghan women who have been repressed and had their talents buried.

I am the many-petalled rose of summer/An escapee from the land of Malestan
Since the day I was parted from my homeland/My body hurt and my heart broke

Hey, fellow Muslims, I’m poor and friendless/A stranger in your town, so make me welcome
Fill up the chillum and put my bag to one side/I’m here tonight but who knows where I’ll be tomorrow.

My heart is black as tobacco smoke!/If you don’t believe me, listen to me sing
Out of my mouth you will see escaping/The charred fragments of my grief

 

Lalay, Lalay / Sleep, sleep / للی للی
In Afghanistan lullabies are generally directed to male children and the lyrics refer always to a son. In this version the lyrics have been rewritten for a baby girl. The song draws on the idea of “azar” (fire) which is a symbol of purity in the Zoroastrian religion of Persia.

Lalay, lalay, sweet daughter
Our pure star, our Azar/Sweet child of fire and water

You will be the loveliest
As you grow and you know/How to talk the liveliest

You will finish school
And expect only respect/And never be any man’s fool

You will be Kabul’s mayor/Its befriender and defender
From enemies everywhere

Friendship be yours, and desire
Mother’s renown, father’s crown/Our child of water and fire.

Lalay, lalay, sweet daughter
Our pure star, our Azar/Sweet child of fire and water

 


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