Composer, singer, and scholar Galeet Dardashti performs the West Coast premiere of Monajat (Fervent Prayer) on Saturday, September 24, at the JCCSF. Monajat is inspired by Selichot, the poetic prayers of forgiveness recited during the month preceding the Jewish High Holidays, according to Middle Eastern tradition. This period of deep reflection and spiritual preparation serves as a backdrop for Dardashti’s time-specific concert and program. Dardashti, a performer and anthropologist of Iranian descent, re-imagines the Selichot ritual in collaboration with an acclaimed ensemble of musicians, an electronic soundscape and dynamic video projections.
Q: What is Monajat? How did this project get started?
My grandfather was one of the most famous singers of Persian classical music during the 1950s and ’60s. We have only one recording of him singing Jewish music in Hebrew, and that is a recording of him chanting the prayers of Selichot, chanted during the month before the Jewish New Year. I’ve always been haunted by my grandfather’s pleading and beautiful voice singing these prayers. I wanted to connect with him and this music, and so this is how Monajat was conceived!
Q: You come from a family of chazzans. How has your family legacy inspired your music?
I am grateful to have such a rich musical legacy. It is a little intimidating, I suppose, though; I mean, I kind of have a lot of chutzpah singing with my grandfather – one of the masters of Persian classical music – onstage, right? I am honored to attempt to continue this musical tradition.
Q: You’ve been on tour with this show for several weeks now. How is the tour going so far?
Really great. I am having fun – it’s very exciting, and scary, to share a brand-new work with audiences, and I’m so thrilled with the reception that the show has gotten so far.
Monajat is based on Selichot. Do you see the performance of Monajat as ritual itself?
I do see it as a ritual – my own artistic rendering of the ritual of Selichot.
Q: Your last project, The Naming, had an explicit feminist message. Is there a feminist message in Monajat?
In The Naming, I delved into some of the female characters in the Bible that I found interesting and made them relevant to how I understand the world – sometimes juxtaposing their stories with some of my family’s own. I don’t think there was an explicit feminist message, but I was definitely trying to challenge stereotypes – about the Middle East and Judaism as much as about women.
I am happy to be able to continue the family tradition of Persian music, and I am the first woman in my family to do that. Monajat is about me continuing a tradition in my own way.
Q: Monajat is multimedia piece. How does the video work with the music? What’s your interest in multimedia collaborations?
Frankly, I love the work of Dmitry Kmelnitsky, so I was excited to find another opportunity to work with him. But, truly, the idea of the video in Monajat was to make the ritual feel more immersive – so audience members would feel enveloped in it – less like spectators and more like participants. The feedback has been really positive from audience members. The video artist is VJing live, so it is particularly exciting.
Q: There is a burgeoning interest in piyutim in contemporary Israeli music. Tell me about this movement. Do you see Monajat as an extension or in conversation with that trend?
The piyyut craze occurring in Israel right now was a big piece of my doctoral dissertation research conducted in 2003-2004. Jewish Israelis of all levels of observance are connecting to these sung religious poems piyutim. There used to be a much bigger divide between those who identified as “religious” and those who identified as “secular” in Israel, but you see secular, religious, young, old, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi Israelis suddenly signing up to take classes to learn to sing these piyutim. Many secular Israeli rock stars have recorded their own renditions, and some have hit the top of the musical charts in Israel. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
As a researcher, I, too, was influenced by this scene as I learned of the great artistic merit of many piyutim – particularly those that were composed in the Middle Ages. So, I myself did some research on piyutim that seemed relevant to the aspects of Selichot that most resonate for me – themes of rebirth, self-reflection, starting afresh, changing of seasons – and composed music to some of these incredible poems and brought them into the Selichot ritual.
So, yes, I do think that Monajat is in dialogue with what is occurring in Israel.
For tickets to the show click here.
To read bonus questions click here.