Rana Farhan grew up in Tehran, lives in New York, sings in Persian and English, sounds like Billie Holiday, adores blues and jazz, and is -- in almost every other way -- a unique cultural product of both her native Iran and her adopted country, the United States. No one else does what Farhan does on albums and in concerts: She combines the rich oral traditions of Persia with the rich oral traditions that originated in black, American culture. Farhan's sultry, hybridized song book, which she's performing on Sunday, September 29, at Yoshi's San Francisco, is a revelation to anyone who thinks they already know the full range of blues music.
Farhan's musical metamorphosis began in pre-Revolutionary Iran, when she began listening to Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, and other American singers whose voices seemed like musical avalanches. Where did these singers' expressiveness come from? Where did their passion originate? Farhan became fixated. She also compartamentalized, keeping the songs separate from her love of traditional Persian music. Like other Iranians, Farhan grew up hearing and reciting Persian poetry -- Hafez, Saadi, Rumi. The words of these poets are an integral part of Iranian culture. When these poems are accompanied by music, they become profound anthems of feeling and intellect. There's really no equivalent in U.S. culture except, maybe, the blues and soul music that Farhan recognized as being kindred in spirit.
"I grew up listening to Western music, to everything -- the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin -- and when I heard the blues, I was always wondering why Persian singers don't sing like that," Farhan says in a phone interview from New York before flying to the Bay Area. "I was interested in singing the blues in the Persian language."
So when Farhan immigrated to the United States in 1989, she set out to study the music in a way she never could in Iran. It took almost 20 years before Farhan felt she was ready to release a full-length album, but when The Blues Are Brewin' came out in 2005 she'd made her public leap of faith. Often collaborating with Steven Toub, a U.S. guitarist and producer, Farhan has since released a series of albums, including I Return, which features Farhan's best-known tune, "Drunk With Love." Now a popular song in Iran, where it's become a kind of pop standard that's sung on the Iranian version of American Idol, "Drunk With Love" brims with swagger, style, and a naked honesty. Its words, based on a poem by Rumi, describe an ecstatic encounter. Farhan sings the song in Persian, but in English -- in lyrics provided by Farhan -- the words are searing: