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:
My lover became intoxicated, look at his eyes,
His stories are drunken, his speech is slurred,
Sometimes he falls this way, sometimes he falls that way,
These are the signs of one who is drunk,
His eyes drive everyone mad, but don't try to make me fear him,
Because I'm drunk and I fear no one, not even the nightstick.
"I felt with Rumi and Hafez, there was a blues aspect to them," Farhan says of the Medieval poets, whose work is as popular today as it was then. "I really believe their poetry was (in their day) combined with music, but we don't know exactly how it was done. I try to use the words and phrases from these masters because they had a simple way of talking, like about a lover -- almost like blues. It was very simple. They chose words that sound great. You feel it in your heart. It bridges right into the blues. Eventually, I could write my own blues."
As popular as Farhan is in Iran (satellite TV stations feature her work), she has not performed there as a singer. Driven by the country's clerical laws, women are not allowed to give pop concerts in Iran, especially not in front of mixed-gender audiences. In Iran's private residences, of course, it's another matter. And "Drunk With Love" was featured in the 2009 Iranian movie, No One Knows About Persian Cats, which dramatized Iran's underground music scene. In 2012, Farhan did perform in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates city that is a popular destination for Iranians.
"I wish to perform in Iran one of these days," Farhan says. "Right now, that's not possible. Women as lead singers are not allowed to have concerts. Maybe for women only it could be done. But I don't think I can have a regular concert there right now."
At her Yoshi's San Francisco concerts, Farhan will play with Toub and a quartet of Bay Area musicians: saxophonist Lincoln Adler, keyboardist Greg Sankovich, bassist Fred Randolph, and drummer Ross Gold. Farhan has performed at Yoshi's before, and she's a regular headliner at New York clubs. She calls her style of singing "Persian Blues," and the description attracts lots of curious music-goers. Farhan's intense voice and infectious performing style ensure that many of those people stay on as bona fide fans.
Rana Farhan performs at 7pm, Sunday, September 29, 2013 at Yoshi's San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit yoshis.com.