Habibi Fuses Farsi Lyrics With Western Riffs

Mar 18, 2018
Originally published on March 23, 2018 8:21 pm

The Arabic word habibi means "my love," an apt descriptor for Rahill Jamalifard's feelings about her Iranian upbringing and the music she creates. Jamalifard is the frontwoman for Habibi, the Brooklyn-based band that mixes Detroit garage rock with girl group harmonies and surf guitar. The band's newest EP, Cardamom Garden, houses lyrics that move seamlessly between English and Farsi.

Cardamom Garden's lead single, "Nedayeh Bahar," translates to "song of spring." It's a subtle nod to the EP's eve-of-spring release. Jamalifard says the spring season is culturally significant for Iran. The vernal equinox marks not only the arrival of spring, but Nowruz, the first day of the new year in the Iranian calendar.

Jamalifard was born in Michigan to parents that immigrated from Iran before the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970's. In addition to the traditional Iranian music her parents played for her, Jamalifard also loved to listen to Middle Eastern psychedelic rock from the '70s, created at a time when rock was taking off internationally. She remembers her fascination with the sound that came from Middle Eastern minor scales and Western rock riffs.

"It was cool because they were singing my mother's tongue, but in such a hip way," Jamalifard says.

Jamalifard practiced Farsi during summers spent visiting family across Iran, an experience that several of her Iranian friends were denied in favor of assimilation.

"I come from a place where differences were really celebrated," Jamalifard explains. "A lot of my Iranian friends weren't really allowed to witness their culture. Their parents, out of fear of prejudice and racism, wanted to keep that from them."

Today, Jamalifard is thankful that she can consult her parents when she's writing lyrics, laughing that her father has become a dictionary for her. Her bandmates don't speak Farsi, but that doesn't stop them from playing Jamalifard's music passionately.

"Even if it's foreign, it can still hit you just as much as a song sung in your native tongue," Jamalifard says.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Take one part Detroit garage band. Add a bit of girl group pop and surf guitar. And throw in some Middle Eastern melodies while you're at it. The concoction you've created is called Habibi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEDAYEH BAHAR")

HABIBI: (Singing) Where we go we'll always be somewhere close to misery.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That song is "Nedayeh Bahar," the lead single from Habibi's new EP, Cardamom Garden. Habibi is a five woman band based in Brooklyn. Their lead singer is Rahill Jamalifard. And she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

RAHILL JAMALIFARD: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nedayeh bahar is, of course, Farsi. What does it mean?

JAMALIFARD: It means the song of spring.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And why did you include that?

JAMALIFARD: It was sort of the timing. We knew it was coming out now, which is like on the eve of spring. And spring has a lot of significance in my culture. It's our new year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me a little bit about your Iranian roots.

JAMALIFARD: I was born in Michigan. My parents are both from Iran, and they both moved here a little pre-revolution. So I'm just kind of a compromise of our Midwest roots but from the Far East, I guess.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this sort of mash-up of different musical genres has a precedent. Middle Eastern psych music from the 1970s - tell us about that genre.

JAMALIFARD: It was a very, very cool, weird thing that happened - kind of like a strange phenomenon of like, you know, at a time where like rock was really taking off internationally. And I think that it inspired a lot of Iranians, Turks, Middle Eastern and the like in that they wanted to adapt that to their contemporary music, as well. And so these incredible songs came from it because it was, like, the minor scales with these, like, you know, rock songs, rock riffs created such a cool sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAROONA")

KOUROSH YAGHMAEI: (Singing in Farsi).

JAMALIFARD: They're so groovy. And it was cool because they were singing, like, my mother's tongue but in such a hip way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you grow up speaking Farsi?

JAMALIFARD: It was, like, not demanded, but we definitely had like - we call it Fenglisi (ph), which is like a mix. So our parents would speak to us in Farsi. We would answer in English.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like Spanglish. Spanish and English.

JAMALIFARD: Right. Exactly. Exactly. But I think a lot of keeping the practice of speaking Farsi didn't really come from in the house. It came more from visiting Iran when I was young.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about that.

JAMALIFARD: So I just spent a lot of my summers, full summers, every other year going back and going in between my parents' cities basically and visiting our families.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do Iranians think of your music from Iran?

JAMALIFARD: Well, I think it's super interesting to them.

(LAUGHTER)

JAMALIFARD: I think they think it's so strange because they're like, first of all, why do you, who are an American citizen, American-born, like older Iranian music? They're all like, oh, like rock music - Led Zeppelin or, like, Metallica, you know? And I think they think it's great. And I think that they're, like, proud.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's another tune sung in Farsi on your EP, but this one is a cover of a '60s garage tune called "Green Fuz" by Randy Alvey and the Green Fuz, and it was later covered by The Cramps. This is truly when I think worlds collide.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN FUZ")

HABIBI: (Singing in Farsi).

JAMALIFARD: It's so funny. My father has become like my dictionary. You know, I call him up, and I'm like, Dad, I'm thinking about this. How does it sound? And then he'll, like, grammatically correct me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So he does - he helps you do the lyrics in Farsi.

JAMALIFARD: Oh, totally. He totally does. Like, shout out to my dad, because he loves NPR so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hey, dad.

JAMALIFARD: And he was so proud of us. It was the one thing he like - I'm like, I'm in the New Yorker, they're like what's that? I'm like, oh my God. ok.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN FUZ")

HABIBI: (Singing in Farsi).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you hope people get out of it - I mean your sound and the sort of message behind the sound?

JAMALIFARD: I think that I come from a place where differences were really celebrated. And I've since been met with discouragement of differences. Just growing up particularly, like, a child of immigrants, there are some cultures, even a lot of my Iranian friends - they weren't really allowed to, like, witness their culture. Their parents, like, out of fear of, like, prejudice - they wanted to keep that from them. So a lot of my friends don't speak Farsi, who are also first generation. A lot of my friends never went back to Iran, so they have this separation. And it really breaks my heart because it's such a beautiful culture to be shared. And especially the music from there is so beautiful. And I just want to promote the influence of different cultures through music and how, even if it's foreign, it can still hit you just as much as a song sung in your, like, native tongue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rahill Jamalifard is lead singer for Habibi. Their new EP is called "Cardamom Garden." Thanks so much for being with us.

JAMALIFARD: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KHODAYA")

HABIBI: (Singing in Farsi). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.