Bringing Everything to the Table: Israeli Pop Icon Rita Turns Persian Family Heirlooms into Jubilant Calls for Peace and Celebration on My Joys

Israeli star comes to the U.S., Mexico, and Canada with new album and with a stunning live program, November 2012

Some artists take great risks, challenging political and cultural assertions, while still managing to bring audiences joyfully to their feet.

Rita, Israel’s foremost pop voice, has done just that on her latest album, My Joys (2012). The dynamic and sultry singer has made a quiet statement against saber-rattling bluster and political oppression, bringing the distinctive pleasures of her Persian family’s songs and celebrations to life with striking, fresh arrangements. Her stirring, upbeat renditions of classic Persian songs in Hebrew and Farsi, though banned in Iran, are quietly being sold in underground music shops. Gratitude has poured in from Iranian fans, despite the risks involved.

Digging into her memory and experience, choosing songs she has hummed and treasured since childhood, Rita shows how Persian songs, reframed to reflect a lifetime of pop inventiveness and rock energy, can softly but firmly shift the conversation, in Iran and in Israel. And now Rita continues her gentle, joyful push for understanding, bringing her nine-piece, wildly diverse band to the U.S. in November, 2012, including concerts in Los Angeles, New York, Palo Alto, Miami, Mexico City, and DC. Rita will bring her star qualities—the charisma and intensity of a born performer, her Hebrew and English hits as well as her latest Persian works—to bear, backed by an ensemble playing everything from electric guitar and accordion to kamanche (Persian spike fiddle) and folk flutes.

“I grew up in a real mix of cultures and flavors, and I try to bring those songs and memories to the place I am now, as a strong woman who has passed through so many things,” Rita reflects. “I have the knowledge and strength to stay very true to myself, and from there, to fly with that. This is an amazing place to be as an artist. I am bringing everything to the table with this project, everything I’ve learned about music and emotion and happiness.”

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After struggling with a challenging personal crisis, Rita found herself in the studio, working on her next Hebrew-language album, a work that promised to be yet another hit for the seasoned star. Yet mid-stream, the classically trained vocalist, actress, and pop-chart fixture gave in.

She would shelve what she was working on. Instead, she was going to record her dream album. In Farsi.

Rita had come with her family to Israel from Tehran when she was only a girl, but she recalled both the vibrant childhood world of her life there, and the songs that came with her family to their new home. Rita’s musically gifted mother would play the frame drum and sing after Friday supper, and the whole family sang regularly for fun or at family events. The experiences came back to Rita as she felt her way forward, an experience listeners can grasp firsthand on tracks like the festive, earthy “Mobarak Baad,” which features Rita’s relatives.

“I was following my soul, but I didn’t know where it was leading me, where the fire and wind were going,” recalls Rita. “I found myself going through the records that my mother brought from Iran, taking out the albums she was always listening to when we were first immigrants here in Israel. The songs were so familiar to me. We sang them at home, at celebrations, at weddings. I was so connected with them that I started to collect those songs and rehearse them.”

Songs like the rollicking wedding song, “Shah Doomad,” a classic few have dared to cover in Iran since it was composed because of the song’s jazzy roots and risqué (by official Iranian standards) lyrics. Or the touching “Dar in Donya,” a song Rita always sang together with her favorite uncle, who stayed behind in Iran when her family emigrated.

Though she adored them, Rita had always hesitated to record these beloved songs, not sure how her trademark vocal style would blend with the more traditional Persian approach. But as she dove into the repertoire, she felt the right approach springing out of her. “I had to go back to a very innocent place to sing those songs,” Rita recalls. “It wasn’t that I tried; it just burst out like a child in me was singing.”

She also discovered the right sound to back her voice, effortlessly and joyfully. Rita had collaborated with Eastern music-inspired rockers The Mind Church (Knesiyat Hasekhel), who asked her to sing a song in Moroccan Arabic. Rita, in response, had showed them a Persian song. Their work together turned out so beautifully and flowed so naturally that she knew where to turn as she began to approach her heritage. (The Mind Church’s Ami Rice & Ran Almaliah produced My Joys.)

In addition to the rock stylings of the popular Israeli band, Rita drew together a diverse group of musicians, such as a kamanche (traditional Persian spike fiddle) performer born in Dagestan, Mark Eliyahu, and members of the hip Central Asian musical powerhouse, The Alaev Family. “The musicians are not Persian, but they are from all over the world. It’s like a little mini-Israel, all in a rehearsal room. I let them learn the songs and then I started to take the songs apart,” Rita explains.

The band adds just the right touch of distortion and drive to Rita’s passionate interpretation of “Beegharar,” or perfect moments of crystal-clear piano for torch-song touches on tracks like “Shane.” Bursts of nearly Balkan brass (“Shah Doomad”), dancing reeds, and sparkling struck and plucked strings propel Rita’s buoyant, engaging voice, bringing both rootsy, organic sounds and pop panache to the table in equal, clever measure. It’s a sound that proves equally powerful live.

“I wanted our versions to be completely different and not traditional in their sound, to hit hard and keep the energy up,” notes Rita. “We started to have so much fun in the studio. We were smiling and dancing, feeling like we’re really going through a remarkable journey together.” These good times translate into riveting live shows, and, slowly and softly, have begun to address the great divide between two countries, getting Iranian music fans to search out and thank the Israeli singer.

“Don’t send bombs,” Rita smiles, when thinking about the impact of her music in her former homeland. “Send me!”

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