Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Ancient prayers for modern times: Ariana Vafadari

Further meets Persian-French opera singer Ariana Vafadari, who takes enigmatic Zoroastrian prayers from 3700 BC and transforms them into haunting operatic pieces that speak to 21st-century festival goers.

As a young girl, growing up in Iran, Ariana Vafadari would listen to her father singing the ancient philosophical poems, or “Gathas,” that lie at the center of one of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism. Years later, as a mezzo soprano opera singer in Paris, she sang these same Gathas to herself as she went through a personal crisis. Their transformative, healing effect convinced her to try singing these ancient mantras during the encores after her classical performances. Buoyed by the enthusiastic reception of her audience, Vafadari collaborated with traditional Occidental musicians to record and release her 2016 album, “Gathas, Songs My Father Taught Me.” Since then she has toured the world, performing her haunting renditions of the Gathas for audiences at the Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Burning Man, and the Bombay Beach Biennale—helping bridge the divide between classical concert halls, the new nomadic festival culture, and traditional Eastern musical traditions. Here, Vafadari speaks with Further about the potential of festival culture to fuse musical lineages and spark fruitful collaborations, and about the experience of singing alongside her ancestors.

How would you classify the music that you compose and perform?

I studied opera, I went to the conservatoire, and I have the skills for opera and occidental classical music. But I’m a half Iranian and half French, so after a few years I needed to express my Iranian side and I composed a program between Oriental music and Occidental music. It’s quite a selfish project, because I just had the musicians I love around me and the instruments—I love the oud, double bass, sometimes we have the piano and percussion. So it’s really something that helped me connect these two parts of myself, to express myself fully.
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Would you describe what you do as musical fusion?

Yes, exactly. Classical music inspired me when I wrote the music for the Gathas of course. I love it and I can’t deny it. And my voice is an opera voice. It’s something I have tried to change sometimes, but it doesn’t work. It’s always there. And then I wrote the music using the Macam, the Oriental scale. And so we have these two worlds gathering and being able to express and speak with one another.

Can you tell me about the Gathas, and how they became important to your work?

The Gathas mean the chants, the singing. They were the songs of Zarathusthra, which is the community I belong to in Iran. We are Zoroastrian, and Zarathusthra is a Mantran, the man who says the mantra. These Gathas are the eldest poems of the Zoroastrians that we believe come from the mouth of Zarathusthra. At first when I sang them, I realized that I would feel so good, it cured me totally. So I would sing them a little bit in my programs and people would say, “Oh, this is strange, but we like it.” And then they became more and more important and I realized these are mantras—that’s why they cure me and make people feel good. So I started this program, performing with musicians from different backgrounds. I try to bring Iranian music and opera together and improvise. And I’m also writing my second program, which is called, “Anahita,” after the deity of femininity and water. We will have a big tour in 2020, throughout the States, India, and France. And we had a previous avant-première, where we sang it in Oslo and at the Bombay Beach Biennale, the festival in California. It was on this lake that is dying. And so it’s about finding your routes and going back to this strong spirituality, femininity, and finding water again.

“As a musician, the world that you don’t see is more powerful than what we see.”

Are you trying to preserve classical music traditions?

Yes, I hope so. I’m working with a very good musician, Issa Murad, an oud player. He learned classical oriental music at a very high level. He’s a master in oud. So he can feel free to do other things within the music. But then he has this knowledge and he comes back to the classical music all the time, the same as me. It’s not easy. I don’t know if I’m doing it right, but we’re trying to preserve the tradition of classical music and open it and make it new. And I imagine the boundary is not easy to find, and one needs to be careful not to go too far, but that’s what we are trying.

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Why is it important to bring different musical traditions together?

I think the danger is that it’s the same public going to these very nice halls and dressing up very nicely, and you have to be quiet and concentrate. And that scares many people and that’s normal. So bringing this music out of these places, letting people talk, dance, get out, get in, is very important because it brings a new audience to this music. And that’s very important to me.

How receptive is the current audience?

Well, as an opera singer, I was always sure that everybody loves opera—they just don’t realize it. I don’t know if I’m right, but the way to make people like it is to take it to a new audience and not to have a three-hour opera. Sometimes people in places like this will listen a little bit and then get used to it, and then the next time they like it more and ask for more. It’s just like I’m sure that everybody loves electronic music. When music is good and emotional, it touches you. So it can be Oriental, Occidental, it depends on your own story. But I think that inside, everybody loves traditional music and they love dancing. So by putting them together, we bring a new audience to these different categories of music.

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“We’re trying to preserve the tradition of classical music and open it and make it new.”

How has playing the festival circuit effected your work as an artist?

I meet new people, encounter new music that I’ve had never had the chance to work with, I work with DJs. It’s not the conditions and work that we know—with that same concentration—but once you just let yourself go and trust the situation, then it’s really fantastic living in this new world of music. For example, in Occidental classical music we work on “Partition”—sheet music you say. And we’re skilled at being very precise. And while we learn a lot—being able to then work with someone that has totally different skill and improvising is new for me. It’s been totally new. And I think it’s another way of being an artist and we should do this more this. Each genre of musicians learns music in their own way and then working together opens a new world for everyone.

Do you see music as a catalyst?

For me it’s a question of living music. I used to study math and I wanted to be mathematician. And then at that point I thought that half of my body and emotion are dying, that I need music. As a musician, the world that you don’t see is more powerful than what we see. When I sing, I’m with my ancestors. It’s my story, I’m speaking with something that I don’t even understand myself, but I feel the vibrations. When I have all these emotions onstage, it’s totally true—and I can see in the eyes of the public, that this emotion is there too. So for me, it’s something really powerful to share. We all have the same stories. We have fear, we have anger, we have joy—and music can be a fantastic way to share this.