Mahsa Vahdat, an Iranian musician who lives in exile in Berkeley, presented her new album, “Braids of Innocence,” at a launch party late last week at the former Socialist Party Hall in San Francisco’s Mission District.
“This has been a hub for liberation movements over time and in the last century,” said Erik Hillestad, the producer of the album and the event’s organizer. “A hidden place in the Mission District.”
The album’s title was personal and prescient, chosen before September, 2022, when Iran’s morality police arrested and then killed 22 year-old, Mahsa Amini, a move that triggered protests led by young women. The album was created in collaboration with SKRUK, a Norwegian choir celebrating its 50th anniversary, Atabak Elyasi, Vahdat’s husband, who is also a composer and poet, and Hillestad.
The album’s title comes from Vahdat’s memory of going with her mother to visit an uncle who was in prison for his political activism. Earlier in the day, her mother had woven her hair into braids, and during their visit, she lifted Vahdat’s scarf to show her uncle the multitude of ten braids. Later, his fellow political prisoners told him that seeing the braids had been a highlight of their day.
“Most of them ended up being executed,” Vahdat told the crowd of some 80 residents in the audience. While she spoke, the message “Women, life, freedom,” the slogan of the recent feminist revolution, remained on the television screen behind her. “This album’s songs resonate with what is going on in Iran these days,” she said..
By chance, braids became the revolution’s main symbol. Vahdat said that cutting hair has become a symbol of protest, but is also an old ritual in Iran associated with mourning.
“This album’s songs resonate with what is going on in Iran these days,” she said, adding that she hoped people elsewhere take inspiration from the movement in Iran.
For her part, Vahdat’s resistance started long ago, when she and her sister, Marjan, also a singer, started to sing in public, outside of Iran; after the Iranian Islamic revolution, women were banned from singing solo. Nearly ten years ago, the two recorded a song about hope on the rooftop of their house in 2014, and it went viral. Doing so broke several rules, including singing with no hijab and performing solo as women.
While both sisters continued to go back and forth to Tehran, it finally became untenable in 2019, and Vahdat moved to Berkeley while her younger sister lives in the Sacramento area.
“It was a moment of detachment from my beloved country, Iran,” said Vahdat. “I had lost my parents, and my husband had lost his job at the university due to ideological differences.”
Vadat poured her work into “Braids of Innocence.” “I needed a project to become excited about,” she said.
Elyasi, who taught composition at The University of Arts in Tehran, composes many of her songs and writes poems for others. Poems from Rumi, a Sufi mystic and poet who wrote in the 13th Century, and Mohammad Ibrahim Jafari, a poet and painter who died in 2018, are also included.
The two sisters love Iran, but plan to remain here for now. “We’ve always been fighting through our music, and we have always been suffering censorship,” said Marjan. “Now it’s just the climax of this struggle.”
“It makes me really proud of her for taking a stand, and for being a voice for women in the women’s revolution,” said a cousin, Aliakbar Toghyan, and his partner, Carrie Hobson, who attended the event.. “I think it’s also very indicative of her own career, as a woman singer in Iran who has faced so much hardship. And now, even though she lives in exile, she is still trying to be a voice for women in Iran.”
Ingeborg Mork Haaskjold, chair of the choir and an alto singer, said this last collaboration with Vahdat has been special in so many ways, starting with the music that was difficult to sing.
The album’s producer, Hillestad, says that it’s the perfect moment for the album to be launched. “We are in a situation where a decisive matter is happening in Iran, it’s really a moment of change.”
Hillestad first discovered the sisters when he toured the country that President George W. Bush referred to as part of the “axis of evil.”
He found the Vadhat sisters by chance, and says he was astounded by their talent. They became part of the album that he produced, “Lullabies from the Axis of Evil.”
Leslie Lai, the evening’s host, said that she enjoys having events to fill the space. “Especially those featuring local artists from San Francisco or the Bay Area, as well as events that support a cause, like this one, which is about freedom for women in Iran,” said Lai.
Although the album is not officially being sold, nor is it available for sale in Iran, its producer says that “It’s already played there a lot, through private VPNs and other hidden systems.”
“I hope my album gives strength to many people, as we are now in a very important phase of history. We just hope that soon we can have this concert in Iran.”
And that’s how Vahdat ended the night.
Full disclosure: Lydia Chávez, our executive editor, is a long-time friend of the Vahdat sisters.