october 2009
border crossings

Video of ‘Silent Song,’ Mighty Sam McClain and Mahsa Vahdat, produced by Erik Hillestad. (Click on control bar to start play.)

Silent No More

United by their countries’ tortured civil rights histories, a mighty American soul master and a lioness of Persian music meet a Norwegian human rights activist/producer, and sing a song of freedom. Welcome to the most vital pairing in the multicultural world.

By David McGee

The music hums, building softly at the start. At the seven-second mark, a man’s voice, plaintive but assertive, sings one word sharply: “Silence.” The elegant, dark-haired woman next to him at her own microphone echoes him, not with a word of her own, but with a haunting, mournful wail, distinctly Persian in feel.

“Talkin’ ‘about silence,” he answers.

Her wordless cry intensifies, soars, and alights with a gentle sigh, as the music continues its low, woodwind hum.

“Silence. Longing. And empti-ne-ess,” he cries.

She cries after him.

“I’m so lonely,” he moans. “Lord, I’m so lone-lee-ee,” he adds in a bluesy fillip.

Her piercing lament shadows his voice, and in her pained expression, in her undulating hand waves, in her swaying torso movements she evokes the intensely emotional components that are the sine qua non of modern classical Persian dance, which emphasizes feeling over movement and is rooted in a tradition dating back to the 18th Century.

“Come to me, oh my love, come to me!”

She moans.

“Set me free! Set me free!”

A soft, lolling cry returns to him. In her music, improvisation is the foundation of the art, and the singer must determine the proper mood and which Persian dastgah (or mode, loosely translated) is best suited for each song. She sings/chants against a backdrop of wind-based instruments, appropriate to the Persian classical style.

“Come to me! Oh, my love, come to me! Set me free! Set me free!

When she finishes, the music eases into a quiet storm soul groove, keyed by subdued, rolling piano figures and soft percussive elements.

“There’s a silence, a hush in the air, filled with longing emptiness/it’s loaded with light…there’s a poem inside of my chest, filled with yet unspoken words/beauty from flowers and from stars—“

A rush of woodwinds…

“There’s a silent song in the prison of my secrets/never sleeping, always waiting to be heard/looking for a moment to be born and nursed/like a child, like a child…”

She returns, strong, assertive, echoing in Farsi his English as the music surges forward and the tension releases.

A kingdom of memories and hope…

It continues, ending at slightly under seven minutes, a most remarkable journey, deeply moving and spiritually uplifting, the souls of two seemingly strange bedfellows rising as one. It sounds, early on, like a love song, but the longer it continues the more evident it becomes that the freedom it cries out for comes in the voice of every oppressed individual, and the love it seeks and expresses is the love of liberty for all.

’They are born from the friction between pain and hope in a struggle,’ says producer Erik Hillestad, who brought the Mighty Sam McClain and Mahsa Vahdat together for ‘Silent Song’ and the Scent of Reunion album. ‘Both of these cultures have suffered a lot—the culture of the black American has suffered a lot, and all of their music is coming from this very desperate friction, this longing, this desperate longing for freedom. Mahsa is a woman who cannot sing in her homeland because her voice is banned. So she’s doing something illegal; all her music from childhood has been banned, and you can hear it in her voice, how she’s crying out this pain it has created in her.’

Thus the pairing of Mighty Sam McClain, an American soul master, and Mahsa Vahdat, one of Iran’s most prominent and outspoken female vocalists (in a land where women are forbidden to sing in public or at public events). They are produced by Erik Hillestad, a Norwegian producer/songwriter, who wrote “Silent Song” (or rather the poem set to music as “Silent Song”) and is the son of a priest and hymn writer (Olaf Hillestad) and grandson of one of his country’s best known hymn writers, Sigvart Engeset. In addition to his musical endeavors, Hillestad is a human rights activist who has forged partnerships with artists in other countries in order to promote, on a global scale, freedom from oppression. He first reached out to Ms. Vahdat in 2004, enlisting her to appear with other artists on a compilation album with the priceless title, Love Songs From the Axis of Evil. Through his kkv company’s American distributor he found Mighty Sam McClain, a physically imposing, gregarious, Monroe, Louisiana-born soul-blues-gospel singer whose path has brought him to the stage of the Apollo Theater, to a Grammy nomination and to the very lowest rung in American society, when he was homeless and selling his blood to put a few bucks in his pocket. Now married and living in New Hampshire, McClain manages his own career. He has 10 albums in his catalogue (including the forthcoming Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey), and a rabid following in Europe and Asia, where they know a mighty man when they see one. Stateside, his reputation is growing, too, helped in part of late by his appearance in an unlikely duet with Jon Bon Jovi on Give Us Your Poor, an album to benefit the homeless.

Beginning her professional career in 1995, Mahsa Vahdat, a resident of Tehran, graduated with a music degree from Art University in 1999, the same year she made her first European tour of Germany, the Netherlands and England; while in London she appeared at the Rhythm Festival. In addition to traditional Iranian songs, she performs original material written by her husband, Atabak Elysasi, and sometimes performs concerts (private in Iran, public outside the country) with her sister Marjan. Through Hillestad’s company she has released two solo albums, the live Songs From the Persian Garden (which features arrangements by Knut Reiersrud, one of Hillestad’s regular musicians who also appears on “Silent Song” and the album it appears on, Scent of Reunion: Love Songs Across Civilizations), and I Am Eve, featuring her sister and her husband’s songs and arrangements.

“Silent Song” springs from Hillestad’s and Ms. Vahdat’s work on Lullabies From the Axis of Evil. That project introduced Hillestad to Persian poetry and, more important, to the Iranian poet and visual artist, Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari.

“I am a poet myself,” Hillestad said by phone from Oslo, where he was in the company of McClain and Ms. Vahdat on a promo tour in support of Scent of Reunion. “I am writing poems and texts for songs. I showed Jafari some of my poems, which I wrote after some inspiration from Persian poetry, and he got very interested. We decided to make a kind of poetic dialogue together, so I sent him some of my poems and he reflected by answering in his way with his poem on the same topic. And this was the start of the project. Then we decided to make a record of love duets from the West and East. It developed slowly. We involved the people in the band in Norway, including Knut Reiersrud, with whom I’ve been working for a long time. He started to write melodies to some of my poems, together with a couple of his friends, and Mahsa found melodies for the poems of Jafari, and we merged them together, made arrangements, and finally we involved Mighty Sam McClain because we wanted a voice that really could carry the life. And he really carries a life in his voice. I’m so honored that he wanted to sing these poems of mine.”

So how did an American soul singer and a traditional Iranian vocalist find common ground to fuse their styles? Shared histories, a world apart, drew them together.

“When I met Sam and we heard about each other’s life stories, about the kind of society he was in and the kind of society that I was in, we carried the same things in our music,” Ms. Vahdat says. “For example, the pain, the sorrow, and the hope and the aspiration—all of the things we carry together in the same way. I discovered many things, and how we could easily sing together. I discovered how the human heart is really one entity and it can sing and chant and love in a very similar way. Also, the way we live in two different countries that are regarded as enemies, so that there is no political relations between these two countries, made it so precious, really, that I could go to his home town and sing with him.”

(By “go to his home town,” Ms. Vahdat is referring to some of the recording sessions for Scent of Reunion, which took place in studios in Kulturkirken Jakob in Oslo, in Fin Studio in Teheran and at Cedarhouse Studio in New Hampshire.)

For his part, Mighty Sam says his connection with Ms. Vahdat was through the heart—“I follow my heart,” he states. He admits that at first the music for “Silent Song” threw him—“I really couldn’t hear it”—but when she sang, he understood from experience what he was hearing.

“I could hear the pain in Mahsa’s voice,” he explains. “That’s what was happening with Mahsa, her voice was just crying—it was screaming. It was screaming to my heart, man. At first I didn’t understand what she was saying because I didn’t have the lyrics, but I could feel. I could feel. And if you know anything about me, you know I’m a deep believer in God, and I just believe God put this project together. I thought we were going to have a communication problem because she’s speaking in Farsi and I’m speaking in English. I thought that was going to be a problem for us, but it was not! We had no problem at all. The minute we said hello and hugged, it was like we had known each other all along. It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever been involved in, quite frankly. When the session was over I got in my car and I cried. I realized then that it was much bigger than myself. It was such a wonderful experience; I’m so pleased and thankful that God has allowed me to be a part of it.”

For Ms. Vahdat, hearing Mighty Sam sing before she even met him was a turning point in her decision to jump fully into the album project. Hearing his recording of “Why Do We Have to Say Goodbye,” from Sam’s One More Bridge to Cross album, sealed the deal. “I fell in love with that song, the warm and soulful way of his musical expression. I feel so comfortable to sing with him. And when we saw each other and we found our dialogue, our stories, we sang so easily together. Not complicated, really. For example, some people say, ‘Your techniques are different,’ but really, I didn’t think about these things—just about the soul and emotion and feeling that was in his voice. I was really amazed by it.”

Poet/producer/human rights activisit Erik Hillestad: ‘Two oppressed cultures are meeting, and their music is colored by this. It makes it more natural and easy to meet on this level.’

“The music itself paved the way for this,” Hillestad says of the camaraderie between Mighty Sam and Ms. Vahdat. “You go with the flow of the music and things happen on the basis of the music. It’s not constructed; it’s very heartfelt, all of it. It’s coming from the heart, the whole thing. It’s much easier to do than we could imagine. I think—this is an important thing—the deep reason for this is the background of Mighty Sam, and his music and his style, which also was adopted by these Norwegian blues musicians I use. And the background of Mahsa has something in common with his. They are born from the friction between pain and hope in a struggle. Both of these cultures have suffered a lot—the culture of the black American has suffered a lot, and all of their music is coming from this very desperate friction, this longing, this desperate longing for freedom. Mahsa is a woman who cannot sing in her homeland because her voice is banned. So she’s doing something illegal; all her music from childhood has been banned, and you can hear it in her voice, how she’s crying out this pain it has created in her. And also, the oppression of women in that country is so important as background. So two oppressed cultures are meeting, and their music is colored by this. It makes it more natural and easy to meet on this level.”

To the suggestion that what seems a love song at the start goes to a whole other level and meaning as the song unfolds, HIllestad agrees, explaining that this happens because Mighty Sam improvised on Hillestad’s written lyrics, and Ms. Vahdat, whose native music is based on improvisation, was able to respond in kind to what the American singer was crafting on the spur of the moment.

“From my perspective it was a love song, a man-woman related love song,” Hillestad admits. “But how Sam sang it, and how he improvised at the start and at the end, made it his own in a way that lifted my text to a higher level, I think, making it not only a love song but a song for freedom. He really did a fantastic performance of it. Stunning.”

Ms. Vahdat agrees, noting the similarities between Mighty Sam’s approach and the music she knows best from her native land. “The thing that was very important was the improvisation Sam did. Iranian/Persian music is sometimes based on improvisation. Of course we rehearsed, but many things happened in the moment. The music is so dependent on everything—the beautiful studio, the nature outside, we were both inspired by that and by each other, the way we sang. It’s a very common thing in Persian music, the Persian way of singing, the kind of music that Sam carries.”

Scenes from Sohrab Aarabi’s funeral: ‘My heart wanted to do something, some very small thing, to comfort myself over the blood of these people who were killed,’ Mahsa Vahdat explains of ‘Silent Song.’ ‘So I dedicated the song to these two symbols—Sohrab and Neda—and of course all the people in Iran who really had their dream for freedom and their basic rights killed.’

For Ms. Vahdat, her work as an artist is now done against the backdrop of upheaval and turmoil in Iran following the June protests against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during which the world watched the Revolutionary Guard and hired thugs assault the thousands who marched in the streets of Tehran demanding a new election and freedom from the theocracy’s oppression. One who lost her life in those protests, Neda Agha-Soltan, became an international symbol of the movement. Ms. Vahdat dedicates “Silent Song” to her and to another fallen protester, less well known, Sohrab Aarabi, a 19-year-old student who disappeared on June 15 during the protests only to be returned to his family as a corpse on June 19 by Iranian authorities, who demanded his funeral be held in silence and warned further that any acts of protest would lead to more arrests and more grief for the young man’s family. In defiance of these orders, though, funeral mourners chanted “God is great,” carried placards reading, “My martyred brother, I will take back your vote” and flashed the peace sign with their upraised hands as they marched. The silence demanded by authorities became a watchword for the movement as a whole, and “Silent Song” is meant in part as a tribute to those whose voices would not be stilled by tyranny.

“There were a lot of Nedas who were killed, a lot of Sohrabs who were killed in this demonstration,” Ms. Vahdat points out. “I was really touched, it was a very moving story about her and the world mourned for her. My heart wanted to do something, some very small thing, to comfort myself over the blood of these people who were killed. So I dedicated the song to these two symbols and of course all the people in Iran who really had their dream for freedom and their basic rights killed. I asked Sam and Erik if they were okay with this, and they liked the idea of dedicating it to them. We recoded ‘Silent Song’ before all the demonstrations and all these things that happened. Then, the main word of all the demonstrations in Iran was ‘Silence,’ the slogan of Iranian movement for freedom. Really, this silence was full of many, many untold things. I wanted to dedicate the song to these two people, because the poetry is so relevant, and so hopeful, also.”

Mighty Sam supports Ms. Vahdat’s interpretation of “Silent Song” as a message of hope—especially since the song was not originally titled “Silent Song” until he began improvising lyrics when the music started. But now that it has become what it is, he looks back and sees a larger purpose for it, and a stronger hand than any mere mortal’s guiding the artists and their producer.

Mighty Sam McClain:‘This project is bigger than us; God put this project together because it’s time. It’s time for all of us to come together, all countries, all people. We have to if we want to survive.’

“’Silent Song’ was not ‘Silent Song’ at first—it was titled something else. What made it become ‘Silent Song’ was, when we were recording it, the first time it came on, I sang, ‘Silence! Silence!’ I didn’t plan that. So when Erik and Mahsa got back to Norway, they wrote me and asked me, would I mind if they changed the title of the song to ‘Silent Song,’ because silence was a part of the movement over there in Iran. And I didn’t plan that, it just happened that way. That’s why I know this is much bigger than all of us. We just got through doing a TV interview a minute ago, and when it was done I threw up the peace sign, and Masha said, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ I didn’t have no idea that that was so meaningful to them over there, but those are the kinds of things that were happening.

“This project is bigger than us; God put this project together because it’s time. It’s time for all of us to come together, all countries, all people. We have to if we want to survive. That’s part of my whole message in my music. If you’ve heard any of my music, you would hear the same kind of message about hope, love, pain, reality. That’s my message. If we want to make the world a better place, it starts right here. Individually, man. I feel like this is a project that God has put here before me and I’m just honored to be part of it.”



Grigore Lese: My Favorite Romanian Traditional Singer

by Mirela D.

"If man would not sing, his soul would die," says Grigore Lese.

This is a philosophy of life. With a voice pure and unique, Grigore Lese impresses by giving himself intensely to his music.

I discovered Grigore Lese songs a long time ago. When I first heard his famous song, "Canta cucu bata-l vina," I wanted to listen again and again. I felt attached to his strong voice.

That voice embraces and communicates diverse feelings. When I hear one of his songs, I hear expressions of pain, a sense of deep and pure love between ancient peoples, and patriotic feelings. His voice reminds me of all the values I cherish in this life.

Here in Romania, it is said that only old people listen to traditional songs, but I don't agree. I am young and I appreciate my country's traditional music. I believe the songs of our ancestors had both purity and innocence, expressed healthy thoughts and an admirable philosophy of life-in this world it's difficult to find these things.

Grigore Lese, Cântec despre Bucovina/Song about Bukovina

Through these songs we relive an older time, we revisit the authentic folklore of our country, we mark important events in our lives. Grigore Lese's songs evolve from our history, and tell us about ancient ways. Many of his songs are about soldiers—Soldier's Song" Cantec de catanie," "Scrisoare de pe front," "Mama inima mi-i arsa"—and describe the feeling the fighting man has when he is called to defend his country, leaving his loved ones behind.

Grigore Lese, the beautiful O moarte, ce ti-as plati

As our premier interpreter of traditional music, Grigore Lese is the only artist who has acquired Romanian Summa cum laude with the title of Doctor of Music, on 23 October 2003, at the Academy of Music "Gheorghe Dima" in Cluj-Napoca. Summa cum laude is a pinnacle of achievement accorded only a few Romanian personalities, such as Gheorghe Zamfir.

Grigore Lese's songs and his unique voice make me proud to be Romanian.

If you want to read more about this talented artist and researcher, Grigore Lese, here's a useful link: http://www.spiritromanesc.go.ro/Grigore%20Lese%20_engl.html

Grigore Lese, "trimas-o imparatu carte"

Romania correspondent Mirela D. can be reached via email at mirelabica@yahoo.com.






"What is the singing? The singing is a necessity. If man doesn't sing he dies. It is a grace, it is a transcendental custom, it is a chance from God. The most beautiful lines ever spoken about music are the following: "It is a blessing that I know how to sing, for I am quiet in my heart."

“What's the difference between the Romanian traditional music and gypsylike fiddle music? Romanian music expresses a certain feeling: of love, of longing, of alienation, of sorrow. The suburban music voices a sensual exaltation. The peasant would sing in order to voice a feeling, the fiddlers are doing it for money. Some serve the folklore, others benefit by it.”

“On the earth we have two chances: the faith and the art."


“His concerts might be characterized by sobriety, a sobriety characteristic of our traditional music. Above all, Grigore Lese in concert creates an image of longing, an image of the former anonymous Romanian peasant, and an atmosphere that will awaken and stir listeners to the deepest feelings. His song resists time; his song might be put beside any of the great masterpieces of the world, as proof of a God whose grace gifts a nation with a creative calling.”

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
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