Iran: Mahsa Vahdat – Singing in the absence of others

18 February 2002

Singing in the Absence of Others

The young musician and singer Mahsa Vahdat speaks with Naghmeh Taqizadeh from TehranAvenue about the challenges of being a woman in a society that has so many restrictions on female voice


By Naghmeh Taqizadeh –

Mahsa Vahdat is a young musician and singer who has worked with several Iranian musical groups including Germany-residing Majid Derakhshani’s Hamnava Ensemble and Tehran-based Irani Ensemble of Pejman Taheri. In 2001 she attended the Jahan-e Khusrau festival in Delhi with the Rumi Ensemble of Reza Abaee. She is a music graduate from Art University and is now working on some pieces composed by her husband, Atabak Elyasi.

In December 2002, TehranAvenue spoke to Vahdat about the challenges of being a woman in a society that has so many – tacit or blatant – restrictions on female voice. Women singers are banned from presenting their voice to the general public without the accompaniment of another singer. The interview was conducted in two sessions, first at the office of TehranAvenue and the second time at the home of Mahsa Vahdat in the company of her husband. Readers can also find samples reflecting the range of musical activities of Mrs. Vahdat in this page.

How did you come to music?

Mahsa Vahdat: When I started working the atmosphere was not suitable for musical performance. It was through the encouragement of my parents and my own passion that I continued. I was about 13 or 14 when I learned the basics of music from Minoo Mohebi and piano from Laleh Eqrabi. During this time I also learned the setar under Masoud Sho’ari. I graduated in Music from Art University in Tehran in 1999. All this time, I took part in student concerts and worked with music ensembles like Khonia (Pari Maleki), Khojasteh (Mrs. Dehlavi), and Hamnava (Majid Derakhshani).

How was it that in spite of knowing classical music you were lured towards Iranian music?

My personal tendency was always towards Iranian music but I must say that being familiar with classical music helped me a lot to understand Iranian music better and it was also helpful in my teaching and my singing teaching method. In fact I got into Iranian music through singing and then came choosing an Iranian instrument.

You performed several concerts with the Hamnava Ensemble of Mr. Derakhshani in 1999 in Germany. How did you arrange these concerts?

I met Majid Derakhshani through a relative in 1997. Two years later we decided to go on a European tour that took us to Germany, the Netherlands, and England with the Hamnava Ensemble. We also participated in the July 1999 Rhythm Festival in London.

How long have you been working as a professional singer?

You mean as in stage work?


I think since 1995. Well, I don’t remember exactly but it was about the same time that women were not allowed to perform in Culture Centers or places of this sort, and they mostly had to rent halls for concerts.

The thing that I’d like to find out is what changes you have observed during these years, either based on your own feelings or the atmosphere you’ve performed in.

Of course I’ve worked less than my other colleagues because I didn’t like the fact that I could only sing for women. But, for the sake of stage experience I agreed to do it, which turned out to be a good experience. And as for the emotional part, there is always the fear that the concert may get canceled, and if I did more work recently it’s only to set the grounds for more serious work to come.

How did the audience respond to your work?

It was really interesting, especially in concerts for women, because it was in the years that there were very few concerts and the attendance was high, but even concerts of choral singings were applauded and I got considerably inspired by it. In my opinion women have been really successful in their activities despite the limitations and pressures.

So, why are you reluctant to take part in festivals like Fajr and Gol-e Yas?

I am interested. But I believe that Fajr Festival is more like a show, nevertheless, if there were worthy occasions I’d surely take part in them. Most of the time, in special ceremonies, the quality of the work is ignored and mostly minor matters are in focus.

But don’t you think with this point of view you’ll lose opportunities to gain experience in your field?

I don’t know. But I haven’t come to this conclusion. Special festivals for women don’t inspire me.

What are the effects of the segregation imposed on women’ concert?

It is greatly influential, because when there is no solo performance, a singer cannot present her abilities.

No, I meant about the audience, like when you enter a hall full of women audiences, how do you feel?

In my opinion, it is hilarious and this method of restricting people and telling them that you can only sing for women is humiliating.

When you chose to start sing the society was much more restrictive, why did you choose singing in the field of music?

At that time I was very young and music mattered very much to me. My only aim was to work and I chose singing out of mere interest and my previous knowledge.

But the question is: when one knows that one cannot have an audience for one’s art, in this case your singing, what possible initiative is left to carry on?

I was never concerned with this matter and did not go on with the presentation of my art in mind.

From the point of view of someone who also teaches singing, what motivation is there to teach women when we know they cannot present their voices to the public?

Different people have different goals. One may sing to learn the styles, one may want to sing only for one’s friends, of course they are also those who are thinking of singing on the stage and ask me this question at the beginning of the classes.

And how do you respond to them?

In my opinion, this first of all depends on the person’s abilities and perseverance and then on the conditions the society provides her with in the future.

Have you, yourself, reached that point where you say I cannot stay at home anymore and have to get out here and present my art to move into a different level?

Yes, of course, especially after taking part in a couple of international concerts. I’ve become motivated to keep fit all the time for more stage experiences and this provided me with much initiative. Therefore I believe because there is not much opportunity for women to work publicly they should always be in their best shape and ready to perform.

If there were in reality a chance for women to sing in public how would things have been different?

See, women’s voice is actually like a color, it’s a kind of possibility and has its own special capabilities, omitting this voice is in reality eliminating a possibility and has caused the withering away of considerable talents. Also, the loss of women’s voice has harmed the Iranian music treasure.

How do you deal with despair related to your inability to perform in public?

Such a thing may happen in any artists’ life and may be caused by various factors. I face them with my own methods, which I won’t elaborate here. Enough to say that it is important to keep contact with the community of musicians. Anyhow, the main point is that we shouldn’t lose hope and stay prepared all time.

Tell us a bit about teaching singing in Iran.

Singing in Iran has always been taught heart to heart and has been transferred generation to generation and this method has actually worked so far. I personally did not have the opportunity to make use of the experience of other artists. If I had such a chance I may have arrived to a common result about them all their works and use it in my own classes. Of singer who are my favorites and have influenced my work immensely are Master Shajarian, legendary female singer Qamarolmolook Vaziri, master Banan, Abdolvahab Shahidi and Khansari. I try to elevate my own work by listening to them. Of course due to the fact that I also played classical instrument before, I try to prepare my students by creating the ability in them by preliminary exercises, what I call “preparing the larynx” before doing actual technical work and singing the radif. I usually assign them exercises in different intervals and then get down to the actual business. This is an empirical method I have thought of after working with different masters.

Is there a transcribed method for singing?

Unfortunately not. Well, I have seen some works but doing such a thing is probably only possible done by the likes of Mr. Shajarian.

How was working with the Irani Ensemble?

It was a thoroughly different experience. Even though I appeared as a “co-singer,” the identity of the female singer wasn’t overshadowed, as it usually does with women vocalists. The group worked together well. There was an accord between the music and the New Poetry lyrics. We had two performances at the Vahdat Hall in Tehran and four at the Asadi-Gorgani Hall in the city of Gorgan.

Now if there’ll be another opportunity for you to sing with another singer on a record, would you be interested?

Sure, I mean why not? But as you probably know [with the Irani Ensemble] the producer decided that with a woman singer the cassette would not sell well and it was decided that Alireza Eftekhari be chosen as the lead singer.

What do you think of the producer’s rationalization?

They think in commercial term and they insist on singers whose voices are already familiar to the general public. This is exactly the problem of imitators.

Of course I justify the matter in a totally different manner for myself, I’d say the permit for the cassette might face some obstacles and delay the production. The justification that with your voice the cassette would not sell well doesn’t sound logical.

Yes. And another matter is that the producer is not prepared to risk and wants to get the best result in the shortest time possible.

How do you feel about working with fusion bands?

I like working with fusion bands; for example, I’ve worked with Christophe Reza’ee and Reza Abaee, but this kind of music is deficult to define. It seems that some structural changes in music is necessary for the band to be called fusion. In this vein, I have also been vocalist for soundtracks of film and television series.


In your opinion why our first class traditional musicians like Shajarian, Alizadeh, and Lotfi, do not perform in our country anymore?

Because there are too many problems. For a performance we are anxious until the last moment and nothing is clear until the last minute. At a time one is young and full of energy to stand this amount of pressure but there will come a time when one reaches an understanding that it is not time for it anymore; otherwise, we all know that if these artists have performances the saloon will be full of audience in a wink.

Tell us a bit about what you are working on at the moment.

I did a piece with my husband. In short, this work has a different form and we’re planning on releasing it afterwards. My sister, Marjan, is also working with us on this project. She is a singer and has a few works to her credit.

How is the combination of instruments in this work?

Percussion is electronically sampled and Iranian instruments are played by musicians I have worked with before qeychak (Reza Abaee), ney (Amir Eslami), setar, and bass setar (Ali Razmi).

Finally, how do you see the future of singing for women in Iran?

Yes. I am very hopeful and, judging by the past few years, it is apparent that the conditions have improved remarkably and women themselves are to be praised for it.

* Marjan Vahdat track, Help the Children, is composed by Farhad Morafah

With permission from, this article is clipped from:

    Mahsa Vahdat
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