A Revolution in "Red Lips": NY-Born Iranian Sings of Truth, Love, War

08/06/2016 05:51 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2016
Kamalata - Founder of Apama Books & Records
Photo: Malek Naz Freidouni
Kamalata - Founder of Apama Books & Records
“You can’t forget Hiroshima, You can’t forget Nagasaki, You can’t forget who drops the bombs.” – Song “Agent Orange” from the album “Red Lips” by Kamalata

It’s that time of year.  Folks are talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Or ..... Are they?  August 6, 2016, marks 71 years since the US dropped the first of two nuclear weapons on civilian centers in Japan during talks with that country, making this the only nation in human history to launch a nuclear attack.  Something to sing about?

Kamalata thinks so. Newly released in CD, vinyl and digital on her own East Village label Apama Records, the nine-song debut album “Red Lips” is a sultry rock odyssey including themes she says are being ignored.

Envision an Amal Clooney who’s accessible, available, comprehensible, and eager to reach out ― to you.  Kamalata is that svelte international sophisto-chick who wants you to sit up and listen.  Her invitation to participate starts with a feathered caress and finishes with an arresting thrust.  (And slow down to get her name right.  Nothing to do with olives.)

The singer-songwriter and print publisher-hopeful describes the album as a “stance against war―the ongoing current imperialist wars and of course, the devastating one I grew up in as a child in Iran of the 1980s.”

She excoriates capitalism. “Not by shouting out that capitalism is bad but by singing about the social maladies induced by this system—what I have seen and experienced first hand: addiction, escapism, loneliness, the submission of one sex to another, the immigrant’s experience of nostalgia, and of course, love.”

Harkening to an era when “rock and roll spoke on Vietnam and race,” she laments, “now they’ve silenced everyone into doing nothing.”  The “they” to whom she refers in interview for this Huffington Post writing can be traced to the commercializers and commodifiers of art and culture, prompting her to sound the alarm for a new order of living ― what she calls a ‘superculture.’

In casual reference to the German existentialist philosopher, Kamalata wrote, “Nietzsche has his faults, but I like the idea of the Superman. ... I was looking forward to many an übermensch, but instead of rising out of the ashes of the 20th century wars to aim for a better world―a world where science is in every street and in every mind, where the fruits of our labor are distributed across the globe to provide clean food, air, housing and good education for all―we seem to be spiraling downward into unreason.”

That’s why there is Kamalata. “Because I don’t think the super(hu)man will be able to rise out of this Comedy Central culture,” she predicts.  “The Superman must be the product of a superculture.”

She offers a taste with the free download of her title track.

Album title and track come from the poem "Greater Love" by Wilfred Owen who died in WWI at 25, a week before the end of
Album art for Kamalata's "Red Lips" released July 2016
Album title and track come from the poem "Greater Love" by Wilfred Owen who died in WWI at 25, a week before the end of the war in 1918. "~Red lips are not so red
 ~As the stained stones kissed by the … dead.” The multilingual album delivers nine songs about standing up for beliefs, coming to terms with demons, embracing old age, and appreciating the 'here and now.'

Born in New York City, the professional language interpreter and DJ was trained in classical music and poetry growing up in Iran and Washington, DC, and has a degree in literature.  She is impassioned and inflamed to the point of re-casting herself in a new identity.  

“Kamalata” is a Sanskrit word (”Sarv” in Farsi) meaning cypress tree. For Iranians the cypress is a symbol of resilience and perseverance. 

“Kamalata is indeed alive only as a response to current events.  There is a war going on, several actually, the death toll of men, women and children from Afghanistan to Iraq and now Libya, Syria, Yemen....keeps rising and all I hear on the radio are juvenile narcissistic songs about girl you did this, boy you did this. I am shocked every time I get into a taxi to find an adult driver subjecting himself to the most mind-bogglingly inane cacophony. Fine if they’re not political songs...but then where are the songs about love?” Excerpt of email from Kamalata 13 July 2016 

The ranting romantic humbly refers to her “unofficial” music video for the album track “Dirty,” volunteering this sensually charged seduction on the topic of “complicated love” both as a free download and in visualized form.  Lyrics giveth and taketh away with lines like, “But don’t squeeze my hand too hard.  I like to take this walk by myself.

Giving the impression of a politically precocious twenty-something, she’s actually not.  She’s 36.  “Frankly I’m glad I’m making this music at the age of 36 and not at 18,” she attests. “Iranians celebrate age.  At 18 you’re more a student of the world.  I’m still a student, but now I’m a little more aware and sure of the things I thought were true at age 17.”

Inspired by the revered 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, she gloats, “A guy like Rumi was 60 years old when he was writing these things, not a teenager. White hair is celebrated in Iran. I have lots of white hair.”

Kamalata’s seasoned positions on world affairs are deeply rooted and long held. She isn’t new to disillusionment. What’s new is the expression to get it out there.

Memories of Iran

Being silenced is a big deal for the daughter of an Iranian prisoner of conscience.  As the school-aged Neda Zahraie, she spent great parts of her childhood playing with the children of other political prisoners in a detention facility waiting room.  Her mother never cried in front of her children.  In fact, she tried to make it fun for them, saving her tears for after putting the kids to bed.  Neda and her brother got music lessons.

During the war between her country and Iraq, Kamalata recalls stuffing pop music cassette tapes down her pants at a time when Iran allowed only Persian and Western classical music recordings.  Upon release from years of solitary confinement, her father turned her on to the Beatles, Supertramp, Fleetwood Mac and others, pausing to translate into Farsi, then interpreting the meanings behind “Strawberry Fields” and “Bungalow Bill,” she recounts. “Then I found his tapes of The Doors and got into that.”

Singing for her SuperCulture

Like other prophets, Kamalata is expecting a lot.  Some may say she’s a dreamer: She’s looking forward to a world that’s Facebook-free.  “The ability to look three meters outside of yourself is just vanishing,” she sighs.

With a note of incredulity but not despair, Kamalata references Rumi’s contemporary, the poet Saadi, in paraphrasing, “‘Hey buddy, a human being may be on the beach, but he cannot rest if his friends are drowning in the sea.’  And now this is literally happening, but everybody just seems to be having fun on the beach.”

She poses the question: “Can a superman come out of a culture that celebrates fame and plastic surgery?  That’s not how we’re going to find a cure for cancer or write the next book or learn how to have peace on earth.  We want love on earth.  When you look at New York, there’s very little love here.  It doesn’t look like it’s going to get better.  People are talking incessantly about start-ups, and so many are on drugs, from prescriptions to the stuff on the street.”

Malady and Prescription: It’s All in the Music

An emptiness is evident in today’s cultural output, Kamalata says.

“The words that are used in the majority of new songs are insulting to free thinking human beings.  The roles that both men and women are to play according to these songs are, at best, medieval,” she asserts.  “The formula keeps repeating: A few buttons pushed by a staff producer makes a hot new track. The boss man pre-purchases, makes it go platinum, gives airplay, gives awards to his own songs, and everyone nods and smiles.”

If it’s not the music industry, it’s the artists.  “Not one band or musician sang about the siege of Gaza.  Not one song was written about the invasion of Iraq.  Not one lyric about what we have done to the planet and to the world’s food supply,” she gauges.  “Maybe somebody did write a song about these things, but we sure didn’t hear it.”

Kamalata’s response is “Red Lips.”  Her next album, she says, will tackle issues of racism, racial profiling, police brutality and killings while employing novel soundscapes.  She has a song about what she deems “the nauseating state of confusion experienced by pretty much everyone [she knows and sees] in NYC.”

Confusion over everything from love to the purpose of government seems rampant to her, and music is a way forward.  One song in the works “pretty much narrows the options to a working class government,” she says.  Recurring themes will be education and hope.  

“Maybe I make these songs to just stay sane,” she muses.  “Maybe there will be an audience out there who’s thirsty just like me. ... We must stay strong, alive and relevant.”

Where it All Started

The incubator for Kamalata is Nublu, a club in New York’s East Village founded by Swedish-Turkish saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin.  Crediting all her recent musical developments to chance meetings there with musicians she knows, Kamalata says, “If he didn’t offer this platform for musicians in important bands and those better than me, the opportunity to know these artists would be lost.”

Frederik Rubens produced the album and co-wrote the songs with the exception of the cover “Hey Rita” by Chicago-based grunge band Local H.

Where it All Ends 

Spiritual evolution is the final word on Kamalata’s album with a dance track in the spirit of carpe diem.  From Rumi to Whitman, she says the ultimate message is to pay attention to the detail and expect nothing of life but what is “Here and Now” with that song’s refrain: 

  • There is no way here but one way 
  • There is no game no loss or shame 
  • No sin no win no twist no pain 
  • There is but one way to get here 

To Kamalata this sense of oneness with life and time is most truly expressed on the dance floor and by the close-knit global community coalesced by underground dance music. “This is the one place, where we are all the same, the rhythm is the ecstasy, and a place where we transcend all things ugly to arrive at ourselves and a higher feeling.”

Using transliterated Farsi, Kamalata quotes Rumi:

Hilat raha kon ashegha, divané sho divané sho
vangah biya ba asheghan hamkhané sho hamkhané sho


Let go of the game lover, go mad go mad!
Then come and live, with the lovers with the lovers.

Keeping her Zen attitude doesn’t mean languoring in the flow of time without intervention.  Kamalata is urgent.  Too informed for her own ignorant bliss, she is aware that the world is in a geopolitical moment that puts the human race in more dire risk of nuclear annihilation now than at any time since World War II.

“The thing that drives these songs is not an Iranian dilemma, it’s an American dilemma. It’s about the US dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Then what really bothers me is that nobody sees it that way.  This is the country that committed the most serious crime against humanity.  Iran has never been an aggressor.  It’s not doing things to other countries. But what you see in my lifetime is the US toppling governments, coups d’état, polluting the environment. It’s not Latin America doing it; not Iran.”

“Their claim is fear of a nuclear Iran. Of course they just want to control Iran. The whole world lives in fear. Someone should be putting the United States under embargo and demanding the immediate dismantling of its entire nuclear arsenal. Obviously we cannot trust what the US government does, from Argentina and Chile, Vietnam and Cambodia to Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s one big trail of blood wherever the US has cast its gaze.” 

Her stance is well buttressed by the oil industry economist John Chuckman in his expertly vetted op ed “Lurching Toward World War III.”  Perhaps Kamalata has arrived just in time.

Engagements

Following a successful record release party at Tropicalia in Washington, DC, Kamalata will perform the following engagements:

  • Album release concert for “Red Lips” August 19 at 9pm | Nublu 151 Avenue C, New York, NY
  • “SHE” Sept 29, Kamalata will be one of four performers at an event devoted to women thought leaders in NYC | House of Yes 2 Wyckoff Ave, Brooklyn, NY
Kamalata - Founder of Apama Books & Records
Photo: Malek Naz Freidouni
Kamalata - Founder of Apama Books & Records
Hiroshima, Japan, on the event of the annual <a href="http://visithiroshima.net/things_to_do/seasonal_events/summer/hiroshima
Screenshot from VisitHiroshima.net
Hiroshima, Japan, on the event of the annual Lantern Floating Ceremony on the Motoyasu River

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

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