Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 25, 2011

Divahn: Interpretation of Sephardic Jewish Music & Poetry

Bowker Auditorium, UMass, Amherst, MA
March 24, 2011
by Justin Cohen

The Old Testament is generally not the first piece of literature to come to mind when discussing feminism. Singer Galeet Dardashti joked that the song Cuando El Rey Nimrod is "a feminist folk song, because it mentions that Abraham has a mother." The piece is sung in Ladino, a language derived from Hebrew and Old Spanish, spoken by the Sephardic Jewish people of ancient Spain. The five women of the group Divahn interpreted this ancient music with a modern feminist slant and an amalgam of musical traditions.  

For their rendition of Hamavdal Ben Kodesh, a song which is typically sung around the dinner table at the end of the Jewish Sabbath ceremony each Saturday night, Divahn added instrumentation to what is traditionally a cappella. Elizabeth Pupo-Walker provided Afro-Cuban percussion on congas and a cajon drum, while Sejal Kukadia played the Indian tabla drums. Violin and cello carried the melody, performed by Rebecca Cherry and Eleanor Norton. With Dardashti in the lead, all five women belted out the Hebrew lyrics, beckoning for the crowd to join in.

Since the Purim holiday was fresh in their minds, the group performed a song inspired by The Book of Esther, a portion of the Old Testament read during this holiday. For Dardashti's album, "The Naming" she wrote the song Vashti. In The Book of Esther, Queen Vashti is asked by her king to dance for his guests wearing only her crown, to which she refuses. This song paints Vashti as a feminist heroine of the Old Testament. Dardashti said "Vashti's legacy now continues throughout the Middle East. Women and men throughout the Middle East are standing up to oppression".

Dardashti comes by her talents from a line of notable Iranian singers. She's been performing since childhood throughout the U.S. and Israel. As a Fulbright scholar, Dardashti also lectures and publishes work on Middle Eastern cultural politics.