Rita’s Tale of Two Cities
Iranian-born Israeli singer bucks tradition with album of Farsi classics
Since her breakthrough in 1985, singer Rita Jahanforuz – simply ‘Rita’ to her legions of fans – has become one of Israel’s most popular artists. She’s represented her country in the Eurovision Song Contest, released numerous platinum-selling albums, performed the national anthem at the request of Benjamin Netanyahu, and even played a special show for Shimon Peres and Silvio Berlusconi.
But it’s her latest album, 2012’s My Joys, that promises to serve as her most enduring legacy. The record contains 11 lovingly reconstructed Persian songs – performed in Farsi – from Rita’s childhood, which saw her and her family flee their native Iran when she was just eight years old. Despite living in a military area of Tehran, Rita’s family were practicing Jews, keeping their religion a secret from friends and neighbors. “My parents told [us] that we shouldn’t tell anyone that we’re Jewish, so we studied in a Muslim school,” Rita says. “One morning, my sister came home after a teacher asked her to stand up in front of the entire class and recite the morning Muslim prayers. She didn’t know the prayer, which caused great amazement. When my father came home from work and learned what happened, he decided that this is the time to leave for Israel.” Following a stint in the Israeli army, Rita met record exec Ronny Brawn who, struck by her voice, steered her into the music industry.
But her background was never forgotten and, though it is certainly the most visible, My Joys is by no means Rita’s first nod to her Iranian heritage. “From my very first album, and almost every album that followed, I had one song in Farsi,” the singer says. On her latest record, however, “some sort of incoherent gut feeling made me stop working on the album I was recording at the time, and try to understand what was making me so passionate about working on something totally different.” Her search led her to a bag of records that Rita’s mother had brought with them when they left Iran. “I started recalling my mother walking around the house, snapping her fingers to the rhythm and singing those songs with her warm voice.” That nostalgia was what Rita had been searching for. “When I told my friends or colleagues, there were many puzzled faces,” the singer recalls. “They were surprised that I was going to record an album in what they perceived as Ahmadinejad’s language.”
Despite the reservations, My Joys was a hit, and performances of the new material drew raucous crowds to Rita’s shows in Israel. But perhaps the most striking support came from abroad. “I get emails from Iranians who write that they would really like to come to one of my performances, even if this means that they would be punished for this later, back in their homeland,” says Rita. “Iranians write me thank you letters for being their ambassador around the world, and for representing their amazing and powerful culture – their true representation, and not ‘that place with the nuclear weapons and darkness.’”
Interview conducted by Nagmani
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