Charlotte Algar speaks to singer, composer, actor and Worldwide FM DJ Liraz about the notions of identity and womanhood entrenched in her music.
Naz: A mode of femininity encompassing things like elegance, politeness, beauty and pride.
Music, our tastes in it, the way we participate in it, is always an expression of our identity. We create our own sonic fingerprints related to the ideologies we agree with, the clothes we wear, our economic situation, how we like to dance. Although the days of burning mix tapes for our friends are long gone, our “Here’s a song for you…” WhatsApp messages secretly say “Here’s a bit of me, what do you think of it?” In a world of binaries, boxes and checklists, art (perhaps music especially) can offer up a hazy realm of subjectivity, malleability and blurred edges — a perfect place for exploration of those things about us with no clear classification in other spheres. The music of an artist like Liraz is a fine example of how music can not only help far-off listeners process and reaffirm aspects of identity, but also the artist and their most immediate community.
Liraz’s musical expression of identity is a valuable one, as due to heritage being half-Israeli and half-Iranian, she grapples with the concept more often than most. She says: “I often felt that I was living a double culture, living in an Israeli home with Iranian parents who left Iran before the revolution. They struggled to build a life here in Israel, back when it was a very young country. I felt that when I was home, I was very Iranian. And when I was outside, I was very Israeli. And it felt like switching identities, I built double characters.” This questioning of identity is at the crux of Liraz’s music. Her two albums, Naz (2017) and Zan (2020) are deeply connected to both Israeli and Iranian styles. Zan was recently Morning Mari*’s album of the week! You can read an analysis of the album here.
“I felt that when I was home, I was very Iranian. And when I was outside, I was very Israeli. And it felt like switching identities, I built double characters.”
The goal of expressing equally the two sides of her heritage was dangerous, what with the illegality of cultural collaboration between Israel and Iran. The Iranian musicians on her album remain anonymous, and she communicated with them secretly throughout the recording process. She says: “Was it a risky thing to do? Definitely. It’s like a it felt like being in love with someone that you don’t know, but you know they’re there for you. When you reveal this love story, it is so good and so warm and so exciting — but you have to pay for it. You have to pay big.” This payment was taken in the form of intimidation, some of the anonymous Iranian artists contacted Liraz to say they could no longer partake in the project, scared for their families and children. An instance of this was followed by a call from an Iranian number to Liraz, with the seemingly polite person on the other end of the call ending the conversation with: “Say hello to your daughters for me.”
Liraz is such a force, both vocally and as a person. Her experience of femininity gives a lot to be learnt from. She says of her creative process: “It’s releasing, because the fact that I grew up in a Iranian family in Israel, a free country, doesn’t mean I wasn’t muted — Iranian women are supposed to behave in a very specific way. It’s not something that you even speak about, it’s just a behaviour, it’s in our DNA: be gentle, be nice, be polite, you use your femininity in a good way. But I felt that my femininity was delayed. I wanted to speak, to raise my voice, to dance, to sing, to create, to be a free soul.” She continues: “My mom was very supportive up to a point, and my dad was not supportive at all. I thought: ‘One day, I will break this wall!’ It’s affected me.” This affect has presented itself in many areas of her life, from childhood stories of her grandmothers who were married at 12 and 13, through to the discovery of the huge Iranian community in Los Angeles. This was the first time in her life that strangers would come up to her and speak to her in Farsi, her mother tongue. “I’m carrying so many dramatic and heavy stories in my heart. And for now I can say this is the first time that I have felt free. If I can make other women free with my music, with the story that we’re sharing, it’s a big closure for me.”
This want to free other women is rooted in her relationship with her grandmother, who sang when she was young, and who first showed Liraz the experience of a woman being truly “muted”. “My grandmother was a singer, I loved her voice. Each time she had a moment to grab the microphone in a wedding or a party she went on stage and sang — unfortunately my grandfather would kick her off. So I feel like now I’m accomplishing her dreams.”
“I’m carrying so many dramatic and heavy stories in my heart. And for now I can say this is the first time that I have felt free. If I can make other women free with my music, with the story that we’re sharing, it’s a big closure for me.”
Googoosh is another example of a Iranian artist standing strong against the patriarchal diminution of female vocalists. She reached the pinnacle of her fame in the 70s, but after the 1979 Iranian revolution and subsequent ban on female vocal performance, she remained in Tehran without performing until 2000. At the height of her fame she became an idol for women in Iran, who copied her miniskirts and short hairstyle ‘The Googooshy’. Googoosh left Iran for America in 2000, and performed no less than 27 concerts that year, and continues to perform to this day. She has achieved immense popularity outside the Middle East, performing at venues like Madison Square Garden, Royal Albert Hall and The Ericsson Globe. Her most recent single was released in 2020.
This story of representing Iranian women outside of Iran, pushing back against the censorship of women performers, parallels with Liraz’s work. No surprise, as Liraz is a big fan. She says: “There was this one idol woman called Googoosh that I could not stop listening to, to her voice and to her music. After I had explored every record she has, I understood her story. She did not stop singing after the revolution, she just left Iran and continues singing until today. I thought to myself, ‘Why do I find her such a big inspiration?’ and I think it’s because I recognised some sassiness in her voice. She has a lot of courage. She doesn’t have this ‘naz’ [concept of polite femininity], she’s not apologising. She doesn’t care about revolution; her own revolution was to sing outside of Iran. She said: ‘Okay, I’m not going to stop because of this Islam thing’. I recognised it in her voice. Even in one of my shows when I speak about her, and I have her movements that she does onstage, I dance like her because I love her so much.”
Liraz’s discovery of other singers from the 70s, a pre-revolution era she finds fascinating, stems from her time in LA. She says: “When I found beautiful music shops in LA, I collected. I went back and forth for three years, from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv with overweight suitcases loaded with CDs from the 70s. I hadn’t realised before that it was 70s music that I missed so much. It was like a time that was talking about my own layers — people who left Iran to have to study music in Europe, returning with new influence got back to Iran. That was the moment I understood that I needed to switch up my life and stop my mainstream career with the Hebrew singing, television, cinema and theatre. I need to sing in Farsi. I surprised myself.”
“When I found beautiful music shops in LA, I collected. I went back and forth for three years, from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv with overweight suitcases loaded with CDs from the 70s.”
It is Liraz’s diverse and meaningful influences that give her music such heart. It is not often that music is truly reactionary, truly for the joy of freedom. Liraz’s albums do not only free the women she speaks of, but allows the minds of Western listeners to consider a musical history so disparate from our own. To create an album through forbidden collaboration is an act of bravery, and the music sounds this way to me. The names of her releases ‘Naz’ (meaning ‘mode of femininity’) and ‘Zan’ (meaning ‘woman’) point to this bravery also, her art is a clear comment on the society who made her who she is to day, and the dangers restrictions of freedom can pose, especially on the lives of women.
Whether we use Liraz’s musical realm to explore complex emotions, notions of identity or to get us in the mood for the current weather, her role as an artist, a person affording us momentary catharsis, remains an interesting one. A drunk friend on New Year’s Eve just past described our experience of COVID-19 as a storm that the whole world is weathering together, united, but all in different boats. This maritime metaphor was followed by gentle snoring. Despite this being a surprisingly somber turn, it had me thinking about how this metaphor is only a beneficial one if we can really see each other through the rain. Music does this. Music takes a feeling, a moment, an experience from the mind of the artist and encases it in audio. At the point of engagement, all of this emotion is flung into our ears. The bravery of artists, Liraz in particular, who season their work with their soul and offer it up for the mulling-over of strangers, is enormous.
You can listen to Liraz’s Worldwide FM show to hear stories and songs from her past and present, and find her albums (both out on Glitterbeat Records) here.