When Brooklyn-based band Habibi takes the stage at HiLo in North Adams on Saturday, Oct. 19, they’ll bring with them their hybrid sound that pulls from Iranian music and ’60s surf, signifying both the defiance and the joy that accompanies the band’s existence.
The band includes lead vocalist Rahill Jamalifard, guitarists Lenny Lynch and Leah Beth Fishman, bassist Erin Campbell, and drummer Karen Isabel, and its sound is shaped through the musical obsessions of Jamalifard and Lynch, as filtered through the diverse experience of their bandmates.
Jamalifard grew up in Detroit, the daughter of Iranian immigrants whose daily life was wrapped around the culture that her parents brought with them, in many ways separated from the American mainstream.
“I was a little bit sheltered growing up for sure,” Jamalifard said. “I never had cable and grew up in an environment that was really full of foreigners, just my parents’ friends and a Muslim community.”
Jamalifard encountered music through trips to the library, the cable television she had access to at her uncle’s house and the occasional dribs that entered her school life. Her biggest influences came in the form of her father’s music collection of Iranian artists that were considered oldies by the time Jamalifard heard them, but performed styles from traditional Persian songs to various fusion with Western music. There were also VHS tapes of an American Bandstand type show that Jamalifard loved.
“There was ’70s stuff with really cool music videos and very directly influenced by the West,” she said. “Obviously, for anybody who grew up with a Western ear, we relate to that the most, but I really liked the traditional stuff because it felt much more spiritual.”
At the same time, she was interested in Western music and found creative ways to seek it out. She remembers one family trip to California where she struck up a conversation with skateboarding strangers who she thought looked cool. By the end, they gave Jamalifard Misfits and Fugazi tapes, musical passports for Jamlifard to find kindred spirits back home.
Jamaliford moved to New York City in her 20s, originally to pursue a social work program, but instead she took a break from school. That’s when she met Habibi guitarist Lynch through friends in common from Detroit also living in New York City.
“We just got along right away and we were like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t believe we’ve never met before,’” Jamalifard said.
Lynch was an experienced musician and the two women bonded over their Detroit background, where Lynch had lived in Dearborn, Mich., the largest Arab community in America, and where Jamalifard would go with her father to buy groceries. Bonding over their love of Arab culture, they began to play music together. Lynch was particularly fond of the guitar work of Lebanese-American surf legend Dick Dale, and that influence found its way into their collaborations alongside Jamalifard’s love of the Iranian sounds she was raised on.
The band’s first album was released in 2013. After an unplanned hiatus, they followed with an EP, 2018’s “Cardamom Garden,” that featured Iranian Tombac drums and had a distinctly Middle Eastern feel. Several songs were sung in Farsi, including the band’s cover of the 1969 song “Green Fuz,” with lyrics translated to Farsi. Jamaliford said the band viewed the Farsi-heavy release as a one-off and didn’t want to make it their focus.
“I don’t want to ever be condensed to one thing,” Jamalifard said. “I don’t want to be put down as a Middle Eastern, psychedelic band or an all-girl group, rock band. I want to always be evolving and do different things and always incorporate what feels natural and what’s part of the progression. So that was just because we were feeling it and we were like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
And though the band as a whole embraces the Persian component to their sound that Jamalifard’s background offers, Jamalifard is cautious about her contribution overshadowing the band as a group collaboration.
“It’s something that I’m proud to celebrate,” she said, “and that my bandmates are proud of and happy for me to celebrate and want to participate in that celebration, but it’s not limited to that and it shouldn’t just be defined by that. I don’t like being pigeonholed like, `Frontwoman Rahill Jamalifard’s Iranian upbringing is the direct and end-all route of the band.’ We’re a band, it’s not like a solo project.”
Jamalifard acknowledges that the narrative of being a child of Middle Eastern immigrants plays in easily with hot issues in modern America, and also that there is something unavoidably political in what she is doing whether it’s overt or not. She’s had to confront racism since she was a kid, and feels fortunate to have a platform to address these problems.
“I’m happy even just existing as a band at this time in America when singing in Farsi is taking a stand and protesting this disgusting, racist, far-right progression into who knows what, but it’s not like this is our main thing,” Jamalifard said. “It’s just a part of it.”
But it’s a part that isn’t going away anytime soon. The band’s next album, due early 2020, is definitely going to reflect the world it exists in, Jamlifard said.
“There is going to be some Middle Eastern stuff and there’s going to be heartbreak stuff, but there’s also going to be dealing with the day-to-day and how everything has gotten a little bit bleak, and it feels really bleak. I feel like these are hard times and really trying and challenging, and I feel like our album does speak to that.”
Originally published at https://www.berkshireeagle.com on October 11, 2019.