An Interview with a Gem of Persia : Q & A with Poet, Singer and Artist : Ziba Shirazi

By Iman Sadri

Ziba Shirazi has left an indelible mark in Persian music, poetry and culture.

April 15, 2018

Ziba Shirazi is a true Gem of Persia. Immeasurably influencing Persian music, poetry, and providing the soundtrack of love to an entire generation. Not only does she sing with choral and operatic vocals of immense range, but Ziba Shirazi also writes beautiful and meaningful words of love and emotion. And arranges it all against some of the most melodic and harmonious Persian music ever recorded.

It’s rare enough to have a great voice where one sings immensely well, while others write the lyrics and arrange the music. It’s quite another concept to write the lyrics in a poetic form with deep felt emotion and meaning, singing it in an operatic style, with the backdrop of mellifluous and traditional classical Persian music. Ziba Shirazi does just the latter. She sings about love, devotion, womanism and independence. Not about isolated feminism – but about the importance of women and the love and fruitfulness they bring to the world.

We attended Ziba’s Spring Love event at the Irvine Barclay Theater last week. The experience was awe-inspiring to say the least. On stage, Ziba sang her richly descriptive and poetic lyrics of love, passion, Nowruz, Persian culture, nostalgia and yearning – against the backdrop of live music with multi-instrumentalists and Performance Art. It was an experience not to be forgotten.

The lyrics and music and dancing all mirrored each other – seeping into the consciousness of the audience with its power. The words, music, visual imagery with a theater sized screen showing photos of nostalgia and culture and the Performance Art with dancers was captivating to the senses and psyche.

We caught up recently with the legendary artist herself Ziba Shirazi in Irvine, California for a Q+A.

Iman Sadri : Can you elaborate on your early life and upbringing ? 

Ziba Shirazi: I was born in a very loving family. I grew up with three sisters and two brothers. We were born and raised in a family with a love for music and a respect for art. My father used to sing classical Persian songs. Having had great vocal range. My aunts sang and played music. My father’s Great Aunt played violin.

Ziba Shirazi’s album Fresh Breeze.

IS : What were some of your first inspirations early on to write your own poetry ? 

Ziba Shirazi : I think all Iranians have poetry inside them. The poetry of my teenage years was Forough Farrokhzad and Fereydoon Moshiri. I loved the simplicity in Moshiri’s poetry and the kindness that you feel in it. Hafez was always very much in reach of us at home. My father was singing classical Persian songs and always doing poetry from Rumi or Hafez or Araqi. I was introduced to it from an early age.

IS : Can you elaborate on your 1991 album ‘Red Apple’ and the source of creativity behind it ? 

Ziba Shirazi The Red Apple was my first album. I have to go back in time. When I was in Iran I broke my leg on a ski trip. So I wanted to learn something while I recovered. I took a few guitar lessons but didn’t get much further. I do all of my songs with just a couple of chords. I have professional musicians who make it more elaborate and do the arrangement. I tell them what I want in each arrangement. The Red Apple was at a time when I was new in Los Angeles. I was making friends and going to parties. In those days everyone had cassettes and people would ask me, ‘Ziba Joon, don’t you have your own cassette? We wish you had a cassette.’ So that’s what I did. I put together some of my songs. I called it the Red Apple or Seeb Sorkh in 1991. I start every album with a song from Iran. That was my intention. I wanted to have something from Iran because of my attachment. Which was much stronger when I came to the U.S. at the time. 

All the songs that I made and the poetry have something to do with my conversations with friends and the people I see. 

In the Red Apple I met a lady who’s husband was not faithful to her and I made that song for her, actually. It was kind of her story. I produced the album as well. First I did a demo and took it to an Iranian distributor Taraneh. They told me that people don’t really ‘Hal’ with this album. It was a time when people were just thinking about dancing. That’s why I made the album myself. And I distributed it myself. I produced it myself. I did everything about that album and the rest of the album myself.

I believe I am the first Iranian woman who wrote the music and the lyrics and produced their debut album. I worked hard for it.

IS : You are referred to in Iran as the ‘Voice of Women’ – that is an unbelievable legacy. If you could meet any other global influential voice of women in history, no longer alive who would you meet and why ? 

Ziba Shirazi : When the moniker ‘Voice of Women’ was given to me, I was very flattered I should say. I was openly starting to talk about what I feel as a woman. What I like as a woman and how to be treated as a woman. If we want to go back to Iranian history and poetry as we all agree, I think, Forough Farrokhzad and Simin Behbehani (did it for their generation). 

Once in American I always liked the work of Maya Angelou. I loved the way she spoke. The kindness in her voice and the strength in her voice. It was always admirable to me. I always say that being the ‘Voice of Women’ is not that I am against men. It took a long time to emphasize that and make people believe that what I am singing is just love songs. It’s not hate songs, or revenge songs.

Ziba Shirazi sings of love, nostalgia, womanism and Persian culture – with deeply rich words and poetry.

IS : Can you elaborate on the jazz and Latin Music you incorporate in your music and the inspiration for your to collaborate with musicians such as Jose-Miguel Yamal

Ziba Shirazi The love of Jazz came to me after hearing Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday. It’s something about this music that I think it’s good for every occasion. You can have a good conversation over a jazz music. You can have a good drive with Jazz music. You can have dinner and make love over Jazz music. There is something about Jazz that I think is good for every occasion.

Over ten years ago I was introduced to Dr. Jose-Miguel Yamal. He is a Chilean American Jazz artist. I met him the first time in Houston. I remember that was my first concert. Somebody told me they would find me the best piano Jazz player. It’s wonderful working with Jose-Miguel. He is a professional who has been working with many Latin Jazz musicians and musicians in general. He is a wonderful Jazz Pianist himself. And I believe he brought so much of that taste of Latin jazz to my music and we do great things on stage together. Although we don’t speak the same language he always asks for the meaning of the lyrics and we make sure when we make music together and he arranged the music – it’s really what the music is talking about. The lyrics are important to him.

IS: You have such profound vocal range ? What do you attribute your grand vocals to and when did you first begin to sing ?

Ziba Shirazi We work with it and try to make it better. That is what we try to do with our art but first of all I really think it’s a gift from God. I am grateful for that. I would never be pretentious about it. I started singing at an early age. I remember when I was 5 or 6 year old, when there were parties I remember going to my sister and having her tell all of the adults, ‘Now it’s time for Ziba to sing.’ And I love to sing. From an early age I was singing.

IS : Can you elaborate on the song writing process and the creativity involved in creating original music, from melody to lyrics ?

Ziba Shirazi : I think about the subject first then I write the poetry. There is always some conversation or some story. There is always something behind the lyrics. That is what makes it meaningful. As far as the music and the melody I would say it’s blessing. With the few chords that I could open up a book of poetry and start singing with guitar. It’s a blessing because it’s not about I think about the melody, the melody just comes. I take it as a gift of God.

IS: If you collaborate with any other musicians on a song, album or performance who would you collaborate with and why ?

Ziba Shirazi : Honestly this is a very hard question because being a good musician is something, but working with other musicians and your willingness to collaborate rather than to think that I just want to shine by myself. But it’s two different things with the musicians I have seen. I don’t see them as someone I could collaborate with in the Iranian music community. I see when they’re on stage it’s all about, ‘Me, me, me.’ They want the sound of their instrument to be higher than the vocals. I am very much happy with the artists that I am collaborating with.

I work with Jose-Miguel Yamal for my Jazz concert. He is my Music Director. Together we find other non-Iranian musicians to collaborate with. As far as Iranian musicians I work very much with Messahhzadeh. Which you will see him in Spring Love as well. He is a great pianist, accordion player and Persian percussion player. We collaborate very well together. I work with Danny and Farid who you will also see in Spring Love. It’s not about who will shine – it’s about bringing our best. I think that is more important than talent by itself. I have a great sax player. Robert Kyle. I have shared many stages with him. I have loved working with him. I think the attitude with the musician is very important in the musician. I do see that lacking in the Iranian community.

IS: You have left an indelible legacy in the Iranian arts already ! What are some of ways current and future generations of Iranians can be empowered to pursue the arts for a career ?

Ziba Shirazi : To pursue your dream in art is not easy. I always tell the new generation. And sometimes the generation in Iran when they say it’s so hard for them to make music here. I always tell them, ‘Don’t think it’s easy for them to make music here.’ For many musicians and artists here music and art is the not the only thing that they do because it doesn’t pay the living expenses. We all know that. Especially with all the copying going around. For myself it has been five years since I have produced an album. There is just no support there. And you get to the point it’s not worth it anymore. Don’t think that you are going to make money out it. If you do more power to you.

But making a living as an artist is not something to look forward to. It’s always better to have some kind of job and then work on your art as well. In fact, that’s how I did all my six albums. I was having a 9-5 job, going to work everyday 40 hours a week and sometimes working overtime here and there. And then I was able to spend money on my albums.

When I made the money that was spent I start making new albums. I just thought to be patient and do art for the love of art not money. If you get rich by it more power to you but it is not that easy.

Ziba Shirazi’s live performances combine traditional Persian music with a poetic singing style.

IS: Can you talk about your live performances, the preparation that goes into and how your voice has remained as pure and youthful as it is ?

Ziba Shirazi : Practice, practice, practice. For every live performance I practice for every step of it. I put in so much time. I put my heart into. And again when I come off stage I say I forgot such and such. But I practice with the musicians and I write the words for the audience. The lyrics that I choose. Honestly I put my heart and soul into. When I come off the stage my body aches in doing some construction work. I really put my heart and soul into it. Spring Love is one of those I put my heart and soul. Along with the 17 other artists we are working with together. I truly hope people can and enjoy. Because it’s not a production even every year. It’s a costly production and we hope we get the encouragement. I guarantee you will enjoy it and you will tell the rest of the people that they missed a great show. I had a French audience member attend one time. He told me he’s never heard of so many elements of story telling, immigration, love and culture. I hope to see you at Spring Love.

“I always say that being the ‘Voice of Women’ is not that I am against men. It took a long time to emphasize that and make people believe that what I am singing is just love songs. It’s not hate songs, or revenge songs.”

Iman Sadri is the founder of @ThePersianObserver and @LASmileMagazine

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