By Iman Sadri
February 5, 2023
Ashley Beroukhim, known by her stage name as Ashley Zarah, is an Iranian American recording artist who has lit up the charts and social media with her hit, Persian Salsa. Her video has garnered nearly 50,000 views and has become a sensation among the diaspora. Ashley grew up in America but is very much in tune, pun intended, with her Persian roots. To catch up with this rising star we did an interview with Ashley Zarah, to learn more about her up and coming career.
Iman Sadri : Thank you for speaking with The Persian Observer. Please Describe your early life, education and upbringing.
Ashley Zarah : I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California to a large and beautiful Iranian Jewish family who emigrated to the states during the Islamic Revolution. Despite the challenges growing up in an immigrant family, my parents always prioritized their children’s futures with hard work and unrelenting determination, which pushed me to do the same with my own priorities. I attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA on scholarship which is the premiere institution for a contemporary music education where I studied Music Production and Engineering and Performance as well as eastern, microtonal music which returned me to my Iranian roots in such a western-influenced industry. That experience alone reconnected me with my identity as an Iranian, Judean woman born and raised in LA, and it also made me revisit who I’m choosing to make music for… after all the years I’ve been in music, I feel like I’ve finally managed to capture the sound of the Iranian diaspora/Iranian-America and take a new approach on how I represent our diverse community.
IS : What were the earliest musical influences that got you interested in music and singing ?
Ashley Zarah : My earliest influences must have been what people nowadays refer to as “Persian Oldies.” It was impossible not to “gher” at the sound of Sandy, the Black Cats, Moein, anything bandari that could make me move even in diapers. I was pretty obsessed with music at quite an early age – my parents exposed me to a great mix of genres as well. My dad loved classic and progressive rock, my mom was an 80s Pop aficionado – so I was surrounded by music since the womb for sure. I think the flashy, R&B acrobatics of the 90s is what really fascinated me to hone in on voice.
IS : Who were some of your favorite musicians / bands growing up?
Ashley Zarah : Christina Aguilera, LIGHTS, Coldplay, All American Rejects, Paramore – very eclectic, but all just a different degree of emo.
IS : Who are some of your favorite musicians today?
Ashley Zarah : Today, I’m listening to a lot of genre and cultural hybrid music, mainly from the Middle East – these are people who are building cross-cultural bridges between their homeland’s music and music of the world, also artists who are really transforming the genres and traditional sounds of their culture: Angèle, ¿Téo?, Noa Kirel, El Grande Toto just to name a few.
IS : If you could see any musician who is no longer alive (live in concert) who would you see
Ashley Zarah : Hayedeh. Without a doubt.
IS : If you could see any musician live in concert still alive today who would you see?
Ashley Zarah : That’s tough… I think Dudu Tassa & The Kuwaitis.
IS : What has been your musical education? Pertaining to vocal lessons? Music school? What instruments if any do you play?
Ashley Zarah : I’ve been studying voice since I was young, professionally since I was 13, but it wasn’t until college when I really began to explore the true capabilities and flexibility of my voice. I studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA and was blessed to find mentors who were the perfect fit to guide me where I was hoping to go. In addition to voice, I’m self-taught on piano, dombak, daf, and darbuka!
IS : What were the inspiration(s) that gave you onus to say that you could make a career in music?
Ashley Zarah : I think it was truly just something I could not leave behind. It wasn’t any particular person or influence – I dealt with a lot of rejection particularly from my family and community, but it was all stemming from fear, and it took time to understand that I don’t have to inherit people’s fear and make it my own. Anytime I tried to just make music a “hobby” or push it away and find a different career path… it always seemed to find me again and suck me back into being an artist. The universe just wouldn’t allow it. So it almost feels like it wasn’t my choice – it became very clear that music was not just a passion, it’s my soul’s purpose in life. It’s what my soul came here to do, and it would be a disservice to the world if I didn’t honor that.
IS : How did Persian Salsa come about? Please describe the arrangement / lyricist / composition sequence.
Ashley Zarah : I wanted to create a fun pop song that showcases us as familiar to those who know nothing about us. I think we do a great job at creating music, but I haven’t seen anything like Latin Pop or Arab Pop that maintains its value outside of their respective community – our music is so unique and so distinct, it’s actually quite difficult to blend it with anything that is not inherently Persian. But I wanted to create something that was fun, something empowering, and something that reimagines how we see ourselves as a culture, specifically women in this culture. So I started with a steady salsa groove on keys which already gives off the air that you’re in a humid nightclub in Havana – I initially built a bass-y Hip-Hop groove that eventually grew into a Persian rhythm section with daf and dombak, and then I knew the star of the show had to be an Iranian instrument playing an Iranian melody. The star needed to represent us without any modifications or compromise. I chopped up, sampled and layered kamancheh performances until I composed what you hear today on Persian Salsa.
After that, the story was next – I was aiming to make something that was clever, even educational, but also relatable – and it was also based off my swiftly deteriorating dating life in LA – I had me met a middle-eastern man who was obsessed with Iranian girls and was apparently trying to start a relationship with me so that he can get his green card and stay in the country… It was a hilarious situation, therefore the story had to be quirky, bold, and sarcastic. I also never want to pretend that I’m an Iranian local – I’m a different type of Persian, and this had to be true to my particular experience as an LA native with Iranian-Jewish blood, surrounded by hungry male vultures that just want a taste of what it’s like to be with an Iranian girl. So I decided to play with this idea that people don’t know the power and lasting impact of an Iranian woman, the flavor that we bring to the table – inspiring, intoxicating, irreplaceable, unforgettable. (This idea of celebrating Persian women who are always so under appreciated, undervalued and underserved ended up being very relevant to the revolution that started only 3 weeks after this song was released). I am honored to say I have fans both in and outside of Iran that tell me they use Persian Salsa to recharge before going out to fight for their freedom. That’s the power of representation. That’s the power of music.
IS : How is the music business today for artists with streaming channels compared to the music business pre-streaming when music was purchased traditionally?
Ashley Zarah : Of course there are pros and cons to each approach. In the past you had to be “discovered” and signed by a label who funded your career, controlled you and the art you release because you essentially represent them and they take everything from you. Back in the day that was still every artists dream though because there was no other way to make a living as a musical performer. Now, independent artists are doing everything they can to not get signed by a label and build their brands themselves – having freedom, full ownership and full control over every part of their business. Unfortunately, there’s also evolved a depreciation of music over the past decade. Your average musician can no longer make a living solely based on their music like they used to when people needed to spend $20 to buy your CD that had your single on it. Now anyone can access your single at any time for about $0.0002 a listen. Income generally generates from selling merch, tickets/touring, and sponsorship deals. But it all depends on one’s perspective – this is a new challenge in a new era and I think you have to be really resilient and creative to continue building your audience and maintain a musical world they want to keep living in – and that means different things for different artists, but they have the freedom to discover that on their own terms now.
IS : Do you perform live? If so where do you perform / how often?
Ashley Zarah : I used to perform more frequently, now I’m focusing my energy on studio work and creating – I can’t wait to release a few more projects and refresh my setlist for my next live show. In the meantime, I’m doing a lot of ad hoc work during protests to support events regarding the revolution in Iran.
IS : If you can collaborate with any artist / musician who would you like to perform with?
Ashley Zarah : Danny Asadi! I love his work and the way he’s reimagined how we listen to and represent international and modern Iranian music today.
Follow Ashley Zarah on social media @AshleyZarah