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When Aida Shahghasemi’s family moved from Iran to Minnesota, it was more traumatic for the 13-year-old than it was liberating. She always thought that one day she would move back home for good.
But as a female singer-songwriter, she gradually realized that she would be giving up too much in Iran: She never would be allowed to perform solo. So the 35-year-old musician stayed put in America, making Minneapolis her home and bringing a taste of Iran to the Twin Cities music scene.
“The political, economic, and social status of Iran was always a deterrent,” Shahghasemi said. “I was able to spend a lot of time there, but I realized that because I had never lived there as an adult, I would probably struggle quite a bit.”
Shahghasemi will headline a show at the Cedar Cultural Center on August 5 that marks the release of her third solo album, “Event Vista.” The album tells stories about her personal losses, including deaths, the anticipation of loss, and the current state of Iran’s society, politics, and economics.
Her lyrics are almost all sung in Farsi and intertwine Persian poetry, a common influence in traditional Persian music, to provide the rhythmic structure for Shahghsemi’s album.
The mission of the Cedar Cultural Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is to showcase immigrant musicians and the voices of people of color. The manager of marketing and communications at the Cedar, Shasa Sartin, said Shahghasemi’s music honors small moments of all kinds, including those that are uncomfortable, painful, or upsetting.
“Honoring sometimes difficult and painful moments in songs suggests an appreciation for processing through pain, and allowing an excavation of it because it’s the opposite of repressing it,” Sartin said.
A passion born in Tehran
Shahghasemi discovered her passion for music as a child in Tehran. Some of her fondest memories include listening to Persian pop artist Hayedeh with her mother, and listening to classical Persian music with her father. Jazz and prolific Western artists like Nat King Cole and Aretha Franklin also began to shape her musical tastes and style.
The youngest of three siblings, music was an essential part of her upbringing in the mid-1980s, despite attitudes in Iran about music at the time. The country was in the middle of a war with neighboring Iraq, and Shahghasemi said simply carrying an instrument in the streets was frowned upon.
“Music was very much looked down upon as a Western hobby,” Shahghsemi said, adding that many people at the time believed “you have better things to do in life than playing music.”
She began violin lessons at age 8, but eventually lost interest. What rekindled her musical aspirations was a Persian classical concert where she discovered the daf, a large Kurdish frame drum often stretched with either goat or synthetic skin. The unique row of chains around the rim of the daf distinguishes this wooden frame drum from others and the sound immediately caught Shahghasemi’s attention.
But finding an instructor who would teach her proved to be a challenge.
“It was big, I was little, and my hands may not be able to handle it,” Shahghasemi said.
Eventually her motivation led her to Amir Samadi, a well-known musician who has played with prominent Iranian artists including the vocalist Parisa and kamancheh player Ali Akbar Shekarchi.
Samadi taught her the daf–and much more.
“Music was just one medium, and I think through him I learned that it’s all about exploration and curiosity. We talked about poetry. We talked about Persian carpets. It was from that point on that it became a significant part of my life,” she said.
By her early teenage years, she was regularly playing shows in Tehran while also teaching herself to sing and play the piano. But in the summer of 2000, her family made the decision to relocate to Minneapolis in order to provide educational opportunities for Shahghasemi and her two sisters.
Her father stayed behind and continued teaching at a university in Tehran while also running a business. The transition was difficult for a 13-year-old Shahghasemi.
“Immigrating was really traumatic for me,” she said.
The new environment and attending a mixed-gender school were cultural shocks.
“My peers were not very nice when I began going to school,” Shahghsemi said. “I was one of the very few students of color in my school, and I felt it.”
Her passion to return to Iran led to Shahghasemi’s first job as a tutor in the Twin Cities. The then-16-year-old saved money to buy her own plane ticket home, spending her summer playing the daf in a percussion band and seeing family and friends. For the next few years, she continued to work, save money, and spend her summers in Iran with plans to move back after earning her college degree.
Shahghasemi pursued a bachelor’s degree in psychology and anthropology from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Her studies in anthropology allowed her to focus on the cultural aspects of Iranian music, some of which restrict female vocalists. She then pursued a master’s degree from New York University in Arts Politics, and also served as an adjunct instructor teaching about the intersection of art and social activism.
It became increasingly clear to Shahghasemi that moving back to Iran would restrict her life as a musician because of its strict interpretation of Islam. She would have only two options for singing in public: sing to an all-female audience only, or work as a male vocalist’s back-up singer performing to a mixed-gendered audience.
Those limitations are misinterpretations of Islamic law, she said, adding that it doesn’t “say women’s voices are bad or their voices shouldn’t be listened to, but the way that it has been translated socially is women’s voices are enticing and arousing in ways that distract one from being on the pure path of Islam.”
Shahghasemi got her first break in the music business in New York. While teaching at NYU, Shahghasemi continued to write and play music, eventually attending an open mic night at the former Zora Space in Brooklyn.
After her performance, the venue’s manager introduced her to Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Marketa Irglova, who was in attendance. Irglova portrayed an aspiring singer-songwriter in the 2007 hit film “Once.“
Irglova and Shahghasemi immediately connected, and in 2011, Shahghasemi performed as a vocalist on Irglova’s first solo tour. Shahghasemi continued to work, performing and touring with Irglova and the folk-rock group Iron and Wine.
She was inspired to record her own music during Irglova’s tour when a fan asked her when she would record her own album.
“I didn’t think I would think about it as much as I did, but she [the fan] stayed with me,” Shahghasemi said. “It was a very gentle, but also very stern, push that I just needed to do it.”
Commentary on Iranian politics
Shahghasemi started a crowdfunding campaign after the tour to raise money for the recording expenses, and quickly met her goal. In 2015, she recorded her first solo album, “Wind Between the Horse’s Ears,” and followed that in 2019 with “Cypress of Abarkooh.”
“Day Balal,” or “دی بلال” in Farsi, is a song from her 2019 album, “Cypress of Abarkooh,” that reinterprets an old Iranian folk song.
Her latest album, “Event Vista,” is influenced by Persian classical music and includes contributing musicians from all over the globe on cello, guitar, saxophone, percussion, and other instruments. Shahghasemi provided the lyrics, some instrumentation and rhythmic foundation, and the collaborating artists added their own unique contributions to the songs.
Drummer Yayha Alkhansa contributed to “Event Vista.” Alkhansa, who is based in Mexico City, said Shahghasmi’s unique voice and the album’s themes are inspiring.
“It’s personal and obvious that it deals with the problems we are facing with the environment,” Alkhansa said. “The music is like a warning–the storm is coming.”
He added that female musicians like Shahghasemi need to continue to use their voices for political change.
“I think the best way to fight oppression with the Iranian regime is to create art and like Aida, be yourself,” Alkhansa said.
Shahghasemi said the album was shaped by the idea of black holes, where no light can escape and from which there is no point of return. There is a connection between that and the current state of affairs in Iran, she said.
The album’s name makes reference to the corruption Shahghasemi said she sees in Iran’s politics, and the feeling of a current pulling people inevitably into darkness. A drumbeat of bad news encourages people to “behave the same way, grab hold of anything you can in order to survive every day, and not realize that you are siding with the enemy,” she said.
“When you’ve been groomed into wrongdoing, you no longer know you are doing wrong,” Shahghasemi said. “The level of corruption happening right now may appear blasphemous and unacceptable to an outsider. But for the politicians who are in it, they seem to accept it little by little to the point where 40 years after the [1979 Iran] revolution, they are completely unmoved that people’s lives are at stake on a daily basis in Iran.
“It’s the anticipation of loss of sanity in a way–where you no longer are able to tell right from wrong and groomed to destroy. ‘Event Vista’ stands for falling into the abyss of darkness or nothingness and slowly being sucked into it not knowing once you’re in it.”
“Fareeb,” one of the tracks on the eight-song album, examines the impulse to survive at the expense of others:
I have very little Maybe nothing worth your time and yet you send someone to steal my stale bread. I think if you are stealing from me today then you yourself make a good target tomorrow. You steal from me and I from you Every day... we repeat this same old story. If you lose sleep over any of this or if you're sad or anxious about any of it rest easy knowing that you and I both are a part of a larger scheme making someone else the king.
Shahghasemi returned to graduate school in 2020 and completed a master’s in counseling therapy at the University of St. Thomas. She now works as an independent contractor mental health therapist. She incorporates art into her work as a way to connect with clients.
Although she works full-time, she plans to continue making and performing music independently, adding that music is “an outlet for me to say what I want to say and express it the way I want to express it.”
Shahghasemi is also a McKnight Music Fellow and serves as adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
“For me, music is the epitome of human expression,” she said. “It’s the best way to express a human experience. It’s very unifying. People all across the globe can connect with it in some way.”
The OK Factor will open for Aida Shahghasemi on August 5 at the Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Avenue S., Minneapolis. Shahghasemi will be accompanied by pianist Nima Hafezieh and Lukas Vesely on bass guitar. The show also is sponsored by KFAI.
Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $14 advance, and $18 on the day of the show.