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A California sound, by way of Kabul

Ariana Delawari recorded her 'Lion of Panjshir' album in Afghanistan, with local musicians alongside her Los Angeles band, to explore her dual identity.

March 22, 2010|By August Brown

Three years ago, a suicide bomber changed Ariana Delawari's music career. The singer was on the phone with her mother, Setara, and Afghanistan was coming undone.

"It's not looking good here," Setara said from her home in Kabul. An explosion had just destroyed a building a few blocks away.

Safe at home in Silver Lake, Ariana, then 27, feared for her parents. But she also feared for her music. Since childhood, she had dreamed of making a record in Afghanistan with local musicians, and she worried that the chance might soon be lost. The Taliban had banned secular music during its rule, and with each new bomb blast it seemed to be closing in once again.

Later that day, she made a decision. She called her father, Noorullah.

"Dad," she said. "I want to record my album in Kabul."

"What can I do to help?" he asked.

Western rock acts, from the Beatles to Vampire Weekend, have often looked abroad for new sounds or ideas about art and spirituality. Ariana had something more personal in mind. She wanted to explore her identity as an Afghan and an Angeleno, to explain her feelings about being from two places at once.

"I wanted the history of the land and the story of the land to come through the musicians," she said recently. "The phone call sent me on a quest. It also sounded really exciting to me -- the idea of bringing my friends on a caravan."

The Delawari family moved to Southern California from Afghanistan in 1970. Noorullah had recently graduated from the London School of Economics. Setara had family here, and the couple settled in La Cañada Flintridge to be close to her brothers and sisters. Noorullah became a vice president at Lloyds Bank California, but they were never far from the politics of Kabul.

After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, their house grew crowded with relatives fleeing the violence. Ariana grew up listening to stories about their country and to the traditional music her family played at all-night dinner parties.

A cheerleader at La Cañada High and an avid Madonna and Jimi Hendrix fan, she often found her Afghan heritage ignored, misunderstood, even disparaged. She knew her country deserved more respect, and she thought she could convey that message through music.

In 2002, after the defeat of the Taliban, the country's finance minister invited her father to join the government as an advisor. Noorullah and Setara moved back to Kabul.

Ariana, who was about to graduate from USC with a degree in film production, stayed behind. A folk singer and songwriter, she was working her way into the local music scene. She had performed at Eastside clubs and caught the attention of film director David Lynch, who told her he'd like to produce her album one day.

In 2007, four months after that conversation with her father about recording in Afghanistan, Ariana and her two-piece band stepped off a plane into Kabul's dust-choked traffic.

Her father's bulletproof car jostled past wary locals and ruined buildings. At the gates of the family's home, armed guards waved them in, and soon the band was walled off from the chaos of the city. Peacocks and doves pecked in her father's aviary.

Relaxing with tea and peanut butter sandwiches in the yard, Ariana and the group prepared for the recording sessions. Lynch's wife, Emily, began filming. She thought the sessions would make a compelling documentary.

Ariana's bandmate Max Guirand had agreed to produce the album; on the flight from Los Angeles, he plowed through "Pro Tools for Dummies" to brush up on his recording skills. Paloma Udovic, a classically schooled violinist, would help create a musical bridge between the western sounds and the traditional Afghan instrumentation.

By then, Ariana's father had become a respected government figure. He had overseen the revaluation of the Afghan currency, and in 2005 President Hamid Karzai appointed him governor of the country's central bank.

He borrowed audio equipment, hired an engineer and recruited three musicians -- virtuosos of the rabab, dilruba and tabla, sitar-like and percussive instruments that form the core of Central Asian music -- to accompany his daughter.

These men were known as ustads -- instrumental masters -- and when Ariana listened to them play, she wondered if her songwriting and arranging skills were up to their standards.

They told her how they'd had to wrap their instruments in cloth and bury them in their yards when the Taliban took over.

Ariana hoped their collaboration could help music-loving cultures in Los Angeles and Afghanistan empathize with each other. But reality kept intruding on her idealism. The electricity went out frequently, and the musicians had to use noisy gas generators and line the studio walls with blankets and carpets to mute the sound.

Tensions arose among Ariana, Guirand and Udovic over their vision for the music. When they bickered, Ariana felt she was letting down both her friends and her family. She wondered if she had set her expectations too high.

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