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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

The problems "stripped my heart down," she said. "But I had to ask myself, 'How badly do you want this? This is more important than fear.' "

After two weeks, Ariana and her friends returned to Los Angeles with a laptop full of unmixed sound files. Guirand and Udovic stopped playing with her; the recording had emotionally exhausted them. With no band and no record label, Ariana didn't know what to do next.

Surrounded by her rabab rabab and tapestries and photos from previous Afghan trips, Ariana listened to the Kabul session files. The music seemed broken. The songs dominated by Eastern instruments didn't cohere with her California folk songs. She heard the friction of her own identity in the music.

When she shared her difficulties with the Lynches, David took her to his Hollywood Hills studio to re-imagine the music. His film soundtracks often showcase a spectral female voice, and he had grown interested in producing an album of similar material.

Lynch refined each of the Kabul tracks to make it sound pristine, then added rich reverbs and echoes and new string arrangements by L.A. composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson that charged the Afghan sounds and Ariana's folk tunes with haunting, incantatory feelings.

"Every artist has a family history, but hers is so timely," Lynch said. "Her music paints a very different and more beautiful picture of Afghanistan than what you usually hear about that country."

"Lion of Panjshir," released in October on Lynch's label, David Lynch MC, confronts the idea of Afghanistan as a violent, unknowable land. The album uses hypnotic Eastern instruments to explore classic folk themes. In the ustads' accompaniment, flurries of melody ride a single bass note to create a trance-like sound similar to that of Indian raga music. When those sounds are paired with Ariana's clear alto and strong acoustic guitar strums, the songs become intimate and accessible.

Her lyrics similarly live in both worlds. In "San Francisco," she's the insouciant Californian: "Tried some dresses on in upper Haight, and those skirts fell above my knees. They made me want to . . . say, 'Ooh, come my way.' "

In "Be Gone Taliban," she finds the kiss-off spirit of punk in images of her ancient country: "My name's the land, it's older than you," she sings over a spooky tabla arrangement. "What you don't know is this land is older than the snow."

The album's title is the nom de guerre of mujahedin leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud left an upper-class life to fight the Soviets and later Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of orchestrating his assassination in 2001.

Many Afghans revere Massoud for fighting imperialists and religious zealots alike. Ariana saw him as an artistic role model as well, someone who recognized how a shared culture could hold a people together in the face of war.

"He knew the West, and could have gone and made a life there," she said. "But he stayed and fought. Yet he always encouraged his soldiers to read poetry."

If her political songs seem naive, they nonetheless show a young American woman brimming with hope for her family's country and rage at what others have made of it.

On a bright October morning in 2009, Ariana met her parents at Casbah, a coffee shop in Silver Lake.

After Karzai's disputed reelection last year, Setara had returned to California. Noorullah, by then head of the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency and an advisor to Karzai, was in town for a brief visit.

Over tea and sandwiches, they talked about their country and shared stories of Ariana's childhood. They were proud of her debut album.

Now, Ariana is putting together a new band to go on tour and is finishing the documentary with Emily Lynch.

All her life she struggled to explain her identity and her country to Americans. As a child, she'd been mistaken for Mexican. As a young woman, she'd listened to friends talk about Afghans and terrorists as if they were the same, and after graduating from USC, she worked as an actress and often read for Central Asian roles that felt like cheap stereotypes.

Now she had something real.

In January, Ariana's phone rang again. It was her father in Kabul. He was OK, but a bomber had struck the central bank.

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