This Pale

Iranian-American vocalist Katayoun Goudarzi and Grammy-nominated classical Indian legend, composer and sitarist Shujaat Husain Khan give a new urgency to the age-old love poems of Rumi on their  latest album This Pale

In these dark days of stark societal uncertainty and pronounced cultural intolerance, could the illuminating words of the world’s greatest poet and champion of tolerance and love inspire dialogue and spark a constructive collective conversation where pundits and politicians cannot? 

This questions is earnestly and eloquently explored by a culturally diverse group of musicians and close friends on This Pale (to be released October 1, 2021), the new album from Iranian-American vocalist Katayoun Goudarzi, Grammy-nominated master sitar player Shujaat Khan, Iranian ney player Shaho Andalibi, and 5th-generation tabla player of the Thirakwa lineage Shariq Mustafa. Together, they have forged an unlikely ensemble that has defied the limits of both lock-down and cultural difference to bring a new urgency to  Rumi’s centuries-old words of wisdom.

As a seasoned vocalist, adept at maximizing the musical qualities of classical Persian poetry, Katayoun Goudarzi had always been quite fascinated by the fact that a poet from a completely different country who lived, loved, and composed almost 800 years ago, could be the best-selling poet in the United States for nearly 20 years running. The ecstatic poems of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a 13th-century Persian mystic bard and Sufi master, have always stood for tolerance, love, and inclusiveness. So, to Goudarzi, the enduring popularity of those words said  something powerful about the underlying spirit of American society; it said something about how people are embracing one another, accepting differences, and celebrating other cultures.

But then 2017 happened.

In a bewilderingly swift downturn of the path to progress, an executive order was signed by then newly elected President Donald Trump on January 27th banning foreign nationals from several predominantly Muslim countries from visiting United States for 90 days. It also suspended entry to the country for all refugees from Syria indefinitely and prohibited any other refugees from coming to the country for four months. And then in that August, a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA turned deadly when a 20-year old white supremacist  accelerated his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and leaving 19 critically injured.

At that point, a lot of things started to feel different to Katayoun and to multitudes of first, second, and third-generation immigrants and citizens of color across the country. That warmth and that feeling of being included started to crumble.  In her mind, Katayoun was thinking ‘what about all those Rumi lovers?’ All of his messages needed to be highlighted again, and as an artist, Goudarzi felt that she had to do her part. 

“So many people enjoy Rumi’s poetry because, even in all its complexity and fascinating rhythmic musicality, it carries an intense and infinitely relatable sense of love, and grief, and heartache,” reflects Katayoun, “All those basic human emotions that are fundamentally universal in nature and connect us, regardless of race or country of origin, are there. Beyond its surface beauty, it also carries a lot of messages about what he really stood for. He was actually greatly loved for his stance on tolerance and certain other things that are worth paying special attention to at this crucial time in our society.”

So Goudarzi and long-time collaborator and world-renowned sitar maestro Shujaat Khan decided to create a project concentrating on Rumi’s love poems alone. They were soon joined by Iranian ney player Shaho Andalibi, (whose contribution would mark the first time sitar and ney have ever been recorded together), and by Shariq Mustafa, an Indian tabla player who hails from the Farukhabad gharana and brought to the mix the highly evolved and complex heritage of various tabla styles from his father and grandfather, Rashid Mustafa Thirakwa and Ahmed Jan Thirakwa. 

Across the tracks, listeners will hear and experience different spectrums of emotions from joy to sadness, to grief and love, as Rumi’s words progress across the arc of human passions.

With the first track “Wild” Rumi introduces the beloved to others and talks about how his purest love will impact you too, if you get to know that divine feeling.  There is a level of energy and upbeatness to his poem that can be felt palpably through the musicality of the song. The next track “One” speaks of the hidden love in Rumi’s heart, one that has completely enraptured and taken hold of him. While the fifth track “Still Here” extolls the all-consuming madness inspired by such love (and even speaks of how exhausting such fervor can be), the sixth and final track “All I’ve Got” begs for that madness not to end, as the beloved leaves and Rumi pleads, “Don’t stay without me in this world! Don’t go to that world without me!”.

In each and every track, Goudarzi, Khan, Mustafa, and Andalibi transcribe the shifting flow of emotions superbly through their respective vocals or instruments.

“I think there are a lot of gut-wrenching sounds throughout,” says Katayoun, “and it’s sort of a reflection of how we felt, all of us. So you would hear it in my voice, you would hear in Shujaat’s sitar, and you would also hear it in the ney. Our hope was that our listeners would hear that humanity and would be able to immediately connect to it emotionally. We thought maybe it would make them more curious about what this album stands for and that, in turn, would develop into a conversation and dialogue.”

In her hopes that relating to the pain and marginalization of others through music will inspire empathy and discourse, Katayoun asks for nothing from her listeners that she has not experienced herself. In fact, the track “All I’ve Got” was inspired by just such an experience. 

The song was inspired by a young woman from Afghanistan, from whom Katayoun received an email one day. The girl wrote that she followed Goudarzi’s work and loved it. She then confided  that her favorite of Rumi’s love poems was the one later sung in “All I’ve Got” and that she will often hum it ever so quietly around the house because she is not allowed to sing.  But, she expressed, she sincerely hoped, one day, Katayoun would sing it for her.

“That just absolutely broke my heart!” says Goudarzi,  “So on that track, I actually start by humming the song. And then I gradually started to sing in low notes. And by the end, I hit the high notes with all my emotion …because I felt that I wanted her to be heard. And hopefully she’ll hear!”

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