On Nov. 1, Israel’s most popular and enduring pop icon, Rita Yahan-Farouz, known the world over simply as Rita, will appear at UCLA’s Royce Hall, along with a special band assembled for this tour. She will perform songs from throughout her career, in Hebrew, as well as songs from “My Joys” (HaSmachot Shelanu), her most recent hit album, which includes lyrics in Farsi. Middle Eastern flavor and gypsy rhythms have become surprise dance hits in Israel, as well as in Iran, where, although not permitted, her songs have found underground success — achieving a musical bridge between two peoples that is a peaceful counterpoint to their countries’ respective leaders beating drums of war. In advance of her Los Angeles date, Rita spoke by phone from Israel about her life, career and the concert she will perform in L.A. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Tom Teicholz: What brought your parents to Israel in 1970, at a time when life for Iranian Jews under the shah was relatively good?
Rita Yahan-Farouz: Actually, at that time we lived in Tehran in the same neighborhood as many of the Iranian army’s generals. Our parents told us not to tell anyone there that we were Jews.
TT: So you experienced discrimination then?
Rita: It was not so bad, but that was something they told us when we were little. We went to a Muslim school, and every morning they would say the Muslim prayers in class. One day, the teacher asked my sister, who was 14, to do the Muslim prayers, and she said she can’t do that. She was so embarrassed. When she came back home, she said that all the other girls in the class had looked at her like she fell out of the sky, because she didn’t know the prayers. She was crying. When my father came home after work at night, he asked what happened, and she told him. And he said, “Well, I think this is a good time to leave to Israel.”
TT: Growing up in Israel, did your family cling to Iranian traditions or culture? Were you raised speaking Farsi?
Rita: We didn’t do anything really. Not on purpose. My mother had a great voice, and she used to sing Persian songs all the time at home when she was cooking, when she was working or when we had dinners with guests; after dinner she would sing for us. We didn’t study Persian. Exactly as much Persian as I knew when I left Iran when I was 8 years old is all the Persian I know. Maybe after working on this record, my Persian is better than it was before, but I can’t really speak or understand Persian as well as my father or mother.
TT: What were the circumstances that brought about the album “My Joys”?
Rita: I was in the middle of recording another album [in Hebrew]. Then I started to work with a band that is Moroccan and rock ’n’ roll, and I had a show with them [The Mind Church/Knesiyat Hasekhel]. … And I suddenly felt something — I don’t know how to explain it — but I knew that I had to stop the record I was making, and I had no doubt that I must do something completely different. I thought that I was going to do a world music record — something like taking songs from around the Middle East. But every time I went to look for something, I went to the box of records, the singles that my mother brought from Iran. Each one of those singles, I would say, “This is a great song.” Suddenly, after two, three months of working, I understood that all the songs that I chose are Persian, and each song means something to me; that I grew up on those songs. This is the soundtrack of my life, of my childhood, of my family.
TT: Even if these are the songs of your childhood, the way you sing them, and the music that surrounds the lyrics, is a wholly contemporary world-music interpretation.
Rita: I’m not a classic Persian singer. I studied classical music, but I sing pop and rock, and I’ve been out of Iran for so many years [that] this is a fusion of all that I am. I was lucky; all the musicians that I played with [on “My Joys”] are really artists who are geniuses with their instruments and often are touring abroad. My dream was to take this [sound] to the stage. Sometimes you can’t really translate it to the stage, but everyone who I dreamt of is with me. What is happening with all these musicians in the show is that we are like a gypsy band that is going from country to country, state to state. This experience is like a world of different colors — or like the aroma or scent of something completely different — what people say is that the show lifts them up to a place of happiness; that you go back home much happier. I am very, very lucky to be there [with the audience] for this moment of celebration, of life.
TT: This album has become a success in Israel and also an underground success Iran. That must be very gratifying.
Rita: It’s amazing, you know. I get so many amazing e-mails from all over the world, from Iranians in Iran who say, “Thank you for showing our real culture to the world,” because nowadays we are only talking about bombs and dark, dark, things.
TT: It’s somewhat ironic that your musical career began in the Israeli army and now you are waging heavy peace.
Rita: (laughs) But even in my army [service] I was singing. This is the only weapon I know and the only real working weapon in the world. Music is responsible for so many changes and revolutions in the world.
TT: You have performed several times for Prime Minister Netanyahu. Has he spoken to you about your new songs?
Rita: No. We have not spoken of that.
TT: And would you perform in Iran if invited?
Rita: Of course! I would be so glad to do that! I will be thrilled to do that. And that time will arrive soon, I believe.
TT: Tell me about what we can expect of your L.A. concert.
Rita: Most of the concerts were for Israelis. This time the songs are from my entire repertoire in Hebrew, and those Persian songs fit in amazingly well together. I think it will be something really new for me and for my audience.
TT: L.A. has a large Iranian community and a very prominent Iranian-Jewish community. What are you hoping to share with them?
Rita: Happiness, joy and amazing, amazing music and celebration.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly.