Musician and actress Liraz Charhi has done the seemingly impossible.
She brought together musicians from conflicting countries Iran and Israel to work on an album in secret and release it in the midst of a global pandemic.
Called “Zan,” Persian for women, the album is a long-held dream for Charhi, fusing her Israeli roots and Iranian upbringing and paying tribute to the women of Iran. She’s set to perform Sunday in Schenectady on the Music Haven Stage in Central Park.
“These musicians are my brothers and sisters, but our countries are enemies. If they were caught, they would be jailed,” Charhi told Songlines Magazine.
Charhi was born in Israel, after her parents, who are Sephardic Jews of Iranian-Jewish descent, left Iran in 1970. That was years before the Iranian Revolution and during a time when Iran and Israel had close ties. In the ensuing years, the two countries entered into a proxy conflict.
However, growing up, Charhi felt like she was part of both cultures.
“I grew up in a very Iranian old-school home and through the second hand, I was very Israeli,” Charhi said. She spoke Farsi at home and Hebrew in school.
Her family has been rooted in music for generations. Her grandmother was a singer, though because she was a woman, she was prevented from performing and having the career she hoped for. Chahri’s aunt Rita Yahan-Farouz, known simply as Rita, is a popular contemporary Israeli singer.
“My grandmother, she tells us that we actually fulfilled her dream,” Charhi said.
She grew up singing and dancing to Iranian pop artists of the 1960s and 1970s like Ramesh and Googoosh, the latter of who was forbidden from singing from 1979 until 2000.
“Over the years, I found the courage inside these Iranian women singers’ voices and they became my idols and I started to explore my Iranian roots and making my own closure, my own revolution and singing Farsi,” Charhi said.
That exploration began in earnest in perhaps an unlikely place: the United States. She was working in Hollywood on movies like “A Late Quartet,” (2012) with Philip Seymour Hoffman and “Fair Game” (2010) with Naomi Watts.
“I had a very nice career there,” Charhi said. However, she was at a crossroads, stuck between pursuing acting or singing. At the time, she’d already released albums in Israel and had a successful career there as well.
Despite the success, something was missing.
“I’d been searching to understand how can I fulfill this hole in my heart of not being able to visit Iran, not being able to visit my parents’ land . . . I thought that I should neglect my roots and continue with my life but the minute I did it I was empty. I was an empty person,” Charhi said.
“I found out that I [needed] to go back just to come forward. It was a very necessary thing for me to go back and dig in my roots and my veins to understand what is the real story of my family. To be an artist, I needed to know who I am.”
While working in Los Angeles, she connected with Iranian family members there who showed her around their neighborhood and exposed her to Iranian culture, starting with food and, of course, music.
She discovered that she loved Iranian music from the 1970s.
“Suddenly, I understood that the music of the ‘70s is very mixed of people who left Iran and started music in Europe, get back to Iran and they’ve been telling me underneath the music, their story. Actually, it’s very similar to mine because I’m built out of so many layers. I’m an Israeli-Iranian who lives in Israel, who cannot visit Iran,” she said.
In 2007, she decided to dive deeper into music and use it to explore her cultural roots.
“It took me 10 years but I did it. The minute I released the first song it was a big thing. I could not believe [the number of] people who love Iranian music in Israel and outside of Israel . . . People [were] dancing to my songs, which is a crazy thing,” Charhi said.
That first album, called “Naz,” debuted in 2018 and paid homage to artists like Googoosh and their defiant spirit. It seemed to connect with people in Iran and Charhi decided to focus on collaborating with Iranian artists on “Zan.”
She posted one message on social media requesting to work with Iranian artists and there was an outpouring from artists who wanted to work with her. Over the course of several months, she sent lyrics to them, often through encrypted messages. The musicians recorded the album separately, with one studio in Tel Aviv and one in Tehran.
“I haven’t seen the face of any other Iranian artist I’ve been working with. I could speak with them but I could not see their faces. It was a tough thing because there was so much love through the music and the conversations we had about music, we couldn’t actually see each other,” Charhi said.
Sometimes the process was like magic and other times it was a nightmare, said Charhi. Some Iranian artists feared backlash for their involvement and requested their names be left off the album, though they still wanted their music to be included.
“All of them wanted to participate, not only because they love music because they wanted to tell the story that despite the fact that both countries, Israel and Iran are by definition are in war or enemy, it’s not necessarily right because we really love each other and [are] curious about each other’s country,” Charhi said.
Musically, the album is a blend of electronic, dance-ready songs and softer lullaby-like tunes.
It was originally set to be released in May of 2020. However, it was delayed until November because of the pandemic.
“When it was out it was kind of shocking because we [got] so many great comments and people shared my music and it was crazy . . . People were much more open to hear music and somehow they had I think more patience to hear the story behind the music,” Charhi said. “[When] we released it, there were no stages to dance and to meet the artists, and the people and the crowds but we still felt very, very connected. I think the pandemic can take so many things from us but they cannot take the arts. They cannot take the music. They cannot take our souls.”
Charhi has been on a few tours since the pandemic began and she said it felt liberating to finally get back on the stage after 17 months. Even though much of the time, the audience members don’t speak Farsi, Charhi finds that they often sing along anyway.
“I’m always getting back to the same feeling that hope and music are one language that everyone understands,” Charhi said.
For Sunday’s show, she’ll be accompanied by several members of Anbessa Orchestra, a retro Ethiopian jazz collective, including Meitar Forkosh (violin), Dor Heled (keyboard), Ran Livneh (bass), Eran Fink (drums) and Navdad Livneh (guitar). The performance begins at 7 p.m. For updates and more information visit musichavenstage.org.