Born and raised in Iran and with her home base in Afghanistan, Elaha Soroor grew up in different countries with diverse cultures, countries where it is especially difficult (if not impossible) for women to practice a passion for music. Soroor eventually fled Afghanistan because she refused to suppress her love of music. The culture that made it difficult for her to make music is nevertheless also what serves as the basis of her inspiration. Together with the award-winning British collective Kefaya, she made an album inspired by Afghan folk music and women telling their stories: Songs Of Our Mothers.
Written by: Marianne Schutte
“When I moved to Europe, I got to know a lot of people from different backgrounds who in turn brought music with them from different parts of the world. My music is the sound of all these people. That's why I can't easily specify my music. I myself grew up with folk and traditional Afghan and Iranian music; I've worked with musicians from Afghanistan but also from other parts of the world - Kefaya at the moment of course - and all of that is an inspiration to me. I try to put everything I learn together so that I can express myself in a beautiful way, like a resident of nowhere.”
The base for Songs Of Our Mothers lies in Soroor's own experience of fleeing Afghanistan and the struggles of many other female artists. It is a collection of stories, traditionally performed by Afghan women. The lyrics tell the stories of women who talk about love and oppression, but also about smaller things in life; stories that are passed on to the children through music, especially the daughters. Soroor: “They never had the chance to implement it. Women have always had a hard time in the music industry in Afghanistan.”
"Just before I had to go on stage, the only women in the room came up to me. They said to me, 'Are you crazy? You are playing with your life!"
In any case, the music industry there is very limited. At the end of the 1990s, the Taliban came to power and made music strictly forbidden, which still leaves traces. The existing industry now mainly consists of traditional Afghan and classical music. Pop music is on the rise, but to a very limited extent, especially for women. For example, more than ten years ago, Soroor herself was warned when she was about to perform in front of audiences and on TV. “There were more than 400 people in the room, of which a very small group of women. Just before I had to go on stage, the only women in the room came up to me. They said to me, 'Are you crazy? You are playing with your life! You don't just play in this place, it comes on TV. You can create so many problems with this; everyone will know you." I didn't care. I went on stage anyway.”
When Soroor flees to London, she initially knows almost no one there. The only fellow musician she knows is Milad Yousofi, who plays traditional Afghan music with the rubab. Through him she comes to play at a small summer festival in London where she gets acquainted again with Al MacSween and Guiliano Modarelli, aka Kefaya. Together with a number of other artists who have a similar interest in music, they play Afghan folk music and some of Soroor's original compositions. “I was very lucky to meet Kefaya for this album. I was constantly talking about the little things in my mind and also singing many little traditional songs to them; they were open to learning. For me it is very important to get the message across and to translate the texts into English.” The collaboration characterizes the diversity in origin of the band members. For example, Afghan folk music is combined with spiritual jazz, classical Indian music and electronics.
"Here we can find such a tv-show a bit cheesy, but at the time in Afghanistan, it was true that the program could bring hope to people."
Soroor herself says that it is difficult for her to identify a genre for her own music, but her Afghan roots are clearly audible in this new album. She cherishes the society she opposed and which the other way round also turned against her in her music. Soroor grew up in a conservative family and her family - apart from her brother and sister - has never been happy with her ambition to pursue a music career. Yet it is precisely this family that plays a major role in fostering a love for the sounds of its own voice. When her family fled the Afghan Civil War in the late 1980s and ended up in Iran, her parents found it very important that their children did not lose the connection with Afghan culture, language and music.
“My father bought cassettes from an Afghan market in the city; he found beautiful music by folk musicians from the north of Afghanistan. I thought the music was great at the time, as a child it was very pleasant to hear.” The cassettes were also the only way to keep in touch with relatives in Afghanistan. They didn't have a good post office or telephone line to keep them in touch on a weekly basis. “We sent the cassettes to our family, which sometimes took eight months and sometimes two years to arrive. Before recording those cassettes, we sat down to talk; my father would ask me to recite a poem or sing a song. My interest actually started there, the interest in hearing my own voice, hearing other voices and how this can convey emotions.” As a teenager, Soroor attended a religious music school where she learned a form of religious singing: taghanni, reading the Quran in a melodious way. At this school she ended up in a singing class. “I enjoyed it. It was great to be part of a group that has improved my vocal techniques so much.”
In 2008 Soroor participates in the talent show Afghan Star. At the time, she received death threats and her participation caused such a stir that she was forced to leave Afghanistan. And yet it also opened doors. “Here we can find such a tv-show a bit cheesy, but at the time in Afghanistan, it was true that the program could bring hope to people. You have to remember that there was almost no artistic freedom and people didn't go to concerts or other kinds of entertainment.” For Elaha, her participation was a form of resistance against the oppressed society that mainly included women. “I wanted to wear colorful clothes and just be a woman who didn't care about the rules that society gave. Even if I didn't do it right, I would show that I wanted to do it. It has grown me as a musician and opened up many paths for me. Everything grows gradually.”
At the moment it is not yet possible for Soroor to return to Afghanistan: the country is still experiencing unpredictable times. She is not optimistic, but Soroor would love to play again in her motherland. “The people deserve it, and I deserve it to be with them and play music and open my soul to them. I would very much like to.” Her wish is that music can one day be a key. “Everyone has something to offer. Sometimes you learn about music from someone else and they tell you about their background. I find the differences between nationalities, languages and music wonderful. I think it's nice to share that. If we get to know each other better, we can live together better and understand each other. If you don't know each other, you can't solve problems."
This article is the second in a series of articles in collaboration with the Footprints festival. Kefaya & Elaha Soroor will play at this festival in TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht on Saturday 8 February. For more information, click here. Kefaya & Elaha Soroor will also play on Saturday 22 February at the Leiden festival Peel Slowly and See. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.