Habibi's Rahill Jamalifard On Iranian Pop Music And 'Anywhere But Here'

Mar 28, 2020
Originally published on March 28, 2020 2:12 pm

Last month, Habibi released Anywhere But Here, the band's first full-length album since its self-titled debut in 2014. Just like that first record and the EPs and singles over the past six years, the new album is full of Habibi's signature mix of psychedelic rock and Iranian music.

For Rahill Jamalifard, Habibi's lead singer and a daughter of Iranian immigrants, the group's sound has a deeper meaning: It's a way to honor her roots and pay tribute to the experimental culture that produced Iranian pop music in the 1960s and '70s. Jamalifard says that Habibi got its start when she bonded with musician and future bandmate Lenny Lynch over a shared love of that era of Middle Eastern psychedelia.

"It was just wild to me, because I know record collectors, I know all these people who love that sound, but for somebody who's my age, clearly white, and knew Iranian musicians that I loved, it was so amazing," she says "Because now there are a bunch of reissues of old Iranian psych and pop music, but at the time there wasn't as many and they weren't uploaded to YouTube."

NPR's Michel Martin spoke to Rahill Jamalifard about Middle Eastern psychedelic rock, her growing comfort as a musician since the last Habibi album and keeping in contact with her family in Iran, a country which has been particularly impacted by the coronavirus. Listen in the player above and read on for highlights of the interview.

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Interview Highlights

On the origin of Habibi and using an Arab word for the band's name

The band started almost eight years ago now. I started it with one of my closest friends at the time — and still now — Lenny, and we're both from Michigan, which has a very large Middle Eastern population, especially Arab population. So we both are very well-versed, me being Iranian and having gone to the mosque, I've been around more Arabs in my life than I have Iranians. And her friends, growing up on her street in her community, were all Arabs.

When we met in New York, we both shared this love of the culture and for the band's sake, this love of the music that came from this time. So the foundation was built from both of our backgrounds and both of our unique relationships to that culture.

[Habibi] is an Arabic word. It's pretty universal, though; like, my dad uses it. It means "my love," but it's more a term of endearment. You can say it to your love, but you can also say it to grocery store owners. In New York, for example, they call you habibi at the counter when you come up. So it's just a term of endearment, an affectionate term.

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On using Middle Eastern influences to make their own sound

I grew up in a house where we didn't have cable. The real access to music — I was the oldest, so it was through my parents. And they had these amazing old VHS tapes of television programs from the '70s and '80s, and '60s. I grew up watching those, and also listening to my dad's tapes. I just remember from a very young age becoming obsessed with the tapes, watching the tapes, learning the dance moves, singing all the songs.

The song "Come My Habibi": It was the first song we ever wrote together. Lenny and I, at the time, were obsessed with psychedelic music from Turkey and Iran. Just based on that alone, that really struck me about Lenny. When she came to New York, she was super encouraging of "Well, we both love this kind of music; we should do something that honors that sound."

On the inspiration behind "Mountain Song" and how her extended family in Iran are coping during the pandemic

My grandfather loved the old poets, so he knew all of Hafez and Saadi and Rumi. He could recite all of their poems. When I try to write, sometimes overtly, I'm trying to reference these poets — but obviously in a less, less, less amazing way because I could never touch where they all are. But for that song especially, I wanted to write something beautiful that took you somewhere else and sounded more poetic. All of those lyrics, they have significant meaning to me, but as someone listening to it, they could inspire so many different things.

I've been speaking to them most every day, just to my cousins and checking in on them. I have a lot of elders so it's very, very scary, but luckily for now I know my family is safe, and they're staying home. But it is a time of great struggle there. And especially with the sanctions, not being able to have access to medicine and humanitarian aid: It's really scary and heartbreaking to know there could be preventable deaths. I mean everywhere, it's not just there, but there is particularly a very bad situation.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With all the disruption and isolation of the current situation, what a perfect time to hear some new music. So here's Habibi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLOWERS")

HABIBI: (Singing) Well, I've seen rain, seen it coming, and it came. And I feel slow against the pain, against his rain.

HABIBI: That is "Flowers." It's from their latest album, "Anywhere But Here." And you can hear in Habibi a blend of '60s rock and maybe some Motown and maybe a flavor you might not recognize. That is the influence of Iranian pop music from the '60s and '70s and the experimental culture that produced it. Rahill Jamalifard is the lead vocalist for Habibi, and she is here with us now - remotely, of course - to tell us about their latest album.

Welcome, Rahil. Thanks so much for joining us.

RAHILL JAMALIFARD: Hi. So happy to be talking to you today. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, tell me about the band. Like, how did you get together? And why did you pick that name?

HABIBI: Well, the band started almost eight years ago now. And I started it with one of my closest friends at the time and still now, Lenny. And we're both from Michigan, and - which has a very large Middle Eastern population, especially Arab population. So we both are very well-versed - me being Iranian and having gone to the mosque, and I've been around more Arabs in my life than I have Iranians - so we very much both love this culture that's very similar to my own.

And for the band's sake, like, it's love of the music that came from that time. So the foundation was built from, I guess, both of our backgrounds and both of our unique relationships to that culture.

MARTIN: And just to be clear, Habibi is an Arabic name. It's not Farsi. But what does it mean?

JAMALIFARD: It's pretty universal, though. Like, you throw that word around - like, my dad uses it, you know. So it means my love, but it's more a term of endearment. Like, you know, you can say it to your love, but you can also say it to, you know, grocery store owners. Or, like, in New York, for example, they call you Habibi at the counter...

MARTIN: Oh.

JAMALIFARD: ...When you come up.

MARTIN: OK.

JAMALIFARD: So it's just a term of endearment and affectionate term.

MARTIN: I love it. It's like in Baltimore, it's like hon. Like, hi, hon.

JAMALIFARD: Yeah (laughter).

MARTIN: Like, what's your order, hon? Yeah, there you go. I got it. You're right. I see it.

JAMALIFARD: Exactly.

MARTIN: It's the exact same word. So I'm just fascinated to know, like, how you decided on your sound. Like, how did you and the bandmates come together and feel like, this is what I want it to sound like? Because you all came in with, you know, your influences and what you know you liked. How did you go about making it your own?

HABIBI: So it came very naturally to bring in the Middle Eastern influence because at the time, it's what we were listening to, what we were talking about, what we were bonding over. And then with everybody else in the band, like, that joined - at the time, our drummer, Karin Vasquez (ph) - she is Puerto Rican, so she understood, like, this more tribal drumming. So I think we all appreciate it. But we bring in also our different perspectives as well.

And it was just a natural, like, hey, I really like this riff. You know, it might be, like, a Middle Eastern riff. Or, like, I want to sing a song about this, you know. And then we just all kind of bring in our interpretation of it, you know.

MARTIN: Yeah. OK. So let's play a little bit more. How about let's play "Mountain Song"?

JAMALIFARD: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOUNTAIN SONG")

HABIBI: (Singing) Waving from the mountain range before you fly away. Drop a feather for my hat, secretly I pray. Honey drips from an open hand in the home of quiet hearts. The nest that falls will rise again as she flies into the stars. Children sing the mountain song as they dance to the setting sun. Tell me, tell me what went wrong to make you go away.

MARTIN: You know, what I like about this is that it has this really kind of pop-rock sound, but the imagery is really - it could be ancient. Do you think - you know what I mean? Tell me more about what - it just - it evokes so many things. Like, if you were reading it instead of hearing it, you might think one thing. But then hearing it...

JAMALIFARD: Right.

MARTIN: It has a very different feeling. So just tell me what was on your mind when you wrote this one.

JAMALIFARD: Well, that's, like, the highest form of compliment for that song in particular because that's an ode to my family. That's actually a song about my aunt, who passed away, and also my grandfather on the same side, my dad's family. And my grandfather loved old - the old poets. So he knew, like, all of Hafiz and Sadi and Rumi. He could just recite all of their poems.

And I feel like for that song especially, I really wanted to write something beautiful that kind of took you somewhere else and just sounded more poetic, you know. Like you're saying, like, you can read that and just be transferred somewhere else. Or you could just see what I'm talking about. So I think that one, especially visually, it spoke to me so much because all those lyrics - they have significant meaning to me. But as the - as somebody who's listening to it, they could inspire so many different things.

MARTIN: I don't want to lose sight of the fact that we are talking at a time when there is a global pandemic. And Iran has been very hard-hit by the coronavirus. So I hope you don't mind if I ask you, how is your family? I know that your family does maintain family ties. And you, particularly when you were growing up, would visit, you know, a lot. I know that you last made a trip in 2016 but haven't been recently. But do you know how they're doing? Is there - what are you hearing from them?

JAMALIFARD: Yeah. My family in Iran is - I've been speaking to them, most every day just to my cousins, and checking in on everyone. And yeah, like, I have a lot of elders, so it's very, very scary. But luckily, for now, I'm - I know my family is safe, and, you know, they're staying at home.

But it's - it is a time of great, great struggle there - and especially with the sanctions, you know, and not being able to have access to medicine and humanitarian aid. It's really, really scary and heartbreaking to know that there is - like, there could be preventable deaths - I mean, everywhere, you know. It's not just there. But there, it's particularly a very bad situation.

MARTIN: Well, we certainly wish them well. Thank you for speaking with us. And so what song should we go out on? And why did you pick that one?

JAMALIFARD: I would say "Stronghold" because it is a song that is about love and about what we would do for the ones we love. And I think at a time when somebody is putting a price tag on a human life or just that that's even being brought to question, it's important to especially stand up for the people who you do love and just recognize how we are all one collective, you know, and every life is meaningful. So I choose "Stronghold."

MARTIN: That is Rahill Jamalifard. She and Lenny Lynch, Leah Beth and Lyla Vander are Habibi. And their latest album, "Anywhere But Here," is out now.

Rahill Jamalifard, thank you so much for joining us. Our very best wishes to you.

HABIBI: Thank you to you, too. Thank you so much for having me. It was my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRONGHOLD")

HABIBI: (Singing) 'Cause (ph) baby, you've got something calling to me. I can't explain it, but I truly believe. me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.