“MY LIFE'S WORK AS AN ARTIST,” says Afghan-American filmmaker and singer-songwriter Ariana Delawari, “is to make the most beautiful, masterful art that I am capable of. And in doing so, my dream is to elevate our condition of life on planet earth. That desire began with Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is my blood and my soul.”
Delawari’s family escaped the most brutal aspects of the violence that has plagued Afghanistan, leaving in the late Sixties, heading first to London and then to Los Angeles. But Delawari recalls being constantly surrounded by friends and relatives sharing stories of how they escaped horrors in their homeland. Despite this – and even after visiting Kabul herself and witnessing the effects of war – Delawari believes that, through film, music and lyrics, artists can persuade people to turn away from violence towards collaboration and love. She calls this “artistic alchemy.”
In her directorial debut, We Came Home – a feature documentary currently touring the film festival circuit which has already won the Jury Prize for Best International Documentary at the Sao Paolo International Film Festival – she reveals her own first attempts at that process. The film weaves together the stories of Delawari’s parents’ return to Afghanistan just after the turn of the century to help rebuild the country; her own journey there to record her first album; and the reemergence of the country’s music industry after the end of the Taliban’s ban on non-Islamic music.
Recorded during the shooting of the film, Delawari’s debut LP, 2009’s Lion of Panjshir, includes songs ranging from “Be Gone Taliban,” a psychedelic folk track about Afghans overcoming brutal persecution, to the retro-pop ballad about falling in love, “Suspend Me.” It features cameos from old-school Afghan stars including Mohammad Wali on tabla, Ghulam Hussain on rabab, and Ustad Almruddin on delrubah. Iconic filmmaker David Lynch was so smitten with Delawari’s music that he produced “Suspend Me,” and mixed the album personally, before releasing it on his David Lynch MC record label.
“Every artist has a family history, but hers is so timely,” Lynch told the L.A. Times in 2010. “Her music paints a very different and more beautiful picture of Afghanistan than what you usually hear about that country.”
BORN AND RAISED IN LOS ANGELES by her half-Afghan, half-Sicilian mother (who was born in America) and Afghan father, Delawari grew up in that awkward space between politically aware parents occupied with troubles in their homeland and friends in the neighborhood who enjoyed all the trappings of an American childhood – stuff that kids in Afghanistan could never dream of. “We would have the most amazing parties at our house with all of our family and friends, both Afghan and Western,” Delawari recalls. “All gathered in our home to listen to live Afghan music and eat really delicious Afghan food. I was wandering around dancing to live renditions of Ahmad Zahir on harmonium and tabla, getting a lot of love from all of our relatives, especially my grandmother Ko Ko Jan who only spoke Dari.” Meanwhile, Delawari was also getting into grunge and techno at school. And she was particularly drawn to protest music.
“When I was 13, I started playing guitar and totally fell in love with it,” she says. “I learned to play Hendrix songs and Led Zeppelin. I was also really into Nirvana, Björk, Radiohead, and old-school folk music that my mom listened to, like Willie Nelson. I was into music that moved people.”
But it was acting, not music, that first put Delawari in front of an audience – although it was a suitably socially aware piece. “The very first time I was ever on stage was when I was four, in a play called Nanawatai by William Mastrosimone,” she says. “I played a little girl who lost her arm from a Soviet-planted toy bomb.”
By the time she finished high school in 1998, Delawari was blossoming as a writer, musician and actress. She was accepted into the University of Southern California to study English and photography. But after two years, she decided she wanted to switch to film. Her parents reached out to legendary producer David L. Wolper (who was responsible for shows including Roots and The Thorn Birds, and several acclaimed documentaries, as well as the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) to see if he could help her achieve her ambition.
“David basically invented the documentary,” Delawari says “I walked into his bungalow with my art portfolio and report card and he was so blown away he wrote me a recommendation to film school.” That letter helped her get into the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “Though I never really got to know him that well [Wolper died in August 2010, just as Delawari was finishing her film], I will always feel in my heart that he gave me my golden ticket.”
It wasn’t until 2002 that Delawari finally got to visit Afghanistan herself, accompanying her mother to Kabul to reunite with her father, who had gone over several months previously to help rebuild the country’s banking system following the fall of the Taliban. That journey helped her to solidify her goals; to join other artists bringing music back to the country, and to document the emotion of coming home. But it was a visit to a refugee camp in 2006 that proved to be the turning point for Delawari, shifting the focus of her work permanently. At the time, she was playing “music that was a lot louder. Really wild and psychedelic, lots of electric guitar.” And she was starting to land small roles on prestigious TV shows including The Sopranos, ER, and Entourage. But following her trip to the camp, she “slowly stopped being interested in parts that didn’t feel fulfilling. The stories felt empty – especially the stories about the Middle East. I knew that anyone in Hollywood could play the parts that I was going out for. But only I could tell the stories I was experiencing in Afghanistan. ’Cause I was between these two very different cultures.” She had been filming her (and her parents’) Afghanistan trips for a while, and realized that they had the potential to make a compelling documentary. “It was actually a really hard decision to focus less on acting,” she says. “I loved it so much and was starting to book really amazing shows. But I followed my heart.”
On her return to the U.S., Delawari formed a band to play the new songs she was writing. It was at their very first gig where she met David Lynch. He approached her after the show to ask if he could produce her album. “I didn’t believe him at first,” she says. (This isn’t her most nerve-wracking moment with Lynch, however. That came when she showed him an edit of We Came Home in 2011. “I cringed the whole time in his screening room,” she says, “sinking in my seat thinking, ‘I can’t believe we’re showing David Lynch a three-and-a-half-hour rough cut.’ But I turned around at the end and he had tears in his eyes. Then it was like one of the most amazing moments an artist can have. He is one of my favorite artists of all time, and always has been, since way before I ever met him. So it was a huge honor.”)
Delawari was beginning to formulate her plan to record an LP in Afghanistan with ustads (master musicians) and her band. “I knew that if the Taliban regained control of the country, those musicians would have to hide their instruments again,” she says. “And it became very real.” She also knew that working with the ustads would require a change in her musical style. “The beautiful, delicate sounds of the ustads had to be surrounded by more beautiful and delicate sounds,” she says. “They couldn’t be overpowered by louder sounds. And really an album like Shaved Fish by John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is at once the most beautiful and most punk rock album I have ever heard. So I knew that I had to follow what the music wanted and what the message wanted. Since then it has been a continued evolution.”
THE SONG THAT HAS GARNERED MOST ATTENTION for Delawari so far is “Be Gone Taliban.” She directed the video, in which dancers representing singers who have lost their voices under the Taliban’s ban on music gradually spin and unfold their veils. “They took our land by thinking they could own me/But see, I’m bigger than them,” sings Delawari on the track. “Anyway my name’s the land/It’s older than you, you see.”
“We have these darker parts of humanity,” Delawari says, reflecting on the video. “But we can transform these parts of our world from deep within. To recognize the light within everything, that’s alchemy. That’s what the ‘Be Gone Taliban’ video is about, seeing the oppressed woman as a blue butterfly in a cocoon. The butterfly is coming.
“‘Be Gone Taliban,’” she continues, “doesn’t mean, ‘die.’ It refers to the Taliban as an idea or energy, not to condemn anyone thinking in this manner, but as a prayer to transform this thinking into something else. The song is written from the perspective of a little boy who becomes a Talib. His mom is a widow and he is taken away to a training camp. He looks back on his life and says, ‘What have I done?’ We are living in a time when there are so many suicide bombers and fundamentalists in our world. We can’t just condemn them or kill them off, because it’s an idea that needs to change, not just people. And it can’t be eradicated in some Western hero way or it won’t work. We have to heal from within.”
Having produced the album, completed shooting for the film, and played some gigs back in L.A., Delawari went looking for an opportunity to perform live back in Afghanistan. It wasn’t going to be easy. Afghan women had only recently started performing pop music live, and they received threats almost immediately. Extremists had even thrown a bomb into the crowd at pop idol Farhad Darya’s concert in September 2010, injuring 13. No women had performed live alternative, rock, or folk music, especially not with politically sensitive lyrics.
As Delawari’s film explains, Afghan musicians have faced an extraordinarily difficult time over the past three decades. By the time the Taliban took over the country in 1996, various warring factions had already introduced extremist ideology and threatened musicians. “If we catch you playing any of these instruments,” extremists told the traditional players interviewed in We Came Home, “we will hang you.” When the Taliban controlled the country from 1996 to 2001, their official law forbade performing or even selling any music that was not prayer-based. But by 2011, Afghanistan’s pop bands were back on TV and radio, and the first rock and alternative bands joined forces with expat allies to found Sound Central Festival, the country’s first modern music festival. Delawari joined as an adviser in 2011. And the following year she headlined a day of rock, rap, and alternative music by and for women.
“I knew it was a big risk,” Delawari says of performing in Kabul. “I knew that I was going to have to learn the waters as I swam. But in my heart I have a deep love for everyone, even the Taliban, as crazy as that may sound. As much as I strongly oppose their ideology, I recognize that there is light in all of our hearts. We are human beings. And we must look deeper at the roots of where our problems come from.”
She was aware that – particularly coming from the U.S. – her motives could be misconstrued by people in Afghanistan. But she was convinced she could overcome any distrust. “When people just heard about me or my album, I realize it could be easy to make assumptions about who I am,” she says. “But once I played shows in Kabul and people could actually see me live and get a sense of my music, that all dissolved. When I was first invited, I really meditated on it and thought about the importance of sincerity. And I made a promise to myself that I would just be me.”
Delawari admits it has been hard to close the distance between her life in California and the very different lives of her peers in West Asia. But it’s happening.
“In Kabul, I had a private screening in a classroom,” she says. “A 19-year-old Afghan man told me that my film inspired him to stay in his country and create a better future for his people. That was such a beautiful thing to hear.”
Not everyone welcomes her so warmly. Even moderate Afghans have criticized some of her decisions. One rumor held that she named her album Lion of Panjshir after the Tajik Northern Alliance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud (it was his nickname), because of some political agenda.
“I didn’t realize how controversial that decision was,” she says. “My father tried to warn me. He said ‘Ariana, your name is so unifying. Ariana is the name of Afghanistan. Just use your name.’ But I didn’t listen. When I later learned how intense the ethnic divisions still were, I started making a major effort to represent all of Afghanistan. I realized this whole other deeper level to my heritage that is a gift and something I need to really embrace: I’m actually Pashtun by blood as well. So I’m both Tajik and Pashtun [the two largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan]. And both Afghan and American.”
Despite the difficulties involved in creating her alchemy of movies and music, and in navigating war, extremism and cultural divides, Delawari is currently touring the world with her film, while preparing to release a new album later this year. Lynch, who heard an early cut, she says, claims it sounds even more Afghan than the last. She remains hopeful that she’s on the right path.
“Love is courageous,” she says. “It takes more courage to love than it does to fight or kill. Music is coming from that spirit, and it’s larger than identity or the body, and it transcends judgment. So I just try to always go back to that.”
As for Afghanistan, she says she believes the arts are back for good, but warns, “I also believe that it’s important to be conscious during this transformative time. I want the changes to last.”