Myths re-imagined

Iranian Kurdish singer Hani Mojtahedi
Iranian-Kurdish singer Hani Mojtahedi (source:

Kurdish singer Hani Mojtahedi and German electro legend Andi Toma of Mouse On Mars have collaborated on an album that also pays homage to Mojtahedi’s grandfather, a Sufi master

By Stefan Franzen

As a Kurdish woman and singer, the conditions under which Hani Mojtahedi started out were less than favourable: Iran’s mullah regime is famed for its disdain for women, minorities, and music. Mojtahedi was raised with the traditional music of the countryside. Her grandfather, who was deeply immersed in Islam’s mystical Sufi teachings and equipped her with a fundamental understanding of music and spirituality, remains a big influence on her to this day. 

Around the turn of the millennium, Mojtahedi established Iran’s first all-woman band, but had to spend years running the gauntlet of the "religious" authorities. In 2004, she decided to walk away from her home country and her family for the sake of her future as a professional musician. 

In Berlin, her music became more open and more experimental. She teamed up with electronica artists, as well as taking to the stage with large orchestras, featuring in the hymnal symphony for Kurdistan, "Peshmerga". When it comes to politics, Mojtahedi does not mince words: back in 2017, she wrote "Azadi", a freedom song for the oppressed Kurds of Iran and, following the violent death of Mahsa Amini, she demonstrated her solidarity by supporting campaigns carried out by the "Woman, Life, Freedom" movement. 

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

From pop to experimental

"Hani sings for equal rights and there are people who are afraid of that – they are afraid of women and their power," says Andi Toma, Mojtahedi’s colleague and partner. Clicking through Mojtahedi’s numerous video clips on YouTube, you get an impression of her immense diversity.

The powerful, traditional facets of her voice carry her through pop songs that make you want to dance as well as poignant songs full of introspection. It is this spectrum that makes it impossible to fit her neatly into one category – be it popstar, traditional singer, or experimental artist – because she has shades of all of them.

Mojtahedi’s current project is “HJirok”; the name is taken from a water spirit and stands for a fictional character which Mojtahedi herself embodies. “HJirok” emerged out of a trip Mojtahedi took with Andi Toma to the Iraqi-Kurdish region of Erbil.

The sounds of everyday life are layered together with Sufi drums, and the tunes of the long-necked lute, the setar, to create powerful, beguiling tracks. Toma lends his knowledge of production gleaned as part of the Düsseldorf-based duo, Mouse On Mars, with which he has spent the past 30 years exploring new pathways between performance art and the dance floor. 

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

Dialogue led by drums and voices

In recent years, interest in Sufi poetry and Sufi music in the West has often been presented in a superficial, even kitsch way. With “HJirok”, you get the impression that Toma has really internalised the rhythms of Sufi music, respectfully weaving them into structures that can be danced to.

Mojtahedi’s own interpretations on the other hand are enriched by her childhood experiences: on Friday evenings at her grandfather’s house, she witnessed a 300-strong Sufi community gathering in secret to perform the Dervish rituals which could no longer be held in public under the Khomeini regime.

Mojtahedi has no objection when it comes to using music to internationalise this deep, spiritual practice. “The Sufi sound has travelled around the world,” says Mojtahedi. “I love thinking of it as a dialogue between peoples, led by drums and the sounds of their voices.” 

Yet Mojtahedi uses the Sufi tradition as a mere starting point for free-ranging audio excursions for her exquisite and highly expressive vocals. The texts add yet another layer of meaning to “HJirok”: Mojtahedi is expressing the hope of an eventual, boundless, and peaceful cooperation between Kurds and Iranians.

She writes both in Kurdish and in Farsi, while also drawing on the work of the writer Ebdulla Pesew as a source of inspiration.

Metaphor for the plight of women in Iran

The unlikely artistic duo has also worked in parallel on another project that is currently being showcased as a stage piece yet will not be released on CD before 2025: "Forbidden Echoes" sees Mojtahedi take up the Iranian myth of Shirin. From a mountaintop between Iran and Iraq, this allegorical figure sings of her sorrow over a lost love down into the valleys. 

With the help of Andi Toma’s electronic echo chambers, Mojtahedi reinterprets the story, letting her vocals reverberate off virtual rock faces, accompanied by a full symphonic chamber orchestra. Shirin’s fate becomes a metaphor for the plight of women under the mullah regime, which has subjected women’s voices to countless rules and restraints for decades. 

This is visualised particularly impressively on stage: Mojtahedi cries her grief into a huge video projection of the rugged mountain landscape. It’s a performance that carries its audience along with it, in an almost physical way.

Stefan Franzen

© 2024

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu

CD: “HJirok” (Altin Village), release date: 01.03.2024

Here you can access external content. Click to view.