LA-based independent artist Ariana Delawari has made a career of mixing visual and documentary-style art with music, and the results have been nothing short of beautiful and inspiring. Traveling back and forth to her parents’ native Kabul after 9/11, she witnessed first hand the affects of war and rebuilding, (her father is the current Governor of Afghanistan’s Central Bank).
Delawari released The Lion of Panjshir in 2009, and distributed via TuneCore this year. She was kind enough to discuss with us the recording process (in Kabul, with native instrumentalists), her documentary We Came Home, working with David Lynch, an upcoming album (Entelechy) and how her relationship with Afghanistan came to be the biggest gift of her life.
Who were some of your earliest musical influences? Can they be heard in your music today?
Ariana Delawari: Some of my earliest musical influences were Madonna, John Lennon, Ahmad Zahir, pretty much all Afghan and Indian classical music, and Jimi Hendrix. I do know how these artists influenced me – in terms of spirit, message, instrumentation – I can feel and see for myself the influences, but it’s hard to say how our music is heard by others. I think its really subjective. I just want to touch people’s hearts. That’s really the main thing that I care about.
As a multi-media artist, where does being an independent musician fit in alongside working as a filmmaker, photographer, etc?
It has all been really organic for me. Since I was a kid I have always had to make art. I practiced all different forms of art, but it wasn’t until I started traveling to Afghanistan that I knew what I had to say with it. I’m really all about the soul and the heart, what we have to say. I’m not as much concerned with the package it comes in or the vessel. I do work on my craft, and have always been pretty obsessive about doing the work, but for me its the message that counts. It started with Afghanistan, the songs, the images, which all turned into a film in a really organic way.
Then I started getting invited all around the world and my heart started to connect with all kinds of new places – like Uganda, Somalia, Brazil, those places and the people of those places started to come alive in my heart. So I made songs about it and then started seeing a story which became a short film to go with that new album. If I can always stay in the place of what my soul is trying to say, I think the rest will work itself out.
How did you maintain this balance during the filming and production of We Came Home?
We Came Home came about in a really pure way. I started traveling to Afghanistan in 2002. At first I felt so sensitive about even documenting anything at all. I had a still camera with me and a mini dv camera, but I really just wanted to take photos. I did take some video, but it was my first trip and I didn’t feel that I had earned the right to film my people yet. So I had experiences. And I took portraits. Each trip was like this until the third trip when I visited a refugee camp. I wrote a song called “The East” after visiting the camp, and that song began the album “Lion of Panjshir”. I came back and had all of these songs coming through me about what I had been experiencing in Afghanistan and also back in LA with my heart and my love life. I was writing about my heart, my people, and my journey. Then I decided to take my band mates at the time to Kabul to record. It had gotten much worse there. There was a Taliban resurgence, and it became very real that I may never get to record there again and that my people were at risk of losing all that had been built in this new chapter. My friend/ producer Emily came on that trip and filmed the making of the album. We thought that the album was gonna be the film. When we got back I pulled out years of mini dv tapes and photographs. She started watching these interviews I had been doing of my parents and she was really moved by them. So we went back and filmed my parents on the next trip. That trip was very heavy. My heart broke in a major way on that trip, as I sort of fell from grace. I had lost some of my naiveté, my idealism that Afghanistan would be peaceful forever. We came back to LA and assembled a really great team to edit the film. It was like a year and a half of assembling the team and really really long, intense editing sessions.
The film became like a love letter to Afghanistan. It tells the story of my father’s work in rebuilding the banking system and how his life’s journey influenced me and the music. The music and the people of Afghanistan frame the story. In terms of your question, how I balanced it all, I really don’t know. The real question is, how have I balanced anything else in my life ? Cause once Afghanistan came into my heart nothing else has seemed to matter ever since. Which is a theme of the film, how my dad’s love for his country was a strain for my mom and our family at times. So to me it isn’t about being a musician or a filmmaker even, its about this thing I have to say or I won’t be able to do anything else.
Your trips back and forth from Kabul and Los Angeles had you witnessing a bad situation getting worse. Do you feel you were constantly updating the approach you took to your songwriting on Lion Of Panjshir?
I think I have grown a lot as a songwriter. The song We Came Home is the last song on the album, and I know it’s probably the deepest one. I also grew so much recording with the Afghan master musicians. Those men are in their 80s. They play very difficult and resonant instruments. I had to catch up really quickly. It was my first band essentially, so its not like I was messing around with some 4/4 beats in a garage. I was having these guys play to my songs in Afghanistan in the summer, with no AC, a dying generator, no electricity at times, and 4 days total to record everything. That will force you to get better quickly. I was also training my voice and have been since, so its a different thing now. But that’s all technical stuff, which is important but not what drives me.
The message is what was driving me. I think I was always trying to balance the truth, as harsh as it may be, but always in light of hope and transcending to a new day. That’s something that’s really important to me. It won’t help Afghanistan if I just write a bunch of depressing songs that leave you guys with no hope, because there is hope. A lot of hope. And its really about the love in our hearts and the work we commit to together to create a new day. That’s what I keep evolving toward musically and artistically, how to get to that place of hope in our hearts. Through the pain, the tears, the collective ancestral guilt, and to the love.
Similarly, how did your travels and the time spent in Kabul impact the way you connected with your/your family’s Afghan roots?
God this is a hard question. It didn’t just impact me, it transformed me. Afghanistan is the biggest gift of my whole life. And my family is woven into that gift, my family is that gift too. It’s one and the same. What Afghanistan has given me I can never repay in this lifetime. I can try, but all the albums, films, and songs in the world couldn’t measure up. That’s the truth. But I have tried, and I will continue to try, to express it. And hopefully, most importantly, embody it.
Tell us about the experience of recording Lion Of Panjshir in Afghanistan.
Recording Lion of Panjshir was one of the most difficult and beautiful things I have ever experienced in my life. On so many levels. At first things were moving so smoothly. I woke up one morning in February with this idea to record there. I shared the idea with my band mate Max Guirand. He was onboard right away. Our other band mate Paloma Udovic was also onboard right away. My dad helped find the Afghan musicians and his friend at Tolo TV agreed to loan us recording equipment.
We got to Kabul and everything went wrong. The guy we met with at Tolo barely knew what was going on, so we had days of explaining the situation of what we were gonna need to record with. We thought we were gonna have the equipment for ten days, but they reduced it to four days. The engineer we thought we were going to have could only come for one of the days. So we set the equipment up in my parents home in Kabul and started rehearsing with the Ustads. That was a wild beginning with the language barrier, but thank God we had Paloma with us on violin and my mom to translate at times.
Paloma was able to bridge sounds classically speaking. Then everything you can imagine went wrong. The electricity went out, then the generator died, then when we finally fixed the generator the traffic got louder. We were pulling every dusty Afghan rug in the house and nailing them to the walls. You can imagine the pressure and tension we were feeling through all of this. It is a miracle that we got everything recorded so well. By the time we left Kabul, we had really bonded with the Afghan musicians. It was sad to leave them, especially knowing how uncertain their future would be.
We came back and it felt so easy working in a recording studio here in comparison. But with all of the struggle of recording in Kabul, I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything in the world. It made the album more beautiful. We had to fight for it. It’s a metaphor for Afghanistan. We have had to fight for our culture, for our freedom. Afghanistan challenges everyone. Afghanistan challenges the world, which is why I believe in my heart that Afghanistan will lead the world into peaceful days as a whole.
How do you think the choice to record abroad impacted the overall sound and feel of the album?
It had to be made there, in that land, with those men. Those men lived through decades of war. They have seen everything. Their instruments were banned in Taliban times, they had to hide them or they would be killed. Their souls had to be part of making this album, as they brought the story of the land to the sound. If we had made it here with Afghan American session musicians it would not have sounded the same. And we wouldn’t have been channeling the challenge of our experience and the beauty of the land into the sound. It had to be that way as challenging as it was.
Tell us about you linked up with the legendary David Lynch. How involved was he with your release?
David Lynch came to my very first show ever. It was literally my first time playing music live, and there was David standing right in front of me at a tiny venue in Silverlake. He is one of my favorite artists of all time, so I was definitely nervous. After the show, he told his wife/ my friend Emily that he wanted to produce my album. I didn’t believe him. I headed to Afghanistan a few months later, recorded Lion of Panjshir, came back and while I was finishing it he said to me, “I wanted to produce your album.”
I told him I didn’t believe him after that show. He said, “You should have banged on my door”. So I said, “Hey, how bout if we do one song together ?” He said, “That’s a great idea, pick a good song”. So he produced the song “Suspend Me”. It was such an amazing experience working with David. He is a very very special soul. He also got me to start meditating back then, and meditation has changed my life. So I’m very grateful for David and all that he has brought to my life. He also watched a three and a half hour rough cut of our film and gave notes! [Laughs] Can you imagine? As a filmmaker my very first cut of my very first film and it’s three and a half hours long, and I’m sinking in my chair in David’s screening room.
I looked back and he was crying at the end of it, so I thought, “Phew, if he’s not ready to kill me after three and a half hours of a rough cut, maybe we have a good movie here”. That was even more nerve-racking than working on music with him. Hopefully I can inspire a lot of friends and fans to meditate. I think that would make him really happy, and would be the best way to repay David for all that he has brought to my life. It would also benefit the planet in a really major way, so I do hope more and more people start meditating. Inner peace is really the only road to outer peace. I keep learning that daily. When I’m regular in my meditation practice I am my best self.
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How has TuneCore played a role in your experience as an independent musician?
TuneCore has been a great way for me to have these songs live out there for people to find them. I think especially with this album, since it has been a really independent journey. A lot of amazing collaborators along the way, but I saw this album through in a way that was not an easy feat. It was a big gift, having to figure all of this out on my own, but at the time I was wishing a major label were behind me handling it all. Now I understand how perfect it was in hindsight. It builds our character and forces us to be authentic artists.
As you move forward, what kind of a departure are you taking with Entelechy?
Entelechy is really different production wise and its not directly about Afghanistan. It is more of how Afghanistan transformed parts of me, and all of the other places I was seeing after Afghanistan. Seeing the world with new eyes. It’s much more ethereal. There’s some heaviness in there, but its different. It’s more about the planet as a whole and a lot about love.
I don’t really wanna talk about the sound of it till it comes out. I wanna surprise you guys.