Ariana Delawari isn’t your typical California girl singing folk-pop about lovers and the cosmos, though you’ll find some of that on her debut album, Lions of Panjshir. A grand purpose entered her life before she was born: Just 20 days prior to Delawari’s birth, her father’s entire family fled Afghanistan for Los Angeles. The Soviet Union had invaded, initiating what took on the redolent nickname “Soviet Vietnam.” Her father’s raison d’être became Afghanistan: demonstrations, meetings at the house with mujahideen members, trips to Congress and establishing peace organizations. When the U.S. helped to push out the Taliban in 2001, her parents returned to rebuild the country. Dad helped institute a banking system, and Mom — who speaks six languages — worked for the United Nations.
Initially, Delawari’s parents stayed at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel. Bullet holes from past wars Swiss-cheesed the walls. Twin beds with barely a comforter collected dust in the once-posh Scandinavian-themed “it” spot. “There was such evidence of war, but it was still exciting,” she remembers. “The fall of the Taliban. A dark veil lifted.”
Whenever she visited, Delawari applied her cinematography studies to documenting visible progress. More girls attended schools, without wearing chadoris. New roads. Despite the nation’s overall poverty, a five-star hotel sprang up, as did a city center mall. Then suicide bombings increased — a ritual gleaned from neighboring Middle Eastern tradition, she points out.
“When the Taliban rose to power in the ’90s, they banned art,” she continues. Musicians caught hiding instruments were killed. “Rumi is from Afghanistan. The tabla, the sitar, all of this Eastern sound was born in these mountains. It’s centuries old. With Lions of Panjshir, I wanted to make something constructive to preserve the beauty I’ve seen and bring that to the world instead of statistics, numbers and sound bites.”
Her hippie-themed musical awakening came on a San Francisco street. She felt Janis Joplin’s ghost rise to insist she “get it while she can.” In Delawari’s case, “it” meant dumping her boyfriend and instead concentrating on writing songs. Something stirred. At the time she didn’t realize the journey would mean returning to her homeland to record an album while being protected by armed guards. Nor could she imagine filmmaker David Lynch becoming involved.
“I love this music,” Lynch says. “It’s timely. It’s beautiful. It’s an experience to hear it. It’s ancient and modern, and it gives a whole other picture to Afghanistan.”
The director saw Delawari at her first performance, at the Silverlake Lounge. Delawari’s friend and collaborator, Emily Lynch, invited her husband along, and on the spot, he told his wife, who told Delawari, that he wanted to produce her album. Delawari couldn’t believe it.
A year later, the Afghan native boarded a plane bound for home; she took guitarist Max Guirand and violinist Paloma Udovic. The mission: Record an album in the Delawaris’ home, with three Afghan Ustads: a tabla player, a rabab player and the last living master of the dilruba.
Inside her parents’ glass-enclosed dining room, the musicians leaned on Afghan pillows, adding rhythmic layers to Lions of Panjshir. Walls and barbed wire surrounded the house. Two guards held AK-47s in a hut by the entrance. Within the gate, peacocks roamed green grass beside a rose garden. Inside, colorful Afghan rugs and wood-carved furniture were mixed with a handful of Western comforts: a coffee table, the TV, a stereo, a cabinet here or there.
“ ‘Home’ is a big theme on my album. My own association with Los Angeles as home and Kabul as home, what our notion of a home is and what can be a home to an 8-year-old refugee.”
This notion is visited in the ethereal “Home,” as well as in a heartfelt cover of “Cheshme Siah Daree” by Ahmad Zahir (a.k.a. Afghan Elvis). “He was my favorite growing up,” she says brightly, but her smile quivers, and tears eventually follow. “The words are, ‘You have dark eyes, take me to your home.’ It’s a flirtation. But when I sat down to cover the song, I thought about visiting Afghan refugees. The meaning changed. I wrote English verses as if I were singing the song to them. A little girl looked like me and my cousins, and her grandmother looked like my grandmother. When I covered the song, I was specifically seeing that.”
One night back in L.A., Delawari dined at the Lynches’ home and David had something to say. [In Delawari’s best cackly Lynch voice:] “I shoulda been producing your album.” Her response, “I didn’t think you were serious!”
The rest of the album was already tracked, but Lynch ended up producing “Suspend Me,” mixing the entire album, and releasing it on his music label, David Lynch MC. “David is such a storyteller,” she says. “It made a difference to the landscape of sound. When I think about an album, I think about a story, and to have his ears on it, I was, like, ‘Yay! You get it!’ ”
Paul Beahan, a longtime Delawari supporter, stepped in to release the vinyl version on his experimental, cool Manimal imprint. “She gave me a rough copy last year, and I was driving a rental car and I had her CD playing nonstop,” says Beahan. “A few moments made me tear up with happiness. Not many songwriters can do that to me. With raw intensity she puts her love of what she does into the unsuspecting and sometimes cruel world.”
Delawari returns the compliment: “Paul inspires people to be authentic and he brings people together. It was important to put it out with him. I think we’re going to do the first 100 in splatter-paint colors of the Afghan flag.” She laughs but admits she’d like to focus on a happier topic for her next project. “I’ve changed a lot since I started recording these songs. A lot of this stuff has kind of broken me down. I want the next album to be all about love, all about what I want to see in the world. Not what I have seen. I need to think about fun.”
Ariana Delawari | Lions of Panjshir | (David Lynch MC)