HJirok is a mythical figure, conceived as a fictional character by Iranian-born Kurdish singer and artist Hani Mojtahedy. Together with versatile music producer Andi Toma of Mouse On Mars, she combined a variety of sounds collected during their joint travels to Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere with heavily processed recordings of Sufi drum rhythms and setar melodies. The result is a driving, dubbed-out, and deeply intricate soundscape that perfectly sets the stage for Mojtahedy’s extended, unconventional vocal techniques and polyglot lyrics. Both informed by tradition and rigorously forward-looking, »Hjirok« (with a lowercase J) is at once a profoundly personal album and a universal utopian promise. As a ghost from the past, HJirok draws on Mojtahedy’s memories to mould a new future out of them.
The foundation for »Hjirok« was laid in the city of Erbil in the Kurdish part of Iraq. During one of their stays in the region, Mojtahedy and Toma recorded the three percussionists Hadi Alizadeh, Jawad Salkhordeh and Serdar Saydan as well as setar player Ali Choolaei from Mojtahedy’s backing band while they were playing the rhythms and notes that she had grown up with in the house of her grandfather in the Iranian city of Sanandaj. Her memories of that place revolve around hypnotic Sufi music, dervishes in deep trance, and ecstatic singing. Much like this music seemed to open a portal to other dimensions, the inhabitants of the house lived in a sort of alternative reality: It provided them with a hideaway from political circumstances. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, a Kurdish rebellion ensued but was met with the utmost brutality by the new regime, which resulted in the death of thousands.
It is no coincidence that the music on »Hjirok« would draw on rhythmic patterns that were passed on from one generation to the next for hundreds of years. »The project is rooted in the figures of the Sufi dervishes and thus a culture that precedes today’s political, social, cultural, and religious systems,« explains Mohtahedy. »The Sufi sound travelled around the entire world. I like to think of it as a dialogue between peoples—one based on the rhythms of the drums and the sound of their voices.« Toma adds that by electronically transforming the recordings and enriching them with field recordings from both rural and urban spaces, they were able to use the stories told by the drums and the setar to create an entirely new narrative.
The story told by these eight pieces is hence a deeply personal, but also inherently political one. Mojtahedy herself left Iran in 2004 and relocated to Berlin in 2010. Having continued to use her art as a platform to tirelessly advocate for the rights of the Kurdish people and women under oppressive regimes, she has not been allowed to return to her country of origin ever since. »Hani is singing for equality and there are people who are afraid of that—her femininity, her strength,« Toma says. Much like earlier Hjirok sound installations addressed human-made climate change and other systemic ills, also »Hjirok« can hardly be disconnected from far-reaching struggles for liberation and equality.
This is also true on a thematic and even linguistic level. »The lyrics are about a promise,« Mojtahedy says, citing Kurdish writer Ebdulla Peşêw as an inspiration. »At their core, these are about that day on which violence and fear become a thing of the past; what they tell you is to not give up, to keep hoping,« she adds. The promise embedded in them is an emancipatory one. These contents are mirrored on a linguistic level: The lyrics were written in both Kurdish and Farsi, blurring the lines between the two languages and thus, Kurdish and Persian cultures.
Mojtahedy, or rather HJirok, conveys these philosophical themes with elegance. Her versatile vocal performance is only loosely based on established styles. »Of course everything started with traditional rhythms, but we kept pushing things further and further, so I did the same with my voice,« Mojtahedy explains. »There were no boundaries.« The same can be said of the field recordings that she and Toma used. Whether it’s conversations between members of the Pêşmerge, the Kurdish armed forces, having a chat in meadow full of bunnies or the humming and buzzing of metropolises like Tehran: »Hjirok« paints a sonic picture that is quite literally a utopian one; that of a non-place in which different soundscapes, cultures and ways of life coexist peacefully.
What the album conjures up from Mojtahedy’s memory is not only a very specific place during a unique time in history as experienced by a single person. It is also a metaphorical home open to anyone who wishes to enter—a promise of a better, more egalitarian future for everyone. Hence, HJirok will bring it on tour, presenting the material as an audio-visual live show that makes use of the photo and video material that Mojtahedy and Toma have collected during their travels through Kurdistan.
Written by Kristoffer Cornils