Ariana Delawari draws energy from dichotomy: She splits her inspiration between the cinematic oasis of Hollywood and the sandy streets of Kabul. Raised in Los Angeles but well traveled in Afghanistan, the 35-year-old artist, who counts director David Lynch among her fans, possesses a honeyed vocal style that belies the weight of her subject matter: war, freedom, social change. Her new record, Entelechy, Greek for “fulfilling one’s potential,” is similarly double-sided. The first half sounds futuristic, with synth-heavy production by Butchy Fuego, otherwise known as the electronic artist San Gabriel. Side two offers the same songs, this time stripped bare and then overlaid with rich, supple beats by Afghan-American tabla virtuoso Salar Nader.
Delawari roots all her work — which also includes acting and directing — in Afghanistan, where her father grew up and where her parents now reside. After traveling there for the first time in 2002, she returned to her art wanting to find balance between her dual identities. It was in Afghanistan that she found the
inspiration for her well-received 2013 documentary, We Came Home, which contains clips from her first solo album, Lion of Panjshir, laced into footage of the country that she’d shot over the preceding decade. “I was going to provinces and going into villages, meeting strangers and going into their homes,” she tells the Voice, enthusiastically recollecting the experience.
More recently, she’s focused on filtering her observations through music. She describes the first time she performed in Kabul, in 2011, after the Taliban’s ban on music was lifted: “I had pressure from family and friends, like, ‘What are you doing? Isn’t this super dangerous?’ ” But, she says, she felt compelled to sing. “I don’t even think my head was covered. I was barefoot, in pants and an Afghan top and a scarf around my neck, and I just played. There was a group of young girls from an orphanage and it was their first time ever seeing live music.”
As she continued to learn about the freedom and creative expression of pre-Taliban Afghanistan, Delawari realized the hopeful effect her music could have. “We build walls, [but] that’s the opposite of what we should do,” she says. “I just keep following my heart to reach out and be more vulnerable, and every time I do, I’m met with so much appreciation.”
Delawari’s family has encouraged her to have pride in her heritage. Both her parents are active in their communities: Her father helped restructure Afghanistan’s financial system in the early 2000s, and her mother (who, as a student at UCLA in the 1960s, once debated the tenets of Islam with a pre-Hajj Malcolm X) has long been a vocal proponent of social change.
That sense of vision seems to drive the electro-heavy first side of Entelechy, which is vibrant and dreamlike. While it eschews pop’s streamlined structures, it’s accessible, an amalgam of midtempo tracks featuring modulated strings and trippy, echoing vocals. Delawari’s lyrics are somber and pensive. “Every blow that I survive, a warrior remains,” she sings on one track; on another, her words — “This love was meant for more than us” — touch on Sufi notions of selflessness.
But it’s the instrumental choices that are most invigorating. On the album’s more esoteric second half, Nader’s percussion reigns and rippling rhythms surface, with the tabla, djembe, and dhol layering eerily with Delawari’s crisp piano melodies. The tabla in particular, Nader asserts, has its own alphabet, its own language, its own poetry. “[Where] I come from, the music wasn’t meant for entertainment,” he explains. “It was mostly meant for healing…going deep within and cleaning your spirit and mind.” It’s important to both musicians that these messages of rejuvenation prevail at a time when positive representations of Afghanistan are scant.
When feeling despondent about entrenched hatred and violence, Delawari responds with cathartic chants and rapturous beats. “There’s a part of me that’s heavier, in terms of documenting Afghanistan and [going] to these parts of the world that don’t have a voice,” she says. “But then there’s a part of me that’s super light and is like a child. I’m always balancing between the two worlds.”