Ever since her initial breakthrough in the 1980s, Iranian-born Israeli pop singer Rita Jahanforuz – better known as ‘Rita’ to her legions of fans across the world – has become one of Israel’s most popular names in the music industry today.
She has represented her country in the Eurovision Song Contest, released numerous platinum-selling albums, performed the national anthem at the behest of Benjamin Netanyahu, and even showcased her magic in a special show organized especially for Shimon Peres and Silvio Berlusconi.
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But it’s her latest album, 2012’s My Joys that reconnects Rita with her roots. In a way, it marks her foray into the most enduring legacy of her life. The record includes eleven Persian songs – all performed in Farsi – from Rita’s early days in Iran, which her family fled when she was just eight years old.
Even though Rita’s family lived in a military neighborhood of Tehran, they never gave up on practicing Judaism while still keeping their faith under wraps from friends and neighbors.
“My parents told us that we shouldn’t tell anyone that we’re Jewish, so we studied in a Muslim school,” Rita says. “One morning, my sister came home after a teacher asked her to stand up in front of the entire class and recite the morning Muslim prayers. She didn’t know anything about the prayer, which caused great amazement. When my father came home from work and learned what happened, he decided that this is the time to leave for Israel.”
After spending some time as part of a musical troupe in the Israeli army, Rita met record executive Ronny Brawn who was blown away by her sensational voice and decided to try making her a pop star.
But she has never forgotten where she came from, and though it’s only now that My Joys has made her mince no words about her Iranian heritage, it is not the first time Rita has paid tribute to her roots by singing in Farsi.
“From my very first album, and almost every album that followed, I had one song in Farsi,” the singer says. On her latest record, however, “some sort of incoherent gut feeling made me stop working on the album I was recording at the time, and try to understand what was making me so passionate about working on something totally different.”
Her agonizing search finally led her to lay hands on a bag of records that Rita’s mother had brought with them when they left Iran.
“I started recalling my mother walking around the house, snapping her fingers to the rhythm and singing those songs with her warm voice.”
That homelike flavor was what Rita had been looking for. “When I told my friends or colleagues, there were many puzzled faces,” the singer recalls. “They were surprised that I was going to record an album in what they perceived as Ahmadinejad’s language.”
Despite some raised eyebrows, the success of My Joys proved them all wrong, and performances of the new material left raucous crowds to Rita’s shows in Israel dancing with joy till late midnight.
Interestingly, the best part of it was from Iranians living abroad who just came forward to support her.
“I get emails from Iranians who write that they would really like to come to one of my performances, even if this means that they would be punished for this later, back in their homeland,” says Rita.
“Iranians write me thank you letters for being their ambassador around the world, and for representing their amazing and powerful culture – their true representation, and not ‘that place with the nuclear weapons and darkness.’”
She was full of praise for her Persian values. “The deeper I went into the Persian songs and got myself familiar with them, the more I began to realize how my Hebrew songwriting had been affected by Persian music. Persian songs go with the emotion so much, leaving absolutely no room for cynicism. The idea of love in this music is so larger than life, so dramatic and colorful, without a drop of embarrassment. I find a lot of beauty in that,“ she said.
Many artists and musicians have excited Rita Jahanforuz during her life, and she found it difficult to really single out one or more of them.
“I have to say though that Amy Winehouse has been the most exciting and fascinating singer in the past decade, in my opinion. Her sensational voice has a magic that of Madonna or Christina Aguilera.”
She said being called the ‘Israeli Madonna’ or Aguilera is a very big compliment. “I’m flattered and happy that I have the privilege to receive such love, hugs and appreciation. Regardless, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank God for the fact that my life is like a Cinderella story, and that I was able to fulfill much more than I’ve ever dreamed of.”
She bid adieu to me with some final thoughts: “It’s amazing to discover that something which started as such a personal thing for me is now growing and expanding, touching more and more people, turning into a kind of bridge of love in this crazy world, a world that’s losing its sanity more and more with every passing day.
“It wasn’t intentional, but something is happening now that’s hard even for me to understand. There are many things I’d like to do and places I’d like to visit. But my biggest dream is to perform in Iran.”
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